“The AIDS epidemic in Africa is huge, but it’s led to an even worse epidemic and that’s children growing up without fathers.”
The words left his mouth and immediately found their home in my heart. With that single sentence a purpose for my life was birthed and a series of profound events in my life were initiated.
Can you imagine a world without AIDS? Can you imagine all the families and communities that have been devastated by this terrible disease becoming fully restored? Can you imagine every person ever infected with HIV being completely healed? I have loved ones that are HIV+ and know people that have passed away from AIDS-related issues. I can tell you the world would be a far better place without HIV/AIDS, immeasurably so.
Yet, if that opening quote is true, there is actually something worse than even a ravaging disease like AIDS. There’s a devastation more horrendous. There’s something that doesn’t just kill the body, but something that kills the soul.
Perhaps it wouldn’t take much imagination, but consider a child that grows up fatherless. A father speaks identity over his children. A fatherless child grows up not knowing who he is or what purpose he is to serve on earth. A father protects his children. A fatherless child is susceptible to all types of danger and threats. She is insecure, because there is no father there to secure her. A father delights in and takes pride in his children. A fatherless child is pining for attention and to know their value and to know that they are desirable. A father guides, corrects and lays down his life for his children. Without a father, children are inherently meandering around lost; sheep without a shepherd.
Part of our human condition is to get so wrapped up in our own lives that we stop recognizing the needs of others around us. Days, weeks and years go by and we’re consumed with the everyday demands of life; paying the bills, getting the kids to school and having dinner on the table by 5:30. Any moment of pause gets focused on our own needs or those of our closest family. Stopping the grind and considering someone else’s needs or lending a hand is often out of sight, out of mind and hence left undone.
It’s no wonder that over and over in scripture God had to break through and tell his people directly that caring for the fatherless (and widows) was something that they are mandated to do.
“Take up the cause of the fatherless” (Isaiah 1:17)
“Acceptable religion is to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27 paraphrase)
“Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan” (Exodus 22:22)
“Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless” (Psalm 82:3)
“The aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied” (Deuteronomy 14:29)
What do these scriptures really mean to you though? If you ever have an “orphan care guy” roll through your church, they always make sure everyone knows the biblical basis for orphan care. My fear is that they just get glossed over though. We understand that the cause of the orphan is important to God, but typically have no tangible work among them. Nor do we desire to begin one, or adopt a child in need. But if we are merely hearers of the word and do nothing with it, what do we profit?
What if the orphan care guy instead walks in with an actual orphan? What if in a Sunday service, he’s able to show the child’s heart to the congregation? He shows the insecurity, the fear, the directionless. He shows that the child, just wants to be wanted. He shows that the child is needing a name, needing an identity. Would our hearts then be moved?
The thing about epidemics is that they spread organically. Someone coughs, spits or bleeds and those around them are now at risk. One person’s sickness leads to another person’s sickness. That’s how it works among the fatherless as well.
Fatherlessness begets fatherlessness. It spreads and can devastate entire populations. tweet this
That’s what’s happened in Africa and in complete honesty has happened through the entire world.
What is it that ends an epidemic? Intent. Caring people draw a line and say it ends here and from that point, they push back the tide. Such intent is indeed costly. It may cost you everything you have. You might have to throw out all the plans that you had for your life. You might have to empty your bank account. You might have to take that perfect little family picture that you had and go to great lengths just to wreck it.
But in so doing, we stamp out this devastating epidemic that has claimed far too many lives already.
Can you imagine a world without fatherlessness? Can you imagine every child in the world with a last name that means something to them? Can you imagine every boy and girl being secured within the love of a father that went to great lengths to claim them as his own? Can you imagine children off the streets, out of orphanages and into homes where the head of the family loves, guides, corrects and trains the children up in the way that they should go? Can you imagine a world without fatherlessness?
*The opening quote was from the preacher Mike Pilavachi in a sermon he gave at my church on Father’s Day 2007. This was the day that I first felt called to work among orphans in Africa.
