Cheerios just got a black eye. For as long as I can remember, those little round “O”s have been a breakfast favorite of both children and adults. Kids have spelled words with them in their cereal bowls, moms have carried baggies of them in their purses for snacks, dads have shoveled down spoonfuls as they hurried out the door on the way to work. In recent years these nutritious, fiber-rich, toasted 100% whole grain oat delights have boasted an amazing ability to lower bad cholesterol. I believed them. Who wouldn’t believe in Cheerios? Then some whistle-blower or competitor cried foul and the Federal Trade Commission took a close look at these health claims. Cheerios may be nutritious but no longer can they claim to lower cholesterol. They got caught doing false advertising. Is it buyer beware or do we want government watchdogs checking the validity of our marketing practices? Frankly, I’m glad there is some ethical standard in our society that attempts to maintain a modicum of honesty. Can you imagine living in a culture where you could believe nothing that you read or heard? What chaos! I’m disappointed in Cheerios. I wish their advertising were as wholesome as their 100% whole grain oats. But I’ll keep eating the little “O”s for breakfast. And I’ll also keep taking my cholesterol pills.
The Federal Trade Commission, an independent agency of the U.S. government, is charged with keeping American business free and fair. Included in its many responsibilities is “to prevent the dissemination of false and deceptive advertising of goods, drugs, curative devices, and cosmetics.” False claims, whether by Cheerios, car dealers or snake oil peddlers, when detected are subject to public exposure, penalties and immediate corrective action. The FTC has jurisdiction over a broad spectrum of activities but there is one realm it cannot penetrate — the church. The church-state barrier offers protection against government intrusion into the practice of organized religion. Of course, one would expect that, since the Judeo-Christian traditions are foundational to the ethical and moral codes of American society, the church would be the last institution in need of ethical policing.
Certainly the church is not without its flaws. The moral failure of church leaders is legendary. The media feeds off such scandal. Yet, in spite of the damage caused by the occasional fall of religious leaders, the church as an institution strives to preserve and protect high standards of conduct. Though its members, and too often its leaders, fail to measure up to its high ideals, the church remains the primary guardian of moral and ethical values. It may wrestle with controversial issues of the day such as gay marriage and abortion, but it does so in pursuit of a moral high ground.
But there is one area that seems to have eluded the ethical scrutiny of the church. Churches from the left to the right, high and low, share the same blind spot. Perhaps it’s because the practice is so pervasive or because the claims seem so spiritual. But if the FTC were to shine the spotlight on the marketing of missions, the expose would be, well, perhaps not damning but certainly embarrassing. Take a look at most any promotional package for a mission trip and you will get the distinct impression that lost, starving, forsaken people have their last hope riding on the willingness of Christians from the US to come and rescue them. The pictures are heart-rending — a close-up of a child’s sad face, a tin-roof shack beside an open sewage ditch, an old woman struggling under a load of firewood sticks. The emotional call goes out for the “healed, trained, empowered and Spirit filled teens to be missionaries to the world.” Such experiences promise to touch lives, change the world, and have a dramatic, life-changing impact on those who will sacrifice their comfort to go. For a week!
Can we be honest? Mission trips and service projects are important. For lots of reasons. But the truth of the matter is that dropping into a strange culture for a week or even two creates far more work for the local leadership than it’s worth, except for the money and gifts we leave. And those gifts more often than not do more long-term harm than good. As one local leader told me: “They’re turning our people into beggars.” Much of the work we do is make-work — painting a church, digging a foundation, leading a summer Bible school — all work that could and should be done by locals. “Our men need the work,” a seminary president once told me as we discussed the impact of US mission trippers in her impoverished country.
But this treatise is not about the downstream impact of mission trips. Some ambitious young reporter seeking to make a name for himself will sooner or later handle that expose. This is about the dishonesty in our marketing of these trips. Our “people-are-dying-and-you-can-save-them” rhetoric may be effective spin to lure young people (and older as well) into signing up but we know that only on rare occasions is this actually true. Yes, there are Katrinas. But the overwhelming majority of our mission trips are to places where the needs for development are far greater than for emergency assistance. And development is about enabling indigenous people to help themselves, not doing the work for them. Development is much longer term, calls for professional expertise and planning, requires lending and investing — not the sort of things that lend themselves to a typical short-term mission trip.
I am not saying that mission trips don’t have value. They do. Great value. They open up new worlds, new perspectives, new insights. They expose us to fascinating cultures, connect us with new friends, allow us to experience God at work in surprising ways, inspire us, break our hearts, build camaraderie among traveling companions. Any one of these benefits might well justify the time and expense. But isn’t it time we admit to ourselves that mission trips are essentially for our benefit, not for the benefit of the ones our marketing material portray? Would it not be more forthright if we called our junkets “insight trips” or “exchange programs”? Or how about Kingdom adventures? Do we really need to justify our journeying to exotic lands under the pretense of missionary work? Religious tourism would have much more integrity if we simply admitted that we’re off to explore God’s amazing work in the world.
I know we have to have good reason to justify spending the kind of money we do on mission trips. US churches spent well over $2 billion (that’s with a “b”) on them last year. This is not at all inconsistent with our normative pattern of church spending, however. We typically spend upwards of 95% of church budgets on ourselves anyway. So to admit that mission trip expenditures are primarily for the spiritual benefit of our members would not be out of line, that is if we feel justified spending that percentage on ourselves. But that’s a discussion for another time. Our subject here is marketing with integrity.
So how do we capture the imagination, the compassion, of a younger generation if not by appealing to the tenderness of their hearts? Come to think of it, it was the story of fatherless children that drew me into urban work nearly 40 years ago. I wanted to make a difference. That was a powerful motivator. So maybe “touching lives” and “changing the world” is appropriate rhetoric after all. It certainly appealed to my compassionate side and it played at least some part in shaping my call into ministry. The idea of sacrifice was also appealing to me, to offer myself up to a cause of great importance. I wanted my life to count. That was important. But playing to those tender Spirit-sensitivities should be done with great care. Setting up unrealistic expectations can lead to discouragement. Portraying false representations can lead to cynicism. Is it not enough to simply say “come and see” and then allow the Spirit to do the touching and surprising?
Here’s my bottom line: the Kingdom doesn’t need our hype. The Kingdom needs people who speak the truth.