I love missions. It’s been almost eight years since I first moved to Mexico and heard myself being called by a new name: “La misionera.” The missionary. It felt weird and unreal then but I think I’m finally used to it. I think. = )
As much as I love missions, however, I also think we can approach missions better than the way we often do. These are some articles that have helped me over the years think critically about how we approach missions, and I’m going to leave them here for anyone else seeking to gain a fresh perspective on this subject.
I want short-term missionaries to show love and care, but it’s important to be aware of this difficult reality and to proceed carefully, knowing that you—the missionary—are the adult in the situation. Kids are particularly vulnerable to short-term visitors, and they often don’t understand the reality of your life back at home and why you really have to leave after a few days. It may not be fair to you that a kid is disappointed when you only stay a week (which is a long time off work for you!), but as I saw again and again, many of my peers just didn’t understand the concept of traveling so far for such a short time. These visits can be good, but proceed with caution.
This time a [foreign] group is visiting [my haitian church] on a short-term mission trip. …As the service wears on, a few of the moms of the group motion for some kids to come sit with them. They proceed to chat and play with them while, unbeknownst to them, the congregants are praying. The elders that typically shush the kids shake their heads and don’t say anything because they don’t want to insult the visitors. The kids know this and take full advantage of playing with cameras and phones and other gadgets, being generally disorderly in comparison to the usual way they’re expected they behave. I sit there and wonder how we would feel if we were sitting in a church in the States and a group of people from another country came in and acted that way.
STM = Short Term Missions/Missionaries
LTM = Long Term Missions/Missionaries
Below are random (but true) examples:
C.) A STM group comes in wanting to help build houses. The LTM suggests they work with Haitians and get their input. The LTM makes man suggestions based on the years in country and the things they have learned about the culture and its building practices. The STM wants to build the house according to their practices and styles of building. They force their way of building onto the group of Haitians they are building the house for and refuse to believe that the Haitians way of doing it has any merit. They finish the house and take many photos of their good work to go home and show their church proudly. The following Sunday the group is sharing their photos at church and the Haitians are tearing off the roof of the house and re-doing the way that they prefer.
Poverty Can Look Different Than You Expect.
If at the end of your trip you say, “I am so thankful for what I have, because they have so little.” You have missed the whole point.
You’re poor, too. But maybe you’re hiding behind all your stuff. There is material poverty, physical poverty, spiritual poverty and systemic poverty. We all have to acknowledge our own brokenness and deep need for God before we can expect to serve others.
In the midst of looking to replace the familiar model of sending short-term missionaries to far away places where ministries have created (often unnecessary) opportunities to accommodate well-meaning volunteers, my Missions Pastor Husband learned that our partner in Cambodia had multiple couples whose marriages were suffering under the strain of their work, so he asked if a marriage retreat could be beneficial. When the answer was “YES!!! PLEASE, OH, PLEASE. WE NEED A MARRIAGE RETREAT!”, he didn’t make an announcement or post a sign up sheet on our website. Instead, he went about choosing a team. Nobody was forced into becoming a short-term missionary, they were simply invited to be part of the team, and they were told why they’d been invited. Not everyone was eager to join, and not everyone accepted, but in the end, he appointed an experienced couples retreat planner, two Marriage and Family Therapists (one specializing in trauma and PTSD, the other in Men’s issues), a Pastoral couple, a leadership development expert, a child care provider, and a few other leaders from our marriage ministry. There are 11 people total, but only the 7 bodies essential to the event itself will be traveling to Cambodia — because round trip airfare to SE Asia is hella expensive.
Going on a kickass vacation can be healthier, more productive, and more beneficial
to both the traveler and the world than a short term mission.
I’ve come to believe my money is better spent in the hotels, restaurants, shops, gas stations, parks, monuments and attractions that provide legitimate jobs and dignified work to the very same locals I would otherwise be “blessing” on a short term mission trip. Tourism is a gross domestic product, an industry that creates layers and layers of real, sustainable jobs for a countries workforce. I’d wager that it’s far kinder and more generous for you to leave a tip and a favorable comment for the woman who cleans your hotel room each day, than for you to show up on her doorstep with your selfie stick and a bag of rice once a year (#blessed). When you vacation somewhere, you’re contributing to a healthy demand for everything from the edible goods of the rural farmer who might otherwise sell his child, to the administrative services of the urban student who might otherwise sell herself. When you vacation in the places you’d usually mission, you’re engaging people’s pride and joy without exploiting their shame.