He was the kind of guy that asked pointed questions. He already ‘knew’ the answer before he asked you your opinion. We were having dinner with him and his wife a few years ago and knowing that we worked at an orphanage, I imagine he was thinking we were quite enamored with that form of orphan care. Global-Effect had just started a program called Kimbilio Families which was seeking to put orphaned kids into families and he pointedly asked me what I thought. I told him, “I think it’s great, I think if you get it to work, it’s the best situation.” He was taken aback and disarmed.
For me, this has been a process and I think that some of the people that know the downsides to the orphanages, are the ones that have worked at the orphanages. We had our former director over for coffee a few months ago and when we told her that we had taken over Kimbilio Families (and since renamed it Kingdom Families), she said “I’ll be praying for you, that’s the best situation if you can find good parents.” Another American friend that runs a local orphanage was talking to me about how one of their younger boys really would be better suited in a home with a Tanzanian couple that are mutual friends of ours. One of the pastors that we partner with currently was the assistant director at the orphanage with me, and he, as a Tanzanian, has come to believe in this model as well.
Though the families model isn’t really utilized on a large scale in Kilimanjaro, those that are involved in orphanages are the ones that know more than most that it is the best situation for an orphan.
The recurring question in all of this isn’t should Tanzanian orphans be raised in Tanzanian families. The question is, how do you implement it and find parents that will do it for love and not for the support money?
Admittedly implementing such a model comes with it’s own set of challenges. We, in fact, are currently working through many of those ourselves. While our program has been active for a few years, it’s still entirely in it’s infancy. Now that we’ve stepped into the director role, we’re starting to wrestle with things that have yet to be resolved. So as we go through these items and compare the families model to the orphanage system, I confess that I don’t have all the answers and am writing this as a way to add to the larger conversation within Christian orphan care.
One of the difficulties that Melissa and I are coming to grips with is the lessened amount of control that we have over our ministry. For an American missionary, an orphanage is the supreme amount of control. There are of course elements such as government regulations that are out of one’s control. But nonetheless, you have say over where money is spent, who is employed at the orphanage, how the kids eat, sleep, study and all those things. The American director gets the final say on everything. Whereas with our ministry, we only get final say on some large picture things and the normal day to day, week to week decisions fall to the Tanzanian parent that we’ve entrusted the kids to. This is a burden for us to bear, because we like having control. We love having control.
But this is a necessary part to the process. We do this by faith and trust. We believe that the outcome for the child is better. I am not adopting these children. They are born in Tanzania, they live their entire lives in Tanzania, they will die in Tanzania. They ought to learn life directly from a Tanzanian in a truly Tanzanian environment. It’s our responsibility to choose parents that have a heart for orphan care, a father’s heart, a mother’s heart and that they’ll do this for love and for the sake of the gospel. My title says director, but I’m more of a facilitator. My team and I facilitate these relationships so that the parents become the heroes to these children.
Because there is a lessened amount of control by facilitating these families, we really rely on our national partners to help with oversight. For Kingdom Families, all families come through churches/pastors that have chosen to partner with us. Therefore we have national leaders set up to help us with oversight. These men and their wives are in the lives of these families on a normal basis and can communicate with us how they’re doing and what they might be in need of. We of course have relationship with them ourselves and do visits to the homes and see how things are going. Even with that though we rely on our Tanzanian liaison and assistant, Meshak. These partnerships are key. Remember that we want these kids to have a quintessential Tanzanian upbringing. It’s normal for your pastor to visit or your “honorary uncle” Meshak, but it’s not typical to have a couple white people swing in all the time and take pictures of your kids (which we nonetheless have to do periodically).
This is all about empowerment. To the best of our ability, we want the nationals within our ministries to become empowered, not dependent. This is their calling, not their vocation. We do offer financial aid to our families. We will not do this with each and every family going forward but for those we have now, they receive it. It’s a road that we are walking and trying to find the balance. Our hope and plan is to increase the income of the families as much as possible and enter into agreements where they understand within 3-5 years, the support will either be gone as they’ve become entirely self-dependent, or be diminished as they’ve become more self-dependent. I say that because that’s our plan, not because we’ve yet to achieve this. We have to have a plan for making these families self-sustained because that will be the most secure thing for the children.
