Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Limo from Beverly Hills in Your Neighborhood (Rethinking Short-Term Missions, Part 2)

Imagine you have relatives visiting from Germany.  They speak no English, but they tell you they want to engage in "meaningful ministry" while in the States.  Reluctantly, you allow them to teach your kindergarten Sunday School class.  You must translate.  Since the lesson takes twice as long than usual, the kids lose interest.  Still, your relatives go back to their home country rejoicing over all the converts they made.

Imagine you are asked to host a team of 20 people from Japan at your workplace.  They also speak no English and don't know anything about your work, but you are expected to give them something to do for the next two weeks.  Out of desperation, you decide a bunch of walls need painting.

Imagine a stretch limo pulls up into your neighborhood.  It is filled with a youth group from Beverly Hills who want a tour of "middle-class America."  They start snapping pictures of your children while smirking at their Target clothes.  You overhear them marveling that you mow your own lawn.  They want to know if they can paint your house--as long as they can take pictures, of course.

I know you get where I am going with this.

Sometimes all we need to do is put ourselves in their shoes.  The wrong starting point is often the very biggest problem with short-term ministry.  We shouldn't be asking, "Where can we send our youth group/missions team/etc. that will have the biggest impact on our own people?"  Instead, ask the question, "Where is the need and who can we send that can fill it?"  The initial focus should be on the receivers, not on the senders.

When Choosing a Trip:
  • By far, your most valuable trips will be to missionaries your church supports, because you already have a personal connection.  
  • However, do not pressure your missionary to accept your team.  If your church supports that missionary, he is already going to feel pressure no matter what you say.....do not add more!  Make sure you give him an "out", and then if he does agree, follow his specifications for the team as best as you can.  
  • Develop a healthy skepticism of "short-term missions organizations" whose primary existence is to send out teams.  I'm sure there are good ones (Caravan being one of them), but make sure you ask questions such as, 
    • What will be our connection to local churches or missionaries?  
    • Who is making the major decisions? [It should be the people on the field].  
    • Why can't local people do the work we would be doing? [You need to receive a good answer for that question.] 
    • What will be the follow-up to whatever ministry we accomplish?  [If there isn't any, then what really is the point of going?]

Keep In Mind:
  • Support roles are often the very best ways that short-term missions teams can be used.  A missionary conference needs childcare?  Perfect for a short-term team.  Energetic bodies needed to run a camp?  Excellent.  Homeschooling help so that a mom can work on language skills?  Fantastic.  Using media skills to put together a promotional video for the ministry?  Wow--that would be great!  
  • Sharing skills is another excellent reason for teams:  Teaching micro-enterprise skills.  Training local church leaders how to run a VBS or an ESL class.  Sharing skills in medicine or art or construction.  Training them to do it is always better than doing it yourself.  
    • If you are asked by a local church to put on some sort of program, such as a VBS or soccer camp, please be very careful.  Don't bring in a ton of resources (markers, candy, prizes, etc) that the local church could never reproduce themselves.  After all, do we want them to think, 'We could never do that ourselves; we must have Americans do it for us?'  Use local people as much as possible, and use local resources accessible by everyone--even if it means your program won't be as exciting.
Sometimes, we just need a different mindset.  People want to go overseas and come back with great conversion stories.  But when you don't know the language or the culture and you don't have the relationships--that is simply not going to happen effectively.  Instead, participate in a ministry where you can support those who can do it effectively.

Part 3:  How to Make Sure They Love You on the Other Side
Part 4:  Don't Be So Predictable


Sarah Woodson said...

Great summary of the problem and what I can do practically.

theologista said...

Everyone wants conversion stories and numbers from short term trips, but sadly those are usually false numbers for a number of reasons.

I like your suggestions on support roles that actually are helpful for short term missionaries to do!

Linda Gunderson said...

This is the most honest and helpful thing I've read on short term teams. Way to go Amy!

Kathy Keller said...

I thought your American examples were clever and helpful.

Anonymous said...

I respect your intentions of this article, but I feel like too much emphasis is on the individual. Missions are not about us, and will never be about what we can do to change lives. Missions are about learning more about who God is, and most importantly, being obedient. We care called to go, therefore we should go. God, in no way, needs us to go on mission trips in order to fulfill His ultimate mission. We go because we are commanded to. The more we begin to think we can develop a 'strategy' for a perfect mission trip (length, place, partnership, etc...) the more dangerous this becomes.

Amy said...

Point taken!