Examining Short Term Missions – Part 1

Five years ago, I went to Poland. I raised nearly $3,000 from various friends, family and churches then boarded a plane with a group of students from my school. We spent 12 days out of the states and taught English while working towards some semblance of evangelism. A few Poles got saved and I figured that this introduction into global missions went about as good as they come.

Me and my Polish English Class. Zbyszek, Halina, Zgregorz and the translator Dan (who could have taught the class himself).

In the midst of what I considered to be a unique-to-college experience, I didn’t realize that I was a part of something much bigger happening in the American church at large. A multi-billion dollar venture into a different take at global outreach, something on the short-term scale.

In my own thoughts and writing on short-term missions, I have felt as though, I must temper what I say, because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Perhaps, you or someone close to you has been in short term missions and really enjoyed it or really felt God in that time. I praise God for that and let me start by saying that I myself have been on multiple short term missions which have played a part in my walk with God to one degree or another. My purpose isn’t to tear down what God’s done in your life, nor belittle it, but rather to add to a dialogue that gets us to more effective, Kingdom-based ministry. Above all, I know that’s what we as followers of Christ want.

In a post that seems to have been in the making for a while, I decided to break it up into three parts. In this blog and tomorrow‘s blog, I’ll offer some critiques of the current way of things. The purpose of this is not cynicism (so forgive me if it comes off as such), but rather to point out some things that can be detrimental to one’s spiritual health, for ourselves or, worse yet, for those that we went to serve. It may seem a little rough at times, but I ask you to stick with me, because I believe God has something for us. The third blog (that I’ll post on Monday) will be some ideas that I think could get us going in the right direction. There are people with more experience and more insight on this and I’ll suggest some later on, but this is my two cents. I write out of things I’ve read, but more out of my experience doing overseas missions, long-term and short-term.

Throughout these posts, I ask for your engagement. Disagree, agree, share your experiences in missions. Tell me what you think.

In Jesus’ teaching and especially in His final address to His disciples, The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19), He makes it abundantly clear that discipleship is THE way to change the world. It isn’t a facet of our spirituality, but rather the mode in which we actually become like Christ and love God. That is our main purpose in life. I’m sure that you would agree from your experience that discipleship is rooted in relationship and relationship happens over time.

Discipleship is about creating a lasting change and establishing an ongoing growth in the Spirit. The average short term trip focuses on a two week trip (if that). There might be a series of five or six pre-trip meetings and perhaps a reunion/debrief afterwards. The whole experience for the short-term missionaries may only be a small portion of their lives over a six month period of time. How much less would it impact those nationals that the Americans go to serve in that brief two week stint!

We like to think that we’ll stay in touch online or we’ll come back again next summer, but those rarely happen. Facebook messages and emails are quickly strained when wanting to talk with someone who speaks another language, has poor English and limited computer access (and don’t even get me started on substitute technological spirituality, because I don’t believe in it. Community is best served face to face.) Then, when the next summer rolls around we find that we want to go to another country instead or rather not go anywhere at all. If one does go back, he’ll probably find himself doing the same things he did the previous summer. Where’s the progress in that?

Furthermore, there is often a missing element of sacrifice on behalf of the short-termer in most cases. I am primarily referring to financial sacrifice. Let’s paint a typical picture of a short-term team. You plan six months in advance and begin fundraising. Most of your money comes through donations from friends, family and churches. So you get the time off work ahead of time, then travel overseas on someone else’s dime with a group of friends that you’ve really grown to like. Who wouldn’t want to do that? Is that a sacrifice of two weeks? I would say that is a pretty enjoyable two weeks. On a trip that would potentially cost two or three thousand, the individual pays much less, maybe nothing. Again, I’m speaking generally, there are of course instances that do require sacrifice and I don’t want to discredit that. Nonetheless, this must be a concern to be raised.

The last thing on discipleship is something that I’ll talk about more later in this series. We are often apt to send just about anyone. I was a part of a trip in 2006 through a big Orange County church where they sent several dozen high school students down to Mexico to build houses. I served as an adult leader though I myself didn’t have a real connection to the church. Many of the students that went weren’t a part of the youth group and clearly weren’t even believers. During the evenings, we would have worship and the majority of the students talked throughout the service acting as though they were at a bad concert.

You may be thinking to yourself, by the church offering school mandated community service hours to these students, that they make those unbelieving students part of the church’s mission field. To which I would say that that is a risky move considering that from that point on they are representatives of the church and hence Christianity to the Mexican community that we were serving. Not to mention, if the target of outreach is the neighbor down the street (which is so important), then evangelism is best offered in a cultural context that is actually relevant to them, their own.

I was emailing back and forth with Billy some months ago as we were in Tanzania. Billy is a staff member at one of our supporting churches and when Melissa and I gave him our thoughts on missions as they form their missions council, he articulated a very succinct analysis of the very thing that I’m talking about. “If the individuals who want to go on the trip don’t qualify for leadership in our church, then we simply won’t be interested in sending them. However if they are radicals disciples of Jesus with fruit on the tree here in Long Beach then it might be worth it to send them.” Agreed.