American support is important with starting out these families and it’s a role that our overseas partners can play. While our hope is to over time transition families out of support, even for the time that they do receive support, it’s a fraction of what it costs to run an orphanage. American run orphanages require a lot of money just for normal expenditures, several thousand a month for a medium sized orphanage. They need that money to run a good operation. If an orphanage doesn’t have that kind of money, then the children and the facility languish. By partnering with families, we have a set amount that is agreed upon (two sponsors of $50 per kid per month) which provides the family with money for food and normal day to day and we have the money to cover the school fees which can vary depending on what level and what school the child attends. Imagine 20 kids in such a program. $2,000 divided between 40 donors gets 20 kids all that they need and most importantly they’re in a loving Christian home. All parties would be happy as the family has the means to love and care for the orphans, the child knows what it means to be a son or daughter and the ministry is consistently in the black.
The thing in all of this is that we don’t want the kid to know that they’ve been orphaned. I’m not saying that the kids will forget their past, but rather when they play with the kids next door they aren’t going to feel, act or be seen any different at all. Most importantly, they’ll have parents that love them and teach them about God. As a Christian, this is very important to me.
Some of my non-Christian friends reading this will not agree and I totally understand your disagreement. I’m not asking you to agree with me, but I want to be clear in communicating that I love Jesus and I want the children that we care for to know who He is, what He’s done for them and what His plans are for them. That’s why we partner specifically with churches.
Last week, I took a tour of a 75-kid orphanage here in Moshi. They strive for excellence in what they do and I appreciate the good they’re doing in the area. It was nice talking with their communications director as she showed us around. The property was astounding. Huge dormitories, mess hall, playground and field, classrooms and other facilities that showed they had all their bases covered. They have kids that hear about their orphanage and hitch rides clear across the country to come knock on their gates. Astounding. This is the orphanage of orphanages.
While I oohed and awed over their facility, I asked lots of questions, hopefully not the pointed questions of my friend, but I was certainly curious. Because I’d rather see kids in homes as opposed to an orphanage, there were several things that I didn’t see eye-to-eye with them on, but the thing that bummed me out most was the children’s spiritual lives. The original founder received support from her church and others so that they can start this orphanage, but now they don’t help the kids know Christ. If a kid wants to go to church, they can. If they want to go to Mosque or go nowhere at all, they can. It bummed me out as I would see that as an opportunity for gospel exposure. You can’t force the gospel, when you do , it doesn’t work. Every human being has the choice of what they believe, but as an evangelical Christian, which I am in the basic meaning of the term, my hope is that children would know the Lord and hence have to be told about Him. I wonder if this is what the original founder had in mind.
Discipleship makes the wheels go round in Christianity and orphan care is a critical form of discipleship. This is how my family makes disciples of the nations. With any form of discipleships and ministry, we have to have times where we take a good long look at what we’re doing. Is it effective? Is it God’s ideal? Is it biblical? I hope that this blog series has challenged some of your thoughts on orphan care and spurred you on to take a step forward as you strive to care for the least of these.
I have been blessed to serve orphans in Tanzania, both in the orphanage and now within Kingdom Families. My heart in all of this is that kids would know love. They’d know the love of a family and the love of God. Join what God’s doing in orphan care, wherever you are and in whatever ways the Lord calls you.
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If this conversation has intrigued you, I encourage you to keep learning and most importantly, start acting. If you live on the central coast, I highly recommend the Welcoming Children Home Conference on November 8. I’ll be teaching a workshop on this exact topic and the keynote speaker for the day is Johnny Carr who wrote Orphan Justice which I also highly recommend. Comments, shares, likes and emails are always welcome. Blessings.
I was reading in the book of Ezra the other day and though I’ve read the book several times, I came across a story in chapter 3 that really struck me like never before. The Persian king Cyrus had commissioned a large group of Israelites to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians a few generations prior. As the captives that returned to Israel established the foundation of the new temple, a time of worship broke out in the community.