“The most effective form of short-term ministry is to pour into the local missionaries and their national staff rather than beneficiaries. (Yep, that might mean good-bye VBS with kids climbing all over you and braiding your hair.)
You will not be able to impact those beneficiaries on a day to day, but you can impact the missionary who will get to. That means you probably don’t need a team of 15 people, but rather a smaller, more intentional team.
It doesn’t look like we were ever really intended to do short-term missions the way that we do them.
The only “missions” in the gospel was relational and long term. Churches like Phillippi would often send 1-2 missionaries from their church to support and encourage the work of long-term missionaries like Paul, but the intention was always to serve the long term missionary so he could continue the work of serving people.”
Our mission while at the orphanage was to build a library. Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure. It is likely that this was a daily ritual. Us mixing cement and laying bricks for 6+ hours, them undoing our work after the sun set, re-laying the bricks, and then acting as if nothing had happened so that the cycle could continue.
Basically, we failed at the sole purpose of our being there. It would have been more cost effective, stimulative of the local economy, and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work, but there we were trying to build straight walls without a level.
Another term for this summer activity – short-term mission teams. While I’m not a fan of short-term anything when it comes to development work, we’ve discovered a way to weave short trips into long-term relationships. (This is worthy of another post, really.) We view these trips of days and teams of friends as expressions of a growing friendship between two communities. Each trip becomes a brick in the building of sustained relationship between a Burundian and an American community and over years we’ve constructed deep connections. We’ve witnessed transformation on both sides of the ocean due to these deep bonds. So we participate in the short-term trips as part of a long-term commitment to development in all communities involved.
“On the whole, are you for or against short-term mission trips?
As an anthropologist, I’m absolutely for people traveling and encountering what God is doing in other parts of the world. I am for people understanding more about their own culture and the cultures of others. To the extent that these trips are a significant vehicle for people to do that, I am for them.
I am not for the narrative that has typically driven these trips: “We are going because there’s this tremendous need out there that we have to meet. And there’s this burden that we have as the wealthy country to go and do something in another place.” I support transforming this narrative so that it becomes, “How can we connect with what God is doing in other parts of the world? How can we learn to be good partners with Christians already in these places? How can we participate in what the church is already doing in these countries in effective ways?” “
“East African country used to have a large clothing industry that employed many people. Then, in our generosity, the West started donating clothing. As a result, people lost their jobs, and if you drive around major cities in Africa, you will see hundreds of vendors selling donated shoes, belts, shirts, and more for less than a dollar. On one level the issue boils down to relief and development. Relief aid should only last for a few months. The problem with most trips is that we perpetuate relief instead of moving toward development work. Haiti is a perfect example. In the four decades before the 2010 earthquake, $8.3 billion had been given, and yet the country was 25 percent poorer than before the aid began.“
One of the problems with short-term missions is that we are stuck in relief work. We paint and build houses, hold babies, and give presents. We do this because almost anyone in our churches can get involved. This type of work makes us feel good but sometimes harms people. Relief is appropriate for short periods, but if you want to get involved in alleviating physical poverty and use that platform to share the gospel and relieve spiritual poverty, you must move toward development work. It’s harder, takes longer, but is certainly a better form of mercy and justice ministry.
2. Empowering Partnerships An excellent short-term mission establishes healthy, interdependent, on-going relationships between sending and receiving partners, and is expressed by:
- Primary focus on intended receptors
- Plans which benefit all participants
- Mutual trust and accountability
To that end, here are a few things that help make short term missions teams an asset on the field, rather than a liability.
- The short term team is able to establish a long term relationship. This only happens when a church is able to send multiple teams to the same location. It takes time for trust to develop. It takes time for a bond to form. One short term team that never returns will have little kingdom impact. But short term teams that return to the same location many times have the opportunity to make a much greater impact.
Many orphanages let tourists work with children. But what would we say if unchecked foreigners went into our children’s homes to cuddle and care for the kids? We would be shocked, so why should standards be lowered in the developing world? Yes, resources might be in short supply, but just as here, experts want children in the family environment or fostered in loving homes, not in the exploding number of substandard institutions.