Thursday, June 21, 2012

When It's About Us



When my Facebook friends share the posts from this blog on their walls, it's always interesting (and sometimes horrible) to read the comments under a link to something I've written.  Yesterday, in response to the short-term mission trip post, someone left a comment that I think sums up one of the mindsets we have when talking about short-term missions within the church.  Her comment was lengthy and pointed out how she was changed.  What she saw on her trips.  What she thinks about missions even after reading what long-term missionaries and poverty/charity studies are sharing on the subject.  She claimed that mission trips can be eye openers for the typical 16 year old American high schooler - or adult.  She wrote about her own heart, her own experience, and how the many mission trips she has been a part of have impacted her personally.

I really appreciate anyone who is willing to engage in this conversation, even if I don't agree with what they are saying.  Deciding to engage in any discussion when we're being asked to reconsider ideas we're passionate about or "the way it's always been" is commendable and takes humility.  Although I highlighted a few phrases that I feel need to be explored from her comment, I commend this person for their honesty, their love for people, their desire to understand other cultures, and serve other people.

Can I reiterate a few things before moving on?  1.  We don't think all short-term missions are harmful.  We're simply pointing out some ideas and questions to consider as we decide how to engage in short-term missions.  That said, we are uncomfortable with the sacred cow status short term mission trips seem to have in the American church.  For whatever reason, this seems to be a topic we're rarely allowed to question or reexamine without church leaders getting angry and defensive.  2.  We believe the American church should be involved in missions - our time lived in Haiti simply makes us less confident than most people about which methods are actually helpful and respectful towards the culture we're visiting.  3.  Most of our thoughts on missions are specific to trips that involve serving in countries where there is great, physical need.  We're not claiming all of these thoughts apply to every country - especially those where we find a lot of spiritual poverty, but not much physical poverty.  4.  We're not flying solo in this discussion.  If this series of posts was based entirely upon the questions and uneasiness we have, these thoughts would be ridiculous and should be discredited.  Instead, we're drawing on many, many conversations with long-term missionaries and from brave leaders and authors who are publicly asking the church to reconsider their methods of participating in the Great Commission.

_________________

When the effectiveness of short-term mission trips began to be questioned publicly we noticed a shift in how some churches talked about mission trips.  Instead of saying "We as Americans are going into a country to save the day" we started hearing leaders and team members saying, "We, as visitors to a new culture, are the ones who will really be changed on this trip.  We hope we can offer something, but we also have a lot to learn.  We're going so that God can change our hearts."

Admitting we'll probably be changed and challenged far more than the people we're visiting and "serving" for a week in a foreign country sounds much more honest - and even better - but is it right?

If we go all MC Hammer on this argument and break it down, what we're really saying is, "This expensive trip may or may not actually serve the people we're visiting and may even be harmful to the community where we're going - but it's not really about them.  It's about us.  It's about how it will change me.  It's about how it will change our church."

If you read the post from yesterday, the links, and books like Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts, you know that this argument that mission trips drastically change the lives of the team members is not only up for debate - it's mostly been proven bogus.  Mission trips have increased, while missions giving has decreased.  Short-term mission trips have increased, while the number of long-term missionaries living abroad has decreased.  More money is being spent on short term trips and less people are actually deciding to uproot their lives and live in other cultures for the long haul.  Let's hold that thought while we once again admit that the most effective forms of ministry are deeply rooted in relationship and trust - which only happens when we get past the surface of a relationship and know people in deep and meaningful ways.  Keeping this in mind, is it not troubling that short-term mission trips are on the rise and the number of long-term missionaries is decreasing?  Is it not troubling that the few people who do decide to move overseas to serve in some mission-related capacity have a very difficult time getting their churches and friends to financially support them?  I'm simply wondering if we're putting too much of our missions money on the least likely horse to win this race.  Holy cow, I just used a gambling analogy in a churchy post.

The "we're here to save the day, and we're about to make a life-time's worth of difference in five days" mentality gives a lot of people the creeps, and I'm glad we're seeing that argument for short-term missions fading away.  However, if we've traded that self-focused, misinformed, argument for the "This trip is really about us - not them" argument perhaps we've traded one sad justification for another.

Let's be real honest - On what planet is it ever okay to label something we're doing mostly for ourselves, "missions?"