“And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD: ‘For He is good, For His mercy endures forever toward Israel.’ Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout and the sound was heard afar off.”
I had to get out my commentary to confirm why I thought the old men were weeping over the foundation. Mr. Halley agreed, the old men in remembering God’s design for Solomon’s temple, wept that the temple they were now building would not match the grandeur of God’s design for the house of worship. Many people shouted for joy as formal worship of the LORD was being restored and there was all kinds of hoopla, yet still there were those that remembered the superiority of God’s design and in some ways were disappointed that the community was no longer at that level.
As I’ve journeyed with caring for orphans in Tanzania, I feel as though I’ve aged. It’s been five years now since I accepted the job at Treasures of Africa. When I first started I exuberantly told everyone, “this is my dream job.” I was one of those worshipers that when the foundation was laid, I rejoiced and shouted and worshiped. I was in love with working there and knew that it was where God had called me. It absolutely was where God had called me for the three years I was committed there. I grew in faith and I grew in love. I’m so grateful for the leaders that gave me such an opportunity. I was given an insightful look into these kids’ lives, their backgrounds and their specific needs as they came out of traumatic experiences. By welcoming them to the children’s home they were shown love, they were provided for and were able to rest and recover from the blows that orphan life had left them.
Beyond learning about the needs of the kids, I also had an insiders view of how the best orphanage in Moshi was run. I say it’s the best not only because the physical needs of the children are met and they have a clean, safe environment in which to grow up, but because the leaders of the orphanage were very godly people. The kids heard and received the gospel, which to me is most important.
From that insiders view, I have also learned the downsides to the orphanage system. It would be easy for me to look at government orphanages in Eastern Europe or the poorly funded, poorly supervised orphanages here in East Africa, but I’ve actually seen the downsides to the very best orphanages around. I’ve aged. I’ve become one of those old men that weeps as the foundation is laid and remember that God’s design was and is far superior.
As I’ve been working through all these things in my head over the last year since we’ve returned, I find myself needing to temper what I say. I personally invested so much in the orphanage system and even more so because I have close friends that are currently ministering in orphanages and most importantly I have a group of twenty-six kids that I love a whole lot that live at a children’s home. The difficulty in navigating what I write and hence other people read is that in critiquing the orphanage system of orphan care, I am critiquing the most common form of orphan care in the world. In many contexts, it’s the only form of care for these kids. Because of all this, it tends to be the type of ministry that you, me and everyone else has supported if you’ve been involved in the biblical mandate to care for orphaned children.
There are two designs here that I’m looking at and I in no way want to come across as heavy-handed, pugnacious or cold. I feel the exact opposite towards the orphanage system. I think that it can have it’s role in caring for orphans, but we often see it as the end all in millions of instances and I don’t think that’s good. So the two designs, I humbly submit, is God’s design (Solomon’s temple) and man’s design (the temple in Ezra 3).
So, in a nutshell, what are those two designs? As Johnny Carr says “man made orphanages for children, but God made the family for children.” Now that is a pretty strong opinion, I confess. What I’d like to do today is just look at a few themes that we see in the Bible concerning this conversation.
The first thing that we must understand is the fact that the Bible, both testaments, speak a lot to caring for orphans. In the giving of the Law to God’s people in the Old Testament, caring for orphans was something that was expected of each and every individual. In Deuteronomy, God hammers a group of people into the minds of the Israelite community: the widow, the stranger and the fatherless. It was God’s chosen people that were expected to care for the needs of these people. If you read chapter 24 in particular, you’ll see God commanding Israel to preserve justice for the fatherless and also provide them with food from the people’s own crops. It was a commandment, not an option.
God demanded that of His people, because they are to be His reflection and hence maintain His own character. They were to administer justice for the fatherless, because He administers justice for the fatherless (Deut. 10:18). They were to help the orphan, because He is the helper of the orphan (Psalm 10:14). And in keeping in step with who He is, God’s people are to father the fatherless, because that’s who He is (Psalm 68:5).
