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Letter to a Short-Term Missionary
My childhood church was big on revival. We prayed fervently every Sunday for another “great awakening.” To a six-year-old whose reality was defined by his parents’ beliefs, it was clear to me a revival was the only thing that would save us from impending doom. How do you start a revival? I innocently inquired. Prayer, lots of prayer, and obedience, my mother counseled me. Do whatever God asks of us, she said.
Six-year-old minds are very active. What could I do to help start a revival and save our land? Then I had an idea. What if I offered God my burgeoning harmonica skills? Could God use that to start a revival? I asked my mother. She said it was a wonderful idea, that God could use any gift offered to accomplish his purposes. My sister smirked.
Sixty-two years later, I still believe what my mother told me—at least the part about God using any gift offered to accomplish his purposes. And another conviction remains: the belief that everyone, including six-year-olds, has an innate desire to make a difference in the world.
That’s why people—especially young people—sign up for mission trips. And because we know this, we play to this desire in our recruitment appeals. “You can save the world” is the alluring message. It has enormous heart-appeal. But can mission trips deliver on those promises? Are we actually changing the world with these short-term trips?
Our desire is to develop inspired and inspiring young leaders, not disillusioned ones. It is certainly important for young people (of all ages) to believe deeply that they can make a difference in their world. It’s important for them to know that in God’s economy every act of love counts—every smile, every kind word, every thoughtful deed. “God can use any gift offered to accomplish his purposes.” But it’s also important for them to understand how helping can sometimes hurt. Passing out T-shirts and candy to excited village children may seem like pure loving kindness until volunteers learn how the village elders feel about these gifts—that they only encourage a culture of beggary. Eager to serve, short-term mission teams innocently offer to do things for others, not realizing they have wounded the pride and dignity of people who have more than adequate capability to do it for themselves.
But how can short-term mission teams—and especially bright-eyed and idealistic young people—gain these insights? How can they become truly helpful instead of unintentionally hurtful?
Alison from Colorado who coordinates mission trips to Haiti emailed me recently with these very questions. She was painfully aware that the service her volunteers performed was largely make-work and that their suitcases stuffed with free gifts only perpetuated a hands-out mentality among Haitians. She asked for my advice.
Here’s what I told her:
I understand the demand to do mission trips and the pressure you feel to continue planning them. Here are a few suggestions that may make them more redemptive.
Exposing young people (and adults) to the needs of the world and the amazing work of God in harsh environments is important ministry. It opens their eyes, stirs their hearts and draws them into compassionate action. That’s why mission trips can be important in the spiritual development of our youth. And that’s what mission trips should be about—spiritual development, not pretending that they are about saving the world. Not immediately anyway. They are about saving us. Preparing us. Once that is clear, we can venture into Haiti and other places of need with integrity.
We go to learn, not to save.
The mindset of learners is very different from that of servers. Learners listen to others, servers do for others. Learners ask questions, servers offer answers. Learners marvel at the faith of the poor, servers pity the poor. Learners see ingenuity, servers see poverty. Learners affirm the worth of people, servers diminish their dignity. You see where I am going with this?
So how do we structure a mission trip that appeals to the innate desire to make a difference in the world, an experience that deepens the spiritual lives of our youth but doesn’t create false expectations? And of course, is truly helpful?
First, our marketing has to have integrity.
The trip is primarily about us, not them. And that’s OK. This is an insight trip to expand our spiritual horizons, see how faith works when resources are severely limited, discover how God is at work among culturally and theologically diverse people. Such insights can be transformative. They can become the very catalysts that ignite a ministry calling.
Secondly, emphasize the two-way relationship.
We are not on a mission to help the poor by distributing suitcases full of give-away’s or performing meaningless make-work or assuming roles that can better be handled by locals. We do not promote beggary. We engage in exchange—economic as well as interpersonal. We enjoy the hospitality that is extended by our hosts, and we contribute to their economy by participating in the legitimate enterprise of tourism through fair payment for food, lodging, local transportation and preparation time. And we buy their products.
Thirdly, do the homework before the trip.
We prepare participants for the learning experience by reading books on effective service (like
When Helping Hurts
) and articles on the country, the history and contemporary issues. Learning the language honors people, at least some key phrases. “Appreciative inquiry” techniques, note-taking and journaling can also be useful. Regular group reflection times during and following the trip will help participants assimilate and internalize what they are experiencing.
It goes without saying that on-the-ground connections with seasoned, in-country practitioners is essential to understand the context, scope and impact of the work. Visiting with several different ministries will broaden the perspective. They are the ones who can arrange discussions with residents as well as fun—like a soccer game with local teens. They will be relieved that they don’t have to set up work projects for your group. Remember, their mission is not to be tour guides. Generous compensation for the valuable time they spend with your group hosting and coordinating schedules would be most appropriate.
Hope this is useful.
The God-given desire to relieve suffering and come to the aid of victims of hardship should certainly be affirmed and encouraged. But to care well requires preparation. Learning precedes effective helping. And integrity simply must direct our marketing—over-promising the impact of service projects may disillusion enthusiastic young hearts.
Short-term mission trips
worth it. When done well, when rightly promoted and structured, they can be some of our best training ground for a lifetime of effective service.
is a Christian community developer and founder of
FCS Urban Ministries
—a non-profit organization in inner-city Atlanta. FCS has developed two mixed income subdivisions, organized a multi-racial congregation, started a number of businesses, created housing for hundreds of families and initiated a wide range of human services in his community. He is the author of
, including his most recent,
. Follow Bob on
Editor's Note: Image by
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