Melani McAlister has an incisive interview with David Swartz in Christianity Today on her new book, The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals:
What do you mean when you describe Americans as “enchanted” by Africa?
I’m describing feelings of emotional connection, investment, and even solidarity with Africa that are cultivated by short-term missions or requests for donations from international charities. We see among American evangelicals—and other Americans too—a fear that our modern industrialized society has taken something away from us, made our lives too materialistic, too rationalist, too evacuated of meaning. People often present Africa as a kind of antidote, as a space where Christians are more authentic or emotionally rich, where Christianity is more saturated by the spiritual.
I’m sure if you read my old dispatches from previous trips to Africa, you’d probably find this. Guilty as charged. Here she is on short-term missions:
American evangelical interest in short-term missions exploded in the 1990s. Has the movement accomplished what it intended?
I think it has increased global awareness in some very good ways. The younger generation of evangelicals are more savvy, less culturally insular, more likely to see themselves as having a global vision. Those who have traveled have seen something beyond their community. That can be very powerful for creating understanding beyond your own life experience.
But short-term missions have also been very damaging. Evangelical critics often acknowledge that it can reinforce stereotypes of happy poor people or transactional relationships where you’re expecting people to be grateful and you get to be Lady Bountiful. One mission director told his participants, “You will be a burden on the people you are visiting. You are not helping. They are letting you come to hope that you learn something so that you can be useful later.” I love that. I think a lot of study-abroad programs at secular universities could learn from that.
I’m definitely reading this book.