I am writing this while “on mission with Jesus in Ecuador,”* serving together with seventeen genuinely kind and faithful people from two churches in Georgia and the Wesleyan seminary of Venezuela. We are being hosted by Sharon and Graham Nichols, who serve Christ through The Mission Society.
Back in the day, church folk took suitcases of shoes, toys or food when we traveled to remote places. We planned big projects for communities that didn’t ask for them. We came home and showed pictures of children we held and houses we built. We felt great about ourselves. Well intentioned as we were, we were clueless about the long-term damage of this approach to short-term missions.
Americans have learned a lot in the last thirty years about what it means to be on mission with Jesus, how short-term experiences can help and hinder, and what is actually useful for building the Kingdom of God on earth. Churches genuinely driven to be both faithful and effective are changing the ways they do short-term international and even long-term local missions.
For those having that conversation, here are four things I believe any short-term mission team should consider:
1. Get a Kingdom perspective on poverty. One of the hardest things to learn for an American traveling in a third-world country (or among those who live in poverty in our own country) is that our stuff will not get anyone into the Kingdom. To the contrary, often the giving away of stuff or money fundamentally disrespects the person on the receiving end and changes the nature of a relationship. In the end, it may well stifle the message of the gospel.
To gain a more mature posture toward poverty, I highly recommend reading at least one of these books: When Helping Hurts, or Toxic Charity. The message of both books is the same: By giving to appease our own consciences we completely miss the chance to give something of infinitely more worth: genuine relationship, the kind that isn’t built overnight.
2. Get the posture of a learner. The most valuable gift of a mission experience is exposure to God’s heart. If we allow ourselves to travel under the illusion that we “know” and that in any equation we are the teachers (or saviors, or givers, or …) then we’ll completely miss God’s heart. What most respects the country to which we travel and the hosts who have us is to learn how God is working among them.
To get a better sense of what it means to “go as a learner,” I recommend these two books: Thriving in Cross-Cultural Missions, by Carissa Alma, and Journey to A Better Way, by John Bailey. The last chapter of “Thriving” is an excellent assessment of the current short-term missions culture written from the perspective of one who has been on the receiving end of teams for nearly two decades.
3. Think of it as discipleship. Invest time in the team before going, while you’re there and after you return. Require every team member to write a testimony in 500 words. Study the great commission together. The team that invests time in meeting, praying, sharing testimonies and preparing to go as learners will receive so much more than the team that simply gathers supplies and heads off to complete a task. And they’ll do less damage.
4. Make sure it translates into action at home. The point of a mission experience is to gain God’s heart for the world and get our hearts broken for the things that break his heart. That shouldn’t leave us pining for the next “trip fix” when we return home (side note: to use mission trips to get one’s own emotional needs met is an abuse of the system. Don’t let yourself be guilty). A successful trip should create more effective disciples, more active leaders, more passionate servants … either in the field or in the community in which they live and worship.
What makes an effective short-term missionary? It is someone who goes as a learner to discover God’s heart for the whole world and to encourage those who serve full-time in the field. It is one who is challenged to go deeper in devotion to God and to look for where she can more intentionally serve upon return. It is one who comes home and starts praying with a stronger understanding and passion for the Harvest.
*This is how our hosts, Sharon and Graham Nichols, prefer to describe short-term experiences. It emphasizes the leadership of Jesus and our partnership in the process. Short-term missions isn’t about what we do, but who we are. And even more importantly, who God is.