Last week I wrote about the flood of missions tourists coming into Alaska, and those who are leaving Alaska with the same goal in mind. Since then I've had an opportunity to speak with a missions representative from Africa visiting Anchorage to support the mission efforts of Faith Christian Community.
But before I share more about Faith Christian Community, it's important to set the framework.
In his compelling 2011 book "Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It)," Robert Lupton wrote: "In the last fifty years, (Africa) has received $1 trillion in benevolent aid. How effective has this aid been? Country by country, Africans are far worse off today than they were a half century ago. Overall per-capita income is lower today than in the 1970s. Over half of Africa's 700 million population lives on less than $1 a day. Life expectancy has stagnated, and adult literacy has plummeted below pre-1980 levels." Lupton argues that this scenario resulted from created dependency and the destruction of personal initiative, due in part to government aid programs, well-meaning NGOs and missions programs. He also links this to U.S. efforts to eliminate poverty through entitlements, programs and charities, "creating a permanent underclass, dismantling their family structures, and eroding their ethic of work."
Many Protestant denominations in Alaska host missions teams, primarily from the Lower 48, to work on churches, ministries and church camps. Often, these well-meaning individuals perform work for which congregations could and should be directly taking responsibility, but create dependencies because the local attitude is that someone will always do it.
David George, director of missions for the 54-church Chugach Baptist Association (Southern Baptist), calls these groups "partners." Cleaning up on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers or in Kodiak at the Crab Festival Outreach are important activities for their group of churches.
"In the summer these teams help us in 16 neighborhood parks where we feed children a healthy lunch (they don't get school lunch in the summer) and conduct Bible Clubs afterwards. Our newer and smaller churches count on the mission teams to help them in promotion, prayer walking and the ministry at the parks," said George.
"Along with the physical help, the teams bring financial resources that help our small and financially struggling congregations," he added. "Without their financial assistance, we could not do the ministries noted."
Some short-term missioners, here and in foreign countries, expect to be tourists, which creates problems. George noted that they've experienced this too.
"The only time a mission team has been a hindrance or problem is when they come and expect the local church to host their sight-seeing trip to Alaska. We know those on teams want to experience Alaska and we help them plan a day or two for that, but we need them to work while they are here," he said. "Some teams, and only a very few, come expecting to be catered to and the churches be a guide for their Alaska vacation. When teams act this way, we make a mental note and never invite them back again."
That happens in foreign short-term missions too. Many teams are more interested in local sightseeing than the mission itself.
Dayo Obewaya, who is based in Nigeria and serves as the West Africa area coordinator for Community Health Evangelism, told me some ridiculous tales of "short-term missionaries" who were uneasy with local food, water and housing accommodations in the countries he covers. Some went so far as to refuse to drink local water, requiring it be imported from Great Britain — clearly not an inexpensive proposition.
Last year, Southern Baptists announced cutbacks of 600-800 foreign missionaries and support staff due to financial shortfalls. Earlier this year, the total lost was revealed to be 1,132 missionaries. I wonder if any of this is due in part to short-missions adventuring by Southern Baptists, leading to a decline in giving. The saddest part of this story is that many were already the most seasoned, knew the landscape and had made the commitment to serve.
Over the past couple of years, Faith Christian Community has trained more than 100 members in their community health evangelism program, part of the Global CHE Network. They equip local members to serve in their own community, and, if God calls, to other parts of the world. CHE is a worldwide program with training at its core. It addresses poverty in all its forms (physical health, economic, spiritual and social). Obewaya networks with mission organizations and churches in West Africa and beyond. I think CHE and Faith Christian Community have discovered part of the solution and have already put it to work in our local community. I wish more churches were as Alaska-focused as they are.
I've come to the conclusion that most branches of Christianity contend with short-term missions problems. Alaska is spectacular and more convenient for Lower 48 churches than other destinations. As such, it is a magnet for people who desire to do a "mission" because it's such a great place. However, the resources most useful here may not be those being provided. How many come to Alaska to serve without an adequate knowledge of our cultures and their differences from those of the Lower 48? How many think that showing local churches money, hard labor and service projects will rectify our dismal church attendance rate of 1 in 4 attending weekly?
As with foreign-directed short-term missions, we need to seriously think about what is accomplished by missions in Alaska. Is it adventurism, tourism or patching issues? How much good can one week in Alaska accomplish? Proselytizing, or sheep stealing, is clearly not the answer and has provoked distress in many villages. Thoughtful training and preparation of local members, such as at Faith Christian Community, might possibly be the best answer.