In the New Testament, we see a core spiritual truth about who we are in Christ applied in these same terms. Jesus teaches us to pray to God as ‘our Father’ and in Romans 8, Paul teaches us that we have been adopted as children of God. If we were adopted by God, that means that there was a point when we ourselves were orphans too. God was gracious and brought us into His family.
In Christian practice, just as I spoke to a moment ago, what we see God do, we ought to do ourselves. We love because He first loved us. We are commanded to be holy just as the Lord is holy. We give, because He gave it all for us. So if God in his generosity, compassion and righteousness, adopted us orphans into His family, what does that mean for us when we consider these kids that also need a family?
In the beginning, God established the family. He put Adam and Eve in the garden and told them to be fruitful and multiply (read, have lots of kids). This was God’s first design, He had a family in mind as the ones that would take care of the earth and expand the garden.
This is just a really quick overview of what the Bible says in regards to orphan care and God’s design for adoption and family. Nonetheless, we can gather a few things from just understanding this text. If you were to read the Bible, then be presented with the plight of millions of orphaned children, would you gather that all you need to do is establish an orphanage? The Jews of the Old Testament didn’t do that and it wasn’t until the legalization of Christianity a few centuries after Christ, that Christians started to do it.
I propose that there is a better way. God’s original design was for children to be in families. By the power of the Holy Spirit we can get back to that design and see orphans receive what they need most of all, the love of a godly father and mother.
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Click here to read Part 2 where we’ll talk about some of the practicalities and difficulties that are presented through both the orphanage system and the families model. If you found this post interesting and something to be considered, then I’d appreciate you sharing it. These are conversations within the church that need to take place and every single one of us has a role to play. Not all are called to adopt, but all are called to do something.
I suppose a good life ought to give you moments when you say, “am I really doing this right now?” I had one such moment earlier today.
I wore slacks today. I rarely wear slacks and when I do, it’s on Sunday, not Thursday. But today I did. I also wore the only pair of dress shoes that I own, which I bought at JCPenney for my junior year homecoming. So that’s 12 years ago. If those hush puppies were actual puppies in 2002, they’d be dead now, as my shoes ought to be. Such a rarity this outfit, Melissa was inclined to snap a picture.
What a dweeb, and why am I folding my hands like that?
I don’t normally dress this way, but Meshak and I had a meeting with a regional officer at social welfare to talk about our ministry’s introduction letter to the department. I was dressed to impress, quite literally.
As is the custom, we arrived later than planned and still waited a while outside the office on a rickety wood bench. As we sat, we talked about Meshak’s church and their involvement with Kingdom Families. We talked about American sponsorships, vocational training, parental training and all this other stuff regarding our ministry. We talked. There are a lot of times where we talk about stuff that we haven’t yet done and don’t necessarily have experience in. Talking is pretty easy.
At last, Mama Mboya, the official we were meeting with, calls us in. We sat down and exchanged the normal greetings. She looks at me and introduces herself and I remind her that we’ve met before as I previously worked at Treasures of Africa. She smiles and says (in Swahili of course) “oh yes, I remember you. Your beard is bigger now.” My trademark. I am “mzungu na ndevu” that is “the white guy with the beard” that’s my remembrance.
As we begin conversing we share with her about Kingdom Families and what we’re doing. Now, we do already have five kids in our program, but in most respects the project is still in it’s infancy. Hence why we’re introducing ourselves to the regional office in the first place. She shares with us her thoughts, a concern or two and gives us several items that we need to include in our introduction letter for opening a file at social welfare. After fifteen minutes or so of talking, Meshak and I tell her goodbye and walk out to the parking lot. There, we converse some more about the letter that I’ll be writing this weekend and then part ways.
When God first called me to Tanzania, I knew that at some point my wife and I’d be running an orphan care ministry and now that it’s happening, I’m like “what’s happening?” I just told an official in welfare that we’re going to be responsible for children that are not our own. We’re going to try and match them up with families that we believe will love them and care for them. We’re going to find sponsors for all these kids, provide oversight to make sure they’re taken care of, train the parents that bring them in. And we’re doing all of this by faith. We have to believe that God is helping us, we have to believe that we’ll get kids that need families and we have to believe that out of their own goodwill, Tanzanian couples are going to open their homes to these children for the next dozen years or so. What’s happening? And why am I wearing these 12 year old loafers today?
