Monday, September 09, 2013

Thinking critically about short-term missions

One of my good friends, Ronne Rock, recently wrote a post on her blog about the value of short-term missions. It is well-written (her stuff always is) and thoughtful (if you know her, you wouldn't ever think she's not thinking about orphans!). You should add her blog, twitter and facebook feeds--not to mention her great Instagram photos--to your daily reading.

If you're not familiar with the argument, short-term missions are basically the few-days-long trips to some faraway (in distance or culture) place to do something "Christian." Churches have been in this practice for decades, given the relatively low cost travel our modern USAmerican culture has brought us. The world has shrunk for sure.

But there's been a backlash in recent years. Many both inside and outside the Church have argued that short-term missions have done more harm than good. I've never been one to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water, so as a guy who has seen the good, bad and ugly in short-term missions, I wanted to share a few thoughts based on Ronne's experiences that are vital to the success of any relational endeavor, but especially when it comes to short-term missions, whether you're heading across your community or across the ocean.

First, it's vital to make sure you're exporting love, not USAmerican culture. Every culture is blind to the places where their cultural values shape their perception of the structure and message of the gospel and the kingdom of heaven. Hours of challenging due-diligence is mandatory for churches heading into a different culture than our own. This is true whether you're heading from Dallas to Antigua, or from suburbia to inner city, or from urban to rural. We need to adopt as one of our core beliefs the respect for cultures and their differences, and ensure that whatever work we do has thoughtfully removed as much cultural baggage to the gospel as possible.

Second, it should be about building relationships, not accomplishing a task. As Ronne points out, it's easy to do the same VBS, backyard Bible club, wall-painting, school supply providing projects week after week, year after year, because, quite frankly, that's easy. And while we genuinely want to positively impact the world, we prefer to do it in an easy and comfortable fashion, except for certain "creature comforts" we're willing to give up on the trip. We don't (usually) mind it being a little too hot or cold, drinking only bottled water, cramming into small vans, etc during the trip itself, but we don't spend enough time on the prep work around culture, values, and long-term, impact, we're just too busy. Churches and groups going on trips have traditionally looked for a variety of trips and projects over the course of a few years. That's probably because we start with the idea that the trips are about our own group's experience. The best mission experiences though are more about building long-term, mutually beneficial relationships between people, churches, and organizations. Churches should choose to head back to places many times over the course of years, maybe decades, effectively turning short-term missions into long-term strategies.

Third, you need to balance overall impact on the culture you're traveling to, not just on your own group. One key aspect of the hard work required is to understand that as great of an impact short-term trips can have on changing you or your church, if the work done is inappropriate or not beneficial in the long run to the place you're going, it's not worth going.

Fourth, because its about relationships, deep listening is required. The most important thing Ronne said in her post was how they listened to the leaders of the orphanage, then abandoned their own plans based on what they heard. I can't emphasize this enough. Listen, and listen hard. Listen over the course of time, not just in one conversation. Listen and listen again, before ever planning a single trip or project.

Finally, let humility reign. Don't, under any circumstances, allow yourself to think that the serving/giving/loving involved is about you, a church of plenty (plenty of wealth, plenty of knowledge, plenty of  "good Christian stuff") taking what is not there to a people without. Be open to the idea that your project idea, your insight into how a culture needs your help, may not be accurate. Be ready to abandon ideas about projects altogether if necessary. If you're willing to do these things, I guarantee you that you will see how God has already been at work where you're going.

And you will likely begin to see how poor you really are.

A resource list:

The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Leslie Newbiggin
Cross-Cultural Conflict  by Duane Elmer
Ministering Cross-Culturally by Sherwood Lingenfelter

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