This video is over the top and goes a little too far, but it raises some good points.
I'm a huge fan of avoiding conflict through the use of humor.
For that dysfunctional reason, I enjoyed this video.
I'm a huge fan of avoiding conflict through the use of humor.
For that dysfunctional reason, I enjoyed this video.
This week The Gospel Coalition published a post called, "Why You Should Consider Cancelling Your Short-term Mission Trips." We're grateful these difficult and oftentimes controversial conversations are beginning to take place in public arenas.
"The money spent by one campus ministry to cover the costs of their Central American missions trip to repaint an orphanage would have been enough to hire two local painters and two new full-time teachers and purchase new uniforms for every student in the school." -- Darren Carlson
We are indebted to our time spent in Haiti for a vast number of ways our minds have been changed. Missions and the issues specifically surrounding short-term mission trips top the list of areas where we thought one way pre-Haiti and now think differently post-Haiti.
Like many Jesus-loving people, we grew up in a church culture that valued taking the love of Christ and the gospel to the ends of the earth. This is good, obviously. Jesus said pretty clearly this practice of advancing the Kingdom is an important one. I think the problem arises when we take the principle of making the gospel available to all nations and decide we, as uninformed Americans, know the best method for accomplishing the Great Commission in cross-cultural missions. Usually the method we employ to take the gospel to the ends of the earth is to encourage our church bodies to participate in short-term mission trips year after year after year.
"Contrary to popular belief, most missions trips and service projects do not: empower those being served, engender healthy cross-cultural relationships, improve quality of live, relieve poverty, change the lives of participants [or] increase support for long-term missions work." -- Toxic Charity
Shortly after we moved to Haiti, we sat down with an educated, Haitian couple who are working to make a difference in their country. "Be honest. Does it make you crazy to see so many Americans and foreigners in your country attempting to help? Do you think we should be here?" There was a long pause. His response went something like this, "I wish I could remind every Haitian that we fought long and hard for our freedom. We are the only slave nation to overthrow its slaveholders. But we're not free. We've traded slavery to the French with slavery to the Americans and Westerners. We're slaves to foreign aid."
The book, When Helping Hurts, calls this idea "poverty of self." Whether we mean to or not, when Americans (and other foreigners) enter a country and a group of unemployed national men stand by and watch a short-term mission team paint walls and construct buildings - one of the messages we're sending is this: "You are such incompetent idiots, you can't even paint a wall. It takes 32 white people in matching shirts to fly across the ocean (and an unheard of amount of money and mosquito spray) to turn this building from grey to island blue." How much would it cost to hire those same unemployed nationals to paint the building? Not much. How much value and self-worth do we give a poverty-stricken country when we allow them to be a part of restoring their own community? The answer is probably immeasurable. How good does the American church get to feel about the building changing colors if they didn't physically paint it? Not very.
Bingo - I think we've reached the heart of this issue.
We could talk all day (and many people are) about how noneffective and destructive (worst case scenario) most short term mission trips are to the countries hosting the teams. We've seen stressed out long-term missionaries who despise teams, but keep hosting them because money only comes when Americans actually see with their own eyes and experience firsthand the issues surrounding a foreign ministry. In order to get what they desperately need to effectively love and serve the people around them, missionaries feel trapped and forced to allow teams to come visit in the hopes that these visitors go home and start giving money. A lot of well-meaning churches partner with foreign ministries, agreeing to send money, and supplies - but with one catch - the church gets to send teams throughout the year. There are strings attached and those strings usually look like a group of white, unskilled people who land in a foreign country, need a lot of care and attention, who ultimately interrupt the real day-to-day ministry that would be taking place if the foreigners had stayed home and simply sent a check or bag full of much-needed supplies.
Here's a question that begs to be asked: If a mission really needs a lot of teams to come visit, is that mission actually effective during the time when it's not summer, Christmas break, or Spring Break? Isn't one of the markers of a healthy in-country ministry one that is sustainable and able to run well even without teams present? When we support a ministry financially, we want to feel confident that the group we are partnering with is willing and able to run a healthy organization during the many weeks of the year when no outsiders are there to lend a helping hand. "How often do you host teams?" is a great question to ask an organization.
Not many missions organizations will tell you this, but when a team is coming, it's not uncommon for the long-term missionaries to have a meeting to "figure out what to do with the team." "Well...that wall is kind of ugly, they could paint that - and what about a mural? Heck ya. Nothing keeps white people busy like a mural." Assuming a church is always going into a country to perform much-needed, necessary, we-can't-live-without-this kind of work, is often a hilarious assumption. In reality, a lot of the mission organization's time is spent babysitting visitors who need to process their own culture shock, the climate, the language barriers, cultural complexities, and gastrointestinal issues.
The sad reality is that many churches have created an expectation that "good Christians" should all go on these short term trips ... annually if possible. The result is that people who do not go on these trips feel like B-team Christians. A large part of our life in Haiti was spent coming to grips with not only the poverty and desperation we were experiencing on a daily basis, but grieving the American church's role (and our role as former church leaders) in either not doing enough to help alleviate the suffering - or worse - harming the poor in the name of Jesus. I wasn't able to look at the issues in Haiti without thinking about the problems and possible solutions through the lens of the American church. "If we went back to America today, after what we've seen, how would we help steer the conversation about missions? We understand pastors have good hearts and they ultimately want to engage their congregations in the Great Commission and care for the poor and the orphaned. But how do church leaders spark love and concern for the lost and desperate without insisting that every Tom, Dick, and unskilled Harry show up in a foreign country to experience the truth themselves?"
We have no answers. What we do have are a lot of uneasiness and questions- and unfortunately most churches we've experienced are highly uncomfortable being a body filled with questions. Most American churches feel the need to be a group of people cranking out the answers.
Here are some ideas we want to be quick to admit when it comes to foreign missions:
1. If we're honest, the American church isn't all that sure how to reach our own culture and meet the needs within our own borders. Without cultural differences and language barriers, we're still pretty confused and unsure our methods for loving and serving our communities are working or effective - at all. So maybe we should be extra cautious and humble when it comes to the best way to further the Kingdom in foreign countries.
2. I'm not going to propose that all church staffs operate the same way, but our experience on church staff and our connection to friends employed by the church has taught us that some churches feel pressured (for whatever reason) to organize short-term mission trips. When doing so, the questions on the front end of the trip usually sound more like, "Is this organization doing good work (and ironically the sending church is usually the expert on the subject). " Can this location house and feed the number of people we need to send? Will there be enough work for our group to do - because we don't want people standing around (heaven forbid) - we want them to get their money's worth." Instead, what if some of the questions were to change? "What do the missionaries and the mission actually need? Have we given them space and freedom to be honest with us - to say, "We don't want you to come. When a group visits it stresses us out, and none of the actual work that needs to get done is getting done when you're here. Can you just send money - we'll buy supplies in country and boost the economy - and we'll hire the men and women begging at our gates to paint the porch and fix the roof. And could you pay to send my wife's mother or best friend - not to do mission work per say - but just because seeing them for a week goes a long, long, way to reviving our souls?"
3. This idea that everyone in our church must personally experience poverty or a foreign culture in order to be gripped by the Great Commission points to some major dysfunction in the local church body. The image we see in scripture of the church is one of such interdependence and connection that we weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn. One part suffers - we all suffer. It's a very American idea that I have to personally experience something in order for it to be real. Right now, there are a handful of people in our local church who are deeply, personally, and actively involved with a ministry in a foreign country. They can vouch for these organizations. They have real-life connections with them. What if part of living by faith and belonging to a local body means trusting the advocates in the church where we're connected. What if it means experiencing other cultures - the needs, the pain, the beauty - through the passion of someone within our local body.
4. Obviously not all short-term mission trips are harmful or a waste of time. How can we do our homework, be educated, and in the very least - leery - of making mistakes, hurting the local population we're attempting to serve, and inconveniencing the long-term missionaries we're partnering with for our trip? Figuring out how to best approach short-term missions will unfortunately not be a one size fits all approach. Every mission is different. They have different needs. Throwing down blanket thoughts on short-term missions like, "All teams are harmful so our church is not going to engage," or "Doing short term missions this way is the only healthy way" are most likely ineffective strategies. Just like any outreach or interaction with human beings, figuring out how to best serve a ministry "on the ground" is going to take time, humility, and a response that is personal and fluid. Unfortunately this holistic and individual approach to partnering with a foreign missions organization will not work for churches who are desperate to have a written "missions policy" filled with rigid rules about how their church engages in cross-cultural missions.
While living in Haiti I wrote a post called, Are Short-term Mission Trips the Answer. Interestingly, in the comments section you'll find a lot of comments from people defending their trips and how those mission trips were different and better and obviously important. You'll also find long-term missionaries (who often commented anonymously out of fear) honestly speaking out against the harm of short-term teams. I understand the need to feel like the hard work required to organize a mission trip and the large sum of money used to fund it were "worth it," but it grieves me to hear missionaries honestly speaking towards these issues, and the American church refusing to listen or value what long-term missionaries are saying. Being quick to defend our "trip" is prideful and tragic. If any situation warranted being slow to speak and quick to listen, I think it's the "are short-term mission trips an effective use of time and money" conversation.
After a visit to America, I will never forget sitting in the airport with my kids waiting to catch the flight from Miami to Haiti. A short term mission team was nearby. The group leader - who obviously had a big heart - was getting his team "pumped up" before the flight. The gist of his pep talk was about how much good their team would do that week - how much light they were bringing - how many lives would be changed (theirs included). I had just said good-bye to my family and friends, so I admit I was probably more emotional than I should have been, but his words brought tears to my eyes. Not in a good way. I remember being where he was, going on mission trips, and then worse - sitting through the post trip slide show at church. A hundred photos of team members standing next to smiling locals, the stories of how many people got saved, of how the one-week trip impacted lives and brought about change. Meanwhile, living in Haiti - actually living there - we wondered every day if what we were doing made a difference - if we were causing harm, even if good work was being accomplished. We saw how complicated it was to gauge success - so difficult that we quit trying to do so and simply woke up most days asking the Lord to help us faithfully love the people around us. Many days I wished to have the confidence of a short-term mission trip again - to truly feel like we were making a huge difference - every five days - instead of simply being in Haiti day in and day out wondering and striving.
I'm guessing not many church bodies would want to sit through a post-trip slide show or presentation from the members who went on the short-term trip to hear them say things like, "We have no idea if we made a difference. We'd never try to claim a week spent in a foreign country did jack squat to bring light. We're not even all that convinced the place we visited was "dark" in the first place. We accomplished very little. We sat around a lot. We couldn't actually talk to the people around us, because we don't know their language. Working in a foreign culture is complicated, and we'd never pretend to be able to sum up the spirit and struggles of an entire country because we spent a week there. We went. We were touched. One week in a foreign country helped to open our eyes - not completely open them - but opened them slightly - to this enormous world God has created. But...we may never know - this side of eternity - if what we accomplished in one week was all that helpful."
What if we were honest and admitted that one week spent anywhere with strangers, even in our own country, probably wouldn't be all that life-changing or slide-show worthy? Deep down we all know the most effective ministry happens at organic, long-term, day in and day out, relational, human levels. So maybe great caution should be involved when trying to define success in short-term, cross-cultural missions.
If you are considering going on a mission trip or are organizing one, here are some helpful links that raise a lot of good points and ask great questions.
For the love, don't go on a mission trip without reading this series from Jaime, the Very Worst Missionary
A Boat That Needs Rocking
Thinking through Short-Term Mission Trips
Are Short-term Mission Trips the answer?
Why You Should Consider Cancelling Your Short-term Mission Trips
Healthy Short-Term Missions: Do it like Jesus.
When It's About Us
Fear and Missions
I'm really interested in reading the follow up article about a healthier approach to mission trips from The Gospel Coalition. They have promised that a follow-up post is coming soon.