I’ll be honest, I’m in uncharted territory. I wound up here somehow. I don’t have to be in Tanzania. This is my choice. I didn’t have to go and tell a regional officer of Kilimanjaro that me, Melissa and Meshak are going to start putting orphans into Christian families and then supporting that family. This is my choice. This is a largely thankless job most of the time and that’s totally okay. Orphans shouldn’t have to say thanks for being my dad or thanks for finding me a dad, because being a child should just mean that you have a dad. It’s supposed to be the norm. It’s our choice to be here. We’re here because by faith we believe that God said something to us years ago about caring for orphans in Africa and we by faith decided to walk towards that.
Faith. That’s the currency of Christian life. By this world’s standards, I’m wearing 12 year old loafers and a second-hand button up shirt. But I want to be a rich person, that’s my aspiration.
Over the last few days, I’ve been diving into some thoughts on short term missions. Up to this point, I’ve only spoken about some of the problems that we, as American ministers, often commit in our attempt to help. Its been a little rough at times, but I think that a proper diagnosis and analysis of the situation is important for us as we move forward towards something better that God has for us. If you didn’t see the previous posts, I recommend you head back and get to reading them. The first was on discipleship and effectiveness, then the second was on money and perceptions.
Today, I’m looking forward to talking about something that I am much more excited about. Despite what you might think from the previous posts, I believe that there is a lot to be excited about in the missions movement of recent years. The fact that so many people are wanting to get involved shows so much promise and I believe that as we pray and move forward, God is going to do more and more to see the global harvest come in. Below are some things that I think can help get us there, this list is far from comprehensive, but I think that it can get us going in the right direction.
MAKE THE TRIP ABOUT MORE THAN JUST THE TRIP
This is something that I hammer on whenever I get the opportunity. A two week trip is too easy to be that effective and there are so many blind spots (some of which I spoke of in the previous posts) that can make the trip, in fact, detrimental. When we decide that we are going to make more of the trip than just going for a couple weeks (or the six months of preparations), we are saying ’yes’ to be a part of what God wants to do in that place for the long haul. Perhaps, that means the Lord is calling you to a long term mission in that city, but even if He’s not, I believe He still wants us to extend our involvement in that place.
When I first felt God calling me to Africa, I made a point to apply forwhatever short term teams my university was sending there. I applied for Tanzania and Mozambique and was accepted for Tanzania. When I found out that we would be working at a small orphanage called Treasures of Africa, I felt the Spirit incline me to do something beforehand. I decided that I would sponsor a child at the orphanage. That child ended up being Awadhi and that relationship, that sponsorship, radically changed my life and propelled me into a deeper discipleship and calling. It was a simple enough decision. I decided to send $100 every month and pray for this little boy. But God used it to open me up more and more to making the short two weeks into something far more.
When missionaries follow Jesus’ calling to a particular nation, they realize that this calling is going to take of their own time, effort and finances. While they may not know how long they’ll be there whether it be a few years or a lifetime, they nonetheless know that it is going to take time. Short term missions trip offer an opportunity for those that the Lord wants in the US to make a similar commitment to missions in another country at the same time. What would it look like to make a multi-year commitment to one ministry in one country and have that be the country that you visited?
This will inevitably take more sacrifice. Sacrifice of potential other opportunities. Instead of hopping to another country and another ministry every summer, you put one spot on your map for however many years and say, “I’m going to bless the socks off of that ministry. I’m going to pray for them everyday. I’m going to encourage the church leaders and missionaries there through letters and emails. I’m going to advocate for them stateside. I’m going to give money generously and sacrificially towards the Kingdom-work that I see them doing.”
Commit yourself to believing in faith, then seeing with your eyes that God is doing something there. You can then feel assured that you are fulfilling your calling to those nationals that become disciples of Christ.