The reason that we do missions is to inspire worship of Jesus in other people/cultures that don’t yet know about Him. I would like to propose that if there are methods of ours that are missing the target we ought to examine those and make adjustments or drop them altogether. Here are some of the pitfalls that I see that lower our effectiveness…

Cultural Insensitivity
There is a somewhat inevitable cultural insensitivity that happens in overseas missions. This happens at some level for short term teams as well as long-term missionaries. It’s a tough thing to get around and the only remedy is a gradual increase of cultural understanding which of course takes time to learn. The average two week team doesn’t have the time to learn the culture, appreciate it and act accordingly. For those short termers that make an attempt to learn some things they often learn second-hand from a long-term missionary that may or may not be off themselves.

When I was preparing to go to Tanzania for the first time in 2008 as a two week short-termer, we asked a missionary if tattoos were considered offensive, he said that they weren’t and we had nothing to worry about. I am the bearer of a tattoo on my right shoulder, a scripture from Isaiah 6:8. Well, after sometime talking to my good friend Eli, a Tanzanian pastor and co-laborer at TOA, I’ve learned that tattoos are indeed frowned upon. Having a tattoo is correlated with being a bad person, possibly involved in witchcraft. Tattoos are not Christian and Christian Tanzanians do not have them. Now, I won’t open the conversation of whether or not its on me to “open their minds.” That’s not my job. Before we ever get there, being culturally sensitive, not giving a reason for offense, and fostering a positive relationship with Tanzanian Christians (my partners) comes first. Therefore, my kids have never seen me in a tank top (nor do I were my earrings at TOA).

National Church Partnerships and Follow-Up
That last part that I mentioned about relationship with the national church is so important and often poorly done. Like it or not, white, western powers imperialized the third world – those countries that are often the focus of our missions. Tragically, a common attitude in missions is that we, as westerners, are still in charge. We come in with the best answers, top of the line resources and are placed on a pedestal, whether we asked for it or not. This then strains the relationship with local pastors and church leaders who are indeed far more knowledgeable and more effective in their own cultures. This isn’t to say that western missionaries don’t have valuable insight that they ought to speak into the cultures, that’s so important. But unfortunately, the nationals are often lost in the aggressive western style of leadership and they miss out on what God was wanting to do in that group. And when they miss, we all miss.

Another facet of poor relationship with the national leaders is that it makes follow-up all but impossible. Yes, that’s right, I said follow-up. Follow-up is so important in any ministry, not the least of which is global outreach. I’ll tell you that it is incredibly easy to get a lot of poor people to come forward to an altar call, especially one given by an American team. They do it often (I have even come up to three different altar calls myself, when I was younger. Getting “born again“ blew Nicodemus away, he‘d be totally thrown for a loop to find that I‘ve done it thrice). But what comes after that? Remember discipleship is the model, not conversion. Conversion is only a point in our sanctification, not the end all. It’s an amazing point to be sure, but its only the beginning of so much more.

How long does it take to become fully discipled by the Holy Spirit? An entire lifetime just to get to the next stage of our relationship with Him. How long does a short term team stay? Two or three weeks, maybe. The point is without follow-up, we aren’t making disciples. A good start is handing off follow-up to national churches, but are they fit to handle the hundreds of people that came to your crusade? Probably not. So what do you do then? Help them build a church or greater ministry? How is that funded? How do you partner with them in the ministry to see the flock is truly fed? Well, those questions are best answered in long-term partnerships at which point we realize that we’ve had to go entirely outside the short-term model.

Relief, Rehabilitation, Development
If you spend much time at all reading about outreach efforts in the majority world, you will quickly come upon the terms relief, rehabilitation and development. Relief is coming to the emergency aid of people. You can think of natural disasters or the aftermath of a terrible dictator. Rehabilitation comes right after relief and has to do with partnering with the disaster victims to build their society back. Then comes development which is all about getting sustainable societal and individual growth over time. These terms are typically taken in the physical sense of how to generate sustainable living for those that we minister to. That is a huge part of it, but I think that it applies equally to the spirituality of those to whom we are ministering.

The vast majority of the majority world is in need of development. The vast majority of American church outreaches see their poverty and default to relief in countries that need physical and spiritual development.

If someone is in need of development, but receives relief, what does that create? Dependency. They don’t feel inclined to get up and work on their house, because they can wait for the next team of Americans to do it. They don’t need to pursue God or appreciate their national spiritual leaders, because they prefer when the American crusade comes through. Who can blame them? Hear this, its not about them being lazy. This is a learned activity. It is about us being lazy, because we haven’t put forth the time, sweat and tears to actually help them.

A little heavy for day one. I’ve got a couple more things to talk about in regards to pitfalls with our current system. That’ll come tomorrow so check back on the blog then. Once we all suffer through that, we’ll turn the corner on Monday and look at some positive changes that are attainable and just steps away from where we are currently. Thanks for following along and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section.

Here’s to building better missions and partnering for God’s Kingdom…

If you want to keep reading, here’s Part 2

Author: Brandon Stiver

I am a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, living and working in Moshi, Tanzania. My wife is named Melissa and we have three children: Moses, Promise and Shepherd. We are directors over an orphan care ministry called Kingdom Families; advocating for the needs of orphans and vulnerable children and assisting families to welcome them into their homes as sons and daughters.

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