We wholeheartedly believe that experiencing different cultures, their faith, their needs, their beauty, their courage, and their struggles may bring about awareness and can be life-changing for both parties involved.  We can't say that most mission trips can be described with such glowing adjectives, because there is a whole lot of proof and research today suggesting otherwise.  But we agree - there are probably healthy ways to take the love of Christ and the gospel to other cultures. However, when we personally gain any gift - even a good one - by engaging in activities that harm and exploit other cultures, and particularly the poor, our methods are never okay.  Worse, when we as outsiders, are quick to defend our trips and decide we're not harming anyone, or we are the gauge of our own team's success we may be acting in a way that is short-sighted and misguided.  How would short-term missions change if we really did our homework, got to know the culture or established intimate relationships with missionaries who do?  What would it look like to really know the needs of the long-term missionaries - to listen - not only to them, but most importantly the leaders within the indigenous community where we're visiting?  

Obviously, what's being talked about on this blog is not the end-all in missions conversations.  We have a very limited perspective.  People way smarter than us, better communicators, and people who have lived overseas a lot longer than we did are writing on this topic.  We simply hope to play a small part in this much needed dialog. For some other great reads on this idea that mission trips are viable because of how they change us....check out these links:

Sorry, Poor People - It's Not About You

Using Your Poor Kid to Teach My Rich Kid a Lesson

I'm anticipating that people will begin to say things like, "Well - you're not saying all short term mission trips are bad, but you're not pointing to any good examples.  Quit being such a Debbie-Downer."  I hope people won't walk away from this discussion feeling like we're on a mission to bad-talk the American church.  It's precisely our love and hope for the American church that prompts us to beg people to respectfully participate in these conversations within their local church bodies and families.  The Great Commission is a big deal.  So is seeing God's Kingdom advance and break through on this earth.  Shouldn't the concept of missions and the methods we're using to further the gospel and grow the global church always be open for discussion and reevaluation? Shouldn't we always approach other cultures and our contribution or judgement of their needs with a heaping dose of humility and respect?

23 comments:

Andy and Jennifer said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts! So often we are so focused on ourselves, we can't even see points like these! I traveled overseas as a young woman but on my own dime and "visited" a few missionaries to help with small projects and get an idea for missionary life. While I was in Africa, I saw quite a few group trips come through. While I don't doubt the benefit in some ways, I wonder at the cost. The video you posted before is hilariously, and sadly, true... Thanks for sharing your heart...

Troy said...

Amen.

Kelly G. said...

I am very intrigued by this discussion. I am in the process of reading When Helping Hurts, in a very prayerful way! One thought... I was privileged to go on a short term mission trip to Uganda this past year. I went, not with the thought that I would be "saving" anyone, but went in obedience to God telling me to go. One of the main reasons that I know God was leading me there was to develop relationships that have continued and will continue. I am much better able to serve (financially and prayerfully) a ministry that I have seen first hand and have spoken too and know who they are and what the represent and how they are managing their resources and what their needs are. I went with the intent of helping/empowering people who are already there making a difference. I went there with open eyes and an intent to learn. This can't be an all or nothing thing, which is not what I believe you are saying. Please consider in a day and age where there are literally millions of organizations to whom I could donate and support, being able to connect personally really does make a difference. Please don't rule out the importance of obedience in this!

Kelly G. said...

all that said... there were individuals in our group who did GREAT damage while we were there with extreme cultural insensitivity.

kayder1996 said...

I am someone who went to Romania as a sophomore in college and was forever changed. Because of those moments, I was drawn to adoption as a 19 year old who met her future husband weeks after returning and said "I'm not sure I want to have bio kids because I cannot know what I know and do nothing." We now have 2 kids from Haiti and one on the way from China. Because of that trip, I have a heart that is much more compassionate to the poor (here and abroad) and I definitely took a hard look at my life in the context of global poverty. That said, I think the messages like the one you have written about need to be heard. Because of them, I am not going to Haiti this summer despite the opportunity and a deep desire to go. I want to go because I want to go and I would love to go be a part of something, anything there. But until some project arises where my gifts and talents are needed, I'm staying home. And that's because I've also done a lot of thinking about what it means to do short term mission trips right. I think for some reason, people see/hear the first few words in those hard conversations about short term missions work and stop listening after those first words. Sometimes I think it's because the tone of the message comes across so harshly critical that it's just like anything else, the negative spirit crushes the listener. But, as in the case with what you posted, people take the face value of the first little bit and make an instant assumption and stop listening. I had already reposted the gospel coalition article before I read your post; I hope a few more people will read yours and read all the way to the end to see the complete story and not just make it all about "short term missions work is terrible."

Susan, wife of 1, mother of 4 said...

Well written, Heather. Keep up the GREAT work!

Ryan Alberts said...

Well said.

Elizabeth said...

I'm gonna be honest. I still haven't watched the video or read your last post. :) Life is busy, so I bookmarked it to come back to over the weekend. That being said, the title of this one caught my eye so I stopped to read it. Your thoughts on short-term missions and all that you've shared on your blog have added to my own in so many ways. Thank you for thinking about these things, learning about them, praying about them, and sharing them. It is so needed. Your #3 caught my eye because we are living outside of the US as missionaries in one of the poorest countries spiritually - yet not materially. Still, we have yet to ask for / welcome a short-term team because we can't find anything for them to "do" here that would be worth the resources spent. You said "the most effective forms of ministry are deeply rooted in relationship and trust" - and I couldn't agree more. It is precisely why we moved here. And if I'm still struggling to learn language and build trusted relationships 3.5 years in - then what can someone who's here for 1 week do? Our answer... prayer. And sometimes that prayer takes place here as people visit us to "see our world", but more often than not it takes place back home. The reality is that not every supporter can visit for a "first hand" account to inform their prayers, but yet they CAN all pray - faithfully. You mentioned that financial support for overseas missionaries is huge and needed and more often than not lacking. So, so, so true. But people who are willing to personally invest in prayer, who are willing to "get to know" the people we're ministering to by involving themselves in our lives (not necessarily through coming here, but through caring and staying in touch and praying)... those people are gold. And sadly, also lacking. You're right. The American church does need to rethink missions. And yes, our eyes were opened to missions through short-term trips. We're living and sharing Jesus in another country now in part because of those experiences. No easy answers, but definitely conversations that need to happen. Thanks for this.

Douglas said...

I hear you. My husband and I have been missionaries in latin America for 3 years. We have seen the good the bad and the ugly....and sadly it's mostly been the bad and the ugly the majority of the time. I think the point that we often forget is the one that needs to emphasize the training and equipping of the national people. We should be investing heavily on discipleship and theological education for the faces that SHOULD be the ones giving the gospel in their own countries! Oh the help we could be if we could forget ourselves and just be content to help....in whatever way was needed. SO much dialog is needed on this topic and I am so grateful for the discussion, in places such as your blog, for this to take place. Thank you for being a platform!!
On a side funny/horrible note of an example that is happening THIS WEEK...a group of 22 people (with a BASE cost of $40,000 not including food and visa expenses) is going to a west african country to do a vbs. This vbs is arguably beneficial (using foreign white faces to give gifts of cheap quality and possible dental harm) to be spoken to through a translator (again....is this really beneficial?) with a theme of...wait for it...bugs. Yep. The african country that TWICE in the last 10 years has had its entire economy destroyed by locusts...is getting a team of people who will come over and use cartoon version of bugs to tell them about the gospel. This is bad on so many levels I don't even know where to begin. VERY well intentioned people....but oh my.

Anonymous said...

I am looking at this issue as open minded as I possibly can. I am not a LTM and I have only done adoption travel while visiting and learning about needs of LTMs during those trips. I get a feeling from the comments that LTMs would be content if Christians would just send checks without any intention on a true partnership which would include STMs to be present. Why don't the LTMs have a better plan for the groups when they arrive instead of giving them these non-helpful tasks and then talking about their non-helpfulness after the fact? Identify the true need instead of asking them to paint a mural? I can't believe that there is nothing to do, nothing to bring (other than flip flops and candy) that would be of partnership with the LTMs. In fact, much of the discussion sounds like "since I am not sure that I am making a difference as a LTM, how dare you think a STM will?" which I don't think is the intention of this post. I love your blog, admire the work you do but I would love to hear how someone who is not called to LTMs can be the "hands and feet" in a developing nation. I would love to continue to learn, since it seems I struggle with the entire topic:)

Anonymous said...

I've been reading over the posts and comments here and honestly have been reluctant to comment. Mostly because I do like your blog and I think you mean well so I don't want you to take this the wrong way. At the same time there are some things you wrote that bothered me a little. Just for some context I have been a longterm volunteer in Latin America as well as a short term volunteer so I don't have a stake in this either way. I personally don't like to be labeled as a STM or LTM because my purpose was never to convert anyone or evangelize. But that is another subject all together.
I think you had some good points, but two things stand out to me.
1) It was disappointing that this post seemed to be another "Finger Pointing" between LTM at STMs. What I mean by that is that it sounds like you blame the STMs for problems that really are the fault of the LTMs. When a LTM tells a STM "Yes, please come down to our mission. You can help use paint the orphanage" whose fault is it when those people come down and paint an orphanage that doesn't need painting? I agree that STM need to be culturally sensitive and receptive to the message from LTM. But a big part of this is the LTMs need to communicate and set up boundaries and expectations. Nothing wrong with saying, "You know, I know you wanted a construction project but it would be better to hire local workers to paint.But instead you could hire the local women's group to cater your lunch and have a cooking class to teach you how to make a local dish. That way you are learning the culture, building relationships and helping the local economy."
2) It was disappointing that your post like so many others on this topic focuses on just STM's instead of the issues. Some of these same issues that occur with STM also can happen with LTM in one form or another. A bad LTM can do a lot more damage then a bad STM. I have some personal experience with a situation right now where a orphanage partnership with a US church is doing great things and a LTM who got involved is doing a lot of damage. I think these are good issues to discuss, but maybe they should be in the context of mission work and cross-culture volunteer work and not in LTM vs STM. No matter if you are a LTM or STM it is important to learn about the local culture, treat them with respect, listen to their needs, work in partnership with them, and empower them to do for themselves.

Aaron Hendrick said...

Anonymous,

Thanks for your comments. Honestly, we agree with you on both of the points you raised.

Much of the blame does rest on LTM and organizations that allow STM teams to come down over and over. Every organization has different reasons why they continue to do so, and those probably need to be questioned as well. For some organizations it's just habit - they've always hosted teams, so why wouldn't they continue to do so. For some it's money - if they don't host teams then their support dries up. For some it's pride - they like showing off their ministry to those who visit. Each of these represent issues that should be questioned by LTMs and organizations that host teams.

But that's an issue for another post.

As for your second point, we also agree that we should have extremely high expectations of LTMs. We should expect them to learn the culture. We should expect them to work in partnership with local ministries. We should expect them to do all they can to empower local people. And I think most people do have those expectations of LTMs. We were simply questioning why no one had those expectations of people who go on short-term trips.

Again, thanks for raising these points and and for being in this conversation with us.

Aaron

Michelle said...

I am feeling weird about commenting...but here it goes.

I have read your blog for over a year now.

I respect you. I appreciate your words. And I LOVE the new BCS families website...use it all the time.

Our life experiences are vastly different, but we share a few shared experiences. 1- I live in College Station. 2- My husband is on staff at an awesome local church. 3- We both love Jesus.
4- I'm sure there are more...but these similarities are not the point.

In two weeks, I am going on my first short term mission trip EVER to Uganda, where one of my best friends is serving as a "forever, or until God moves us" missionary. I am currently reading 'When Helping Hurts.' And I do feel like I am learning valuable information, and that my perspective is shifting.

But honestly, I feel discouraged by your last couple of blog posts. I know you are trying to make a point...and that you have a few disclaimer sentences mixed in. But the intense negativity is....discouraging. This may be too simple, or even ignorant, but a few things about short terms mission trips that I feel like should be highlighted...1- God DOES lead and call some people to do them. 2- Some short term trips lead to people finding Jesus and their eternity is changed, and THAT seems pretty important. 3- Most long-term/forever missionaries started their missions journey by going on short term mission trips.

praying that God uses me, and the rest of our team, despite our well-intentioned-yet-always-flawed selves,
michelle

Anonymous said...

You make many valid points, but there are many more layers to this discussion. I agree that STM can be less than helpful - no doubt about it. I was a LTM and I saw it happen - no ifs, ands, or buts, this is entirely true.

On the other hand, I disagree when you imply that STM are up and donations to missions are down - as if these are necessarily related. I have yet to meet a person who has been involved in STM that didn't substantially increase their giving to missions. Prior to being a LTM I had never specifically given any real sum of money to missions, but after a few STM I started faithfully giving to missions. I know many, many people with the same story. Yes, spending $2000 to fly to Equador and paint a few buildings might not accomplish as much as sending that $2000 down to a LTM or local relief group on a one-time basis, but if that trip changes a person to increase their giving to missions on the order of $10-20,000 over their lifetime, the net impact is much greater.

I know more than one person who went on a few STM trips and have become involved enough that they have raised tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of supplies that have all made it to the LTMs in areas with great needs. This would not have happened without those STM trips and those people getting an eyeful of what is really happening on the ground. Just a second perspective.

Hendrick Family said...

Michelle,

I'm sorry you feel like we're being negative. It's really hard to know exactly how to bring up much needed points without sounding negative. I wish I knew how to do this better.

There are some flaws that need to be pointed out in the current ways we're doing short term missions, and there's a lot being written about that at the moment.

I think one step in the process of reexamining these issues is being as honest as we all can about the problems so that we can creatively and prayerfully begin to come up with some answers.

This series is still in the "what are the issues" stages. We hope you'll hang in there with us while we continue to explore the issues and then hopefully share some healthier ways to partner with missions. We have some ideas, but most importantly a lot of smarter people than us have ideas we hope to share.

I think it is beautiful that you're about to see your best friend and that you have an intimate "in" where you're going. You will be such an encouragement to her. It makes me smile thinking about you being there with her - those moments and time spent with dear friends when you're overseas are priceless treasure.

I want to say again - we don't think all short term mission trips are unhealthy. We're simply hoping to give people who will listen some tangible things to think through as they plan their trips.

Thanks for writing - and thanks for supporting BCS Families. We hope it's serving your family well.

Thanks!

Heather Hendrick

John and Perla said...

I understand your stance on STMs. I agree in a large part with you about the subject. No one who has never been on the mission field longer than say, six months, will ever understand. Ever.

It is a moot point to even have the conversation. There is no mind we can change with words. It was the experience that changed "us" and it will be experience that changes "them".

The fact is that we know things that others will never, ever know or have the ability to comprehend.

That being said, ministry takes money. A major reason we had to come home was because of lack of support. However, recently a friend went on a one week trip to Haiti with their church. The experience was so life-changing for THEM, that they arranged for their church to buy the ministry in Haiti new vehicle - a much needed vehicle.

That kind of impact is the right kind in my eyes. Some go. Some sow. And it takes both of them to be successful in the field.

Lovin' the Hendricks!

Jewel said...

Heather,

I want to thank you for bringing this up. I know it isn't easy to say things that need to be said sometimes. I thought about this all day yesterday. Rather than share my opinion I just wanted to say thanks for always giving me food for thought.

Kirk said...

I agree with all you've posted regarding evaluating the general lack of effectiveness of STM trips.

On the topic of why there are currently less long-term missionaries, may I suggest this trend: locals make better missionaries to their own people than foreigners.

I think we need to rethink long-term missions also. Instead of going to a mission field with the intent to stay there, why not go and train/teach the locals to reach their own people? They know the culture, the language, and it is far less costly for them to be on the field as it is often their own backyard.

If I go to a mission field with the intent to teach, train, and then LEAVE within two to five years, I then empower the people to invest themselves in missions. And the money it took to keep me on the field could then go to support many more locals in full-time ministry.

Some missions organizations are already doing this.

I do think it's time for the North American church to stop saying, "But we've always done it this way!" and reevaluate.

Hendrick Family said...

Kirk -

BINGO! You nailed it. Sustainable ministry that empowers the local population. We'll personally put our money on that plan any day of the week.

Thankfully, like you mentioned - there ARE organizations who are doing this.

Obviously, this isn't the only healthy plan - but it's a start - and the companies/non-profits/missions that are investing in equipping, training, and empowering the locals are doing beautiful work!

Anonymous said...

Thank you. When Helping Hurts has been on my list of books to read for months. Now Toxic Charity is also on my radar. My family and I are missionaries in the Middle East. Been here 7 years. Still don't really have anything figured out. Thank you for being bold enough to bring up this conversation, and for doing so with such grace and humility. Blessings on you guys!

Anonymous said...

Dear Hendrick Family,

Wow! I have been following your blog for over a year now and I have to say these are my favorite types of posts that your right....ones that really make you think. I understand why these conversations make people uncomfortable, but that is the exact reason why we need to have them. Thank you for facilitating that. As I was reading your last two posts, I could not help but think STMs kind of remind me of the way we, as middle class citizens, treat others, specifically those living in poverty here in the United States. We assume because we have money and all of our material needs met, we can teach others how to live better. Yet, if someone tries to point out areas we were could do better in our life, such as parenting or spending our money, we are immediately offended. Your posts encourage me to think these kinds of issues through. Thank you!

Painted By Number Wall Murals said...

Thank you for discussing your feelings ! So often we have been so highlighted by ourselves

Sarah Kuhner said...

Thanks for sharing your heart. Your posts always make me think about missions and why we do what we do. I love supporting many missionarys. One of the things that challenged me the most was a missonary from Mission India that came to our church. He recommended a book (can't recall the title) that challenged my whole way of thinking about missions. They talked about supporting missions that teaches the locals how to pastor their own churches in their own community. The money spent on one family from America going to another land to serve could support many, many churches and train up the locals that already knew the language and the customs. I now support them and know that the little I can give can do so much good.