We have a church in Costa Mesa that took us on as missionaries last year. This is an Assemblies of God church and we are a non-denominational ministry. While this church is on the site of my alma mater, Vanguard, I personally never attended there. Nonetheless, they have circled Moshi on their map and decided to pour money and prayers into the Kingdom work there. Therefore, they support multiple ministries/missionaries in Moshi and are committed to seeing God exalted in that city. I think that’s pretty cool.
A couple days ago, I mentioned an email conversation that I had with a guy from a supporting church of ours and he brought up the standards that they are setting up for people that they would send on short term teams. They won’t send people that don’t have fruit on the tree in their own city. That is an important standard and brings us to the question of how is local fruit and global fruit related?
God’s Kingdom is at work in all places. He is in the process of turning people’s hearts back to Him and renewing all things. This takes place on every continent (yes, even Antarctica). God wants to do something in Thailand, Kenya, Uruguay, Bosnia and your city. He is no respecter of persons in that He is calling all to Him without discrimination. Kingdom work is Kingdom work. I mean this in the least cliché way possible, the Lord wants you to live on mission in your own city. You are a minister of the gospel all the time. Segregating our missions outlook between what we do overseas and what we do at home is detrimental to our spirituality and our witness, especially when you consider that you are going to be far more effective in your own cultural context of home. Allow your desire for international missions be the spark that ignites your passion for the mission opportunities in your very own city.
Furthermore, local fruit doesn’t mean only ministering to people that are just like you. It is quite easy in the US to minister cross-culturally to someone right down the street. For example, I am from California and throughout my life, there have been opportunities at pretty much every church that I’ve been a part of to go down and do ministry in Mexico. While those opportunities would come by from time to time, I rarely heard of outreaches to the Mexican community in the very city in which the church was in. I’m talking about Paso Robles, Costa Mesa and Long Beach, there is a considerable Mexican population in each of those cities. That is a blessed opportunity to get down to Kingdom work in our own backyard.
INTERNSHIPS AND DISCIPLESHIP TRAINING SCHOOLS
As you would gather from reading up to this point, one of the problems that I observe in short term missions is just that they are too short. A simple remedy to that would be to make it longer. Makes enough sense. My 2009 internship in Tanzania was honestly an integral part of my move to Tanzania just five months later. Internships of two or three months in the host country pack a lot more punch on both sides of the equation. The short term missionary intern is given a lot more opportunity to get into the pace of life of their host country and foster deeper relationships with the nationals they meet. At the same time, they are often put in a position where they can really aid a ministry during a time of need.
It also helps that interns come by themselves or in a group of two or three. That helps them become more self-sustaining and hence less of a stress to their host missionaries. They then get more of an opportunity to enjoy the relationships and learn from the missionaries and national leaders, hence aiding in their own discipleship.
Discipleship Training Schools (DTS) are similar to cross-cultural internships in the focus on commitment to discipleship. A DTS allows the short-termer to experience more of the culture that they’re in while being fed and stretched to grow spiritually themselves. This too takes more of a time commitment, but we shouldn’t shy away from commitment, because what you’re doing is putting down spiritual roots in your own life and advancing the Kingdom more effectively in other people’s lives. That’s worthwhile.
Possibly the most important way to make the most of any ministry opportunity is intentionality. This certainly goes for short term opportunities like a DTS or an internship. These opportunities present a better chance to really experience God and be effective, but it isn’t automatic. God calls all of us to live lives that are intentional. We must go into these experiences not only hungry, but laying it all out for God, striving for more of His Spirit and more of His kingdom. That’s how we make the most of any spiritual experience.
The path that we walk must be humility. Sad to say, many of our downfalls are caused by a lack of humility. I’m not simply talking about people that you can tell are proud and brash. Beyond that there are everyday mistakes that we make, because we assume that we know what is best. This stance is something that is bred into our culture and is silently lethal to not only missions, but our own spirituality.
The truth is that the center of Christianity has already begun to move, and in many people’s views already has moved, away from the west and has landed in the majority world. We go to these places expecting that we are going to wow them with our service, only to find that the people there are hungrier than us and their churches experience far more growth than ours back in the states. There is something to be said for that.
Jesus’ teaching is clear that it is better to serve than to be served and it is better to honor than to be honored. While we normally give mere lip service to the former, we hardly even consider the latter.
So what does it look like to walk humbly, to just serve and honor others in short term missions? Three little words will go a long way here. Listen. Submit. Acknowledge.
Unfortunately, we often come into short term missions with our own idea of how things ought to go. We know what we want to do, what we want to bring, how long we will be there, how many people will come and the like. That can make it very hard to accommodate within a ministry in the host country. Listen to the missions contact whether that be a national pastor or a missionary. If they say they need six people, don’t send fifteen. If they ask you to bring certain supplies for them, don’t waste all your space on personal items or things that are unnecessary. If you tell them that you want to bring a team of twenty people for ten days and they tell you that what they really need is two people for the whole summer, suck it up and see how you can help. Very likely, they may be more in need of prayers and money than a team of people at all.
The second part of this is to submit. The overseas ministry is the spiritual authority in this situation. Make sure that they know you’re behind them, regardless of whether or not you get to do exactly what you want. Too often, I feel, ministries are forced to take on a team or some service just because its better than nothing. They don’t feel secure in the relationship enough to say what they actually need, because they don’t want to miss out on the partnership altogether if the team decides to go in another direction upon hearing the ministry’s requests. This would be especially true for national church leaders that are in hopes of American partners.
The third part is really the attitude of the heart in submission, and that’s to acknowledge. The overseas ministry knows better than you and the team. What you think is a really good idea, might in fact be a really bad idea. Don’t be discouraged by that, but just recognize that God put this overseas ministry in your life to turn your compassionate heart into an effective expression of God’s kingdom. Acknowledge that they know best and submit.
So many of our missteps would be cured if we would just listen, submit and acknowledge the overseas ministries that we seek to partner with. In my estimation, this approach enhances our follow-up, our relationship with the local church/ministries and helps us become more culturally sensitive. It will also help us refrain from making poor judgments or expressing false perceptions. A person walking in humility will recognize that they don’t know a ton about the culture after only a short time and will hence hold their tongue from broad generalizations and rash statements.
BE WILLING TO DO WHATEVER IS BEST, EVEN IF THAT’S CANCELLING THE TRIP
I would be remiss to not take this all the way to its potential furthest extent. I’m not saying that short term trips ought to stop. I am not saying that. They can, if done properly, be a part of global missions. What I am saying is that some teams are better not sent and that could be a team being sent from your area.
What we ought to be after is growing spiritually and advancing the Kingdom. If a particular short term team or trip isn’t going to do that very well, it’d probably be better to stay home, donate that money to a worthwhile cause and pray for the nations. Over the last few days, you’ve read about different reasons that this might be the best option.
The elements that I’ve discussed in this blog are not either-or, but both-and. Its not enough to go for an internship, if you aren’t willing to give and pray beyond that when you return to the states. Its not enough to just cancel the trip, if you aren’t going to focus on local ministries while supporting global ministries with prayer and finances. The fact is that the Lord has endowed Americans with prayer, intellect and financial prowess to play an important role in His cause for every nation. Every Christian is called to fulfill the Great Commission both locally and abroad in one way or another. I invite and encourage you to play your part.
Like I said from the start of this series, I’m just a small voice in a sea of meaningful people talking about this important subject. Though this series is over, I encourage you to read more and more importantly, act. Your church does missions, both globally and locally. Be a part of that and make an impact for Christ and His Kingdom.
I also highly recommend a couple books that I’ve enjoyed and learned from: When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett is incredibly informative and thorough. This is a must read for those that are outreach minded (which all Christians ought to be). Read this book, you’ll learn so much.
Revolution in World Missions by K.P. Yohannan has been a widely circulated book that sheds light on missions in Asia, but can be applied to some degree to other majority world countries. The thing that I like about this is his perspective as someone from India and how that has translated to the way that he runs his organization. His views on money are to be carefully considered by American church goