We've been carefully trying to decide where to go with this series. On one hand, we have been quick to admit that we're not experts on missions (or anything for that matter). We will say "we are not experts" one hundred times and tattoo it on our bodies if need be. On the other hand, we saw a lot of eye-opening realities in Haiti that we believe are valuable to share. As a matter of fact, we feel responsible to share them. When God prompted a group of people to financially support our move to Haiti, our donors knew (among other things) we were going to Haiti to ask questions and honestly report back the answers (or lack of answers) we found. Our family (and the people sending us financially to Haiti) wanted to passionately live out The Great Commission and specifically learn how to love and care for those struggling under the weight of immense poverty. We were quick to admit that we had (and still have) a lot of uncertainty about how to tangibly live out our convictions to care for the voiceless and the oppressed. We're thankful for the trust, love, and encouragement of the group that sent us to Haiti. Through this partnership, we were able to work together and each be a small part of exploring these difficult ideas.
One of our main goals in Haiti was to identify and support sustainable ministries. Therefore, we purposefully asked hard questions about missions, poverty, and orphan care while we were there. In most cases, we didn't wait for opportunities to present themselves naturally - we obnoxiously pursued missionaries and Haitians. We asked them awkward and honest questions. We were also able to connect with missionaries in other developing countries all over the world. These far-off connections have been sweet encouragements - true gifts to us. They have been willing to answer hard questions we've asked. As a result, these discussions have obviously shaped our views about missions, poverty, and orphan care. They have opened our eyes to the complexities of these issues.
In the course of this series of blog posts, several people have asked, "If short term missions are often less than effective, why do long-term missionaries keep hosting them? Isn't it the long-term missionary's responsibility to make sure short term teams are helping - not hurting?"
We asked the same question when we lived in Haiti - of missionaries in Haiti and missionaries around the world. We believe that for the most part, people who engage in missions do so with hearts that truly and genuinely want to be helpful and obedient to The Great Commission. Most people who go on short term trips give up their hard earned vacation time and invest a lot financially in their trip. So shouldn't long term missionaries be considerate of these truths and facilitate healthier connections with missions? When we asked these questions, there were several common responses given, but one constant and overwhelming theme stood out to us as we listened to missionaries talk about their struggles: FEAR.
There seems to be a lot of fear involved when trying to honestly and openly talk about missions.
When listening to missionaries honestly exploring the problems in mission strategies, one thing we realized is this: Fear is a real player in this important discussion and may be hindering our ability to find tangible solutions.
We all know that fear is never healthy or productive. A healthy fear of God is great - but that's not what we're referencing.
Instead, we've heard story after story of fear preventing people from doing what they feel is right or best for the people they are serving. Fear seemed to be a strong deterrent that can keep missionaries and aid workers from living out their convictions about what is right and wrong in relation to missions and aid. We're going to go so far as to suggest that fear may be tainting honest dialog about missions and aid. Fear may be preventing honest and open dialog between missionaries and the church - and missionaries and missions organizations. Fear may also be preventing believers in local, American churches from asking these hard questions and openly discussing them with their church leaders and fellow church members.
When talking about missions, why is fear such a big deal? We believe if these conversations are clouded with fear, we're not really going to be able to grow and learn. Fear stifles progress and health. Fear prevents honesty. Which begs the question - how well informed are our mission strategies if fear is common within these discussions?
We can't say this enough - we are not experts. Although our goal was to talk to a lot of missionaries, we didn't talk to every missionary on the face of the planet. We didn't receive emails from every missionary on earth. We kind of hope the fears we heard (and even experienced ourselves to some degree) are an anomaly. Nothing would make us happier than to hear that these experiences are not the norm.
Here are a few of the fears that popped up often in conversations about missions and aid:
1. Some missionaries expressed fear that if they honestly shared their hearts with their home churches, funding would cease to exist. If teams quit coming, funding would eventually dry up. They were fearful to share with their church how their ideas about missions were changing. At times they were fearful about honestly communicating their needs.
2. Some missionaries expressed fear about being open and honest with their team when differing views on missions arose. Interpersonal drama within a team is a legitimate fear that keeps missionaries from being vocal about missions related issues. Think about how hard it is to enter into conflict (even if it's much-needed) with people right here in the US. Now imagine that person you're about to disagree with is one of your only friends. They may be the only people who speak English within driving distance. They may also be your church. Your co-worker. Your next door neighbor. Your ride. If things go South - everything goes South. Everything.
3. Some missionaries expressed fear about being honest with their team leaders. They are afraid to challenge long withheld views on missions and aid. They are fearful to question and initiate conversation about the effectiveness and health of the mission where they are serving. When a healthy team atmosphere is not in place and leadership is not receptive to new ideas and equates questions with an attack - it's not uncommon for missionaries to remain quiet - even if they have inner conflicts about what their mission is doing and how it may be adversely affecting the community.
4. Some missionaries expressed fear about speaking openly and honestly on their own personal blogs - about anything. The health of their marriage. Their frustration. Their discouragement. Or even their much-needed vacation.
5. Some missionaries expressed fear about speaking out against the American model of engaging with missions because people become instantly defensive. Any criticism of the American church is quickly dismissed, and the missionary is labeled "arrogant," "judgmental," and "prideful" - even if they try their hardest to approach the conversation with humility.
We can all say, "Well - they should not have fear of man. They should do what is right - and stand up for what they believe." No one would argue that fact. But have you ever been a human?
Knowing what is right is usually a lot easier than actually doing it. Black and white statements launched at people in the trenches are so nice and tidy. These statements completely leave out the children that may be uprooted and living in another country with their parents if their parents rock the boat too hard. Black and white arguments usually fail to take into consideration that standing up for what we believe in often means we lose something. A job. A friend. A home. A life we've worked hard to create. It's particularly hard to take a stand on an issue when there's a real chance doing so will lead to major life adjustments.
I've been quiet and gone with the flow because I was afraid, haven't you? I can point to a scene in my past where I literally put my child's life in real danger because I was afraid of offending someone. In retrospect I could not believe what I did - and was in awe of how fear affects our decision making process. I'm sure in varying degrees we all know what it is like to passionately disagree with people we work with or are connected to - and remain quiet out of fear (of something). Sometimes fear is real, and sometimes it's perceived - either way it hinders growth and health.
"I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
We ask God to give missionaries the faith to be brave. We know (even with our limited understanding) what a horribly complex prayer we're praying. We pray you feel valued and heard. We are also hopeful that more and more churches and organizations will proactively foster safe environments where missionaries can share their concerns, questions, needs, and concerns without fear.
Isn't it wondrously frustrating to think about God calling each of us in our own flaws and fears to proclaim His name among the nations? When thinking through the issues discussed out in the open about missions (in books, blogs, churches, and websites) I'm struck by how working through the challenges points to our own brokenness and poverty. Broken, poor people reaching out to a broken, poor world - it's beautiful and mind boggling. I'm grateful for the ways these concepts cause us to constantly face our own poverty and remind us that we are the poor.
We welcome other missionaries to speak to the idea of fear in missions. We want this to be a safe place - so feel free to comment anonymously.
Just to keep these comments together, I'm going to cut and paste previous comments from missionaries who have added their thoughts to mission-related posts on this blog. We appreciate you and your honesty.
Other Posts In This Series:
Short Term Missions?
When It's About Us