John-Mark Bergen, director, This Is Why We Go, Mennonite Brethren Mission, Fresno, CA, 2014. http://www.mbmission.org/this-is-why-we-go.
In 2014, MB Mission produced an eighty-seven-minute documentary called This Is Why We Go, which takes viewers to three countries hosting members of MB Mission’s Trek program. Trek is an intense, short-term discipleship-in-mission program aimed primarily at young adults. After two months of training in Abbotsford, British Columbia, the young people featured in the film spent seven months in either Mexico, France, or Burkina Faso sharing the gospel with some of the “least-reached people in the world.” Upon their return, they spent another few weeks debriefing.
The filmmaker, John-Mark Bergen, begins his documentary with an unusual (and unnecessary) story about how and where the documentary got made, but soon enough we are flying to Guadalajara, Mexico, home of the Matthew Training Centre (MTC), which trains local disciples for mission. MTC is the base from which Trek members are sent to places, like a poor remote village in the mountains, where they will work very hard (e.g., carrying water, scraping corn off cobs) for an opportunity to read the Bible to people who can’t read.
The first forty minutes of This Is Why We Go has the feel of an adventure film as we follow these young people to places that have no running water or electricity, let alone internet access; places where life’s purpose revolves entirely around finding enough food and water to survive another day.
But that feel changes dramatically when we fly to Paris, where Trek members stand on street corners, handing out literature to North African immigrants, most of whom are Muslims and therefore among the least-reached. Apparently, churches in Paris (a city repeatedly described as secular) are not as keen on doing this type of mission as North American mission agencies are. When not on the street, Trek members engage in activities like playing soccer to try to form relationships with people who have no friends, usually as an excuse to tell them about Jesus.
The final destination of our Trek journey is rural Burkina Faso, where a Trek member teaches English as an excuse to talk about Jesus. Here again the unreached people are generally Muslims, most of them young children whose parents sometimes get angry at their kids for going to church. Long-term mission workers look after orphans, no doubt a valued service.
The film takes a detour in Burkina Faso, visiting the town where Bergen grew up and showing how his parents’ mission work has borne fruit, with a church that now attracts as many as 250 people and had nineteen baptisms the day they visited. To me, this felt like a cheat in a film that’s supposedly about Trek rather than the success of MB mission efforts over the years.
From a technical point of view, This Is Why We Go is a well-made documentary. The cinematography is strong, the film is fast-paced, and the editing work—which highlights the well-thought-out structure of the documentary—is excellent. Apart from Bergen’s ill-advised focus on some of his own story, which probably takes up fifteen minutes of the film, he has done a commendable job of conveying the Trek experience.
And one cannot help but admire the young people who have sacrificed ten months of their lives to be part of that experience. They all faced stresses and challenges that will make them stronger, and they have all gained a broader perspective on the world. Some (in Mexico, at least) were even led to question the values of their materialistic Western culture rather than push their values on others. Throughout, they display a laudable enthusiasm for their difficult task and do their best to help the people to whom they are reaching out.
Nevertheless, I found the content of This Is Why We Go overwhelmingly disappointing as an example of Mennonite/Anabaptist mission work, highlighted by the documentary’s title. The reason these young people “go” is to tell unreached people about Jesus, who loves them, gives them what they need, and is the only way to salvation. I find this way of doing mission particularly problematic for Mennonites. The Trek program makes no mention of Mennonite distinctives like peace and social justice. Trek members talk about doing what Jesus asked them to do by bringing people what they need. That need is not what the people have identified as a need but what MB Mission identifies as a need; namely, to hear about Jesus and the Bible. The Jesus I know (and much of the Bible I read) is more concerned with undoing oppression and addressing structural injustice, serving the poor and the needy (needy because they lack the resources to flourish, not because they haven’t heard about Jesus). Mission work focused on addressing the real needs of people is what will help those people understand who Jesus is.
The mission work on display in This Is Why We Go also is inherently paternalistic, with little acknowledgement of the power dynamics involved, especially in Trek’s short-term work (it’s hard work, but they will go home in seven months). This is highlighted by the work in France and Burkina Faso, where the focus is on converting Muslims. What does it mean to talk about loving and respecting Muslims regardless of what they believe (as stated by mission workers in the film), when you tell a Muslim woman every day for months that Jesus loves her or you tell children, against the express wishes of their parents, Bible stories about how Jesus died for them?
This Is Why We Go is occasionally inspiring, but mostly it feels wrong to me. Quite apart from the flaws inherent in short-term mission, which my own long-term mission experience helped me to see, the time has surely come for a paradigm shift in evangelical Christian mission—focusing on being Jesus in the world instead of bringing Jesus to the world.
Vic Thiessen, who spent much of his life doing Mennonite mission work, lives in Winnipeg, where he attends Hope Mennonite Church and hosts monthly documentary film nights.