Monday, February 13, 2012

The Question of Where

Lots of students I meet finish a short term cross cultural experience believing God has called them to that place. The experience was so great, the need is so large, the community was so intimate - the stars have aligned for them to commit to a season of service there. Anecdotally, everyone seems to have a story or two about people they know returning to the place where they went on their first short term experience. I'm not saying that is always right or wrong. I am saying that we do a disservice to the next generation when we don't help them critically think about this kind of calling. There are three filters to help people think through this.

1. Theology of place [not my idea - see Mel McGowan for a lot more about this]
How do the demographics, social movements, economic systems, and Christ following strategic initiatives map to your passion for this location? Understanding these terms for both where we live and where we just spent a season are critical to contextualization and should be a key to being called to a specific place. My suburbs [Howard County, MD] are filled with the teenagers of highly affluent, type A, federal government employees. There are more than 800 languages spoken in New York City. Queen Creek, AZ has a significant native Americans along with an explosion of suburban middle class caucasians.

2. Community
Lots of people come home talking about how great the community they served with was. The church community, the nonprofit community, the orphans and kids, the students. That all might be true - the community might be fantastic. But if you feel called because of a certain community of people, you should play out the scenario of what happens after those specific people leave. The missionary family that you loved hanging out with - sure, they might stay. Or their funding might run out or the grandparents get sick or they want to be closer to where their kids end up going to college. The 30 year long term missionary is almost extinct. Calling to a specific community might lead to you being the only one left. It might require you to create community.

3. Need
Need does not constitute a call. [Bob Lupton]
It may be part of a call, but it doesn't constitute one by itself. Most of us can find the needy within a 30 minute drive of our homes, meaning, we could be called to live at home. The need should be assessed in light of possible dependency issues.

Two final ideas. First, we have seen some good success when we recommend a 30 day rule: people wait 30 days after coming home from a season of service to make any major decision. Schooling, job, relationships, and especially future missions commitments. Secondly, I love this quote from Deb Hirsch. "Romantic love will get you to the mission field but sacrificial love will keep you there." Sacrificial love, the kind that keeps you in the mission field, includes a theology of place, critical thinking about community and a true assessment of needs.


  1. Great thoughts, Tony. I appreciate that these have formed, at least in part, through your personal experience with short termers. I would only add one thing: Let's consider how we might work with this dynamic. Let's take first time short termers to the very people we hope they'll fall in love with and want to go back to. We can't always do this geographically, but we can usually do it ethno-culturally. That's one of the reasons I take newbies to hang with refugees and immigrants in Deerborn, Wheaton and Louisville.

  2. thanks shane - that's some fabulous feedback as well. great great ideas!

  3. Wow, love this.
    And I agree with Shane's assessment :-).

    For me it's been interesting that as much as I love Bolivia, I feel much more of a... I don't love the word calling... passion for? leading towards? the WORK I did rather than a specific place or even people group. In my case, nurturing/parenting people who need it. So rather than pursuing a specific place or community I want to pursue that work. Another angle I suppose.

  4. thats good emily. i agree - could be another nuance. and its interesting that your call came from a place but grew into a field of study instead of a particular place. that's a good perspective because lots of missions-type students are infatuated with place and don't think at all about vocation, do they?

  5. Like I said, Tony, love this. I would really like to see the theology of place broken down even more. I think that we could actually front-load the ideas behind it. As part of the next step in coaching people through missions experiences, we could explain the ideas shown here. If we are able to instill these filters in students (and leaders) before they actually go on the trips, we might see those frequent passions move from "place" to something more mobile and impactful.

  6. thats great stuff trevin. thanks for making me jot this down =) maybe we should add these to the pre-experience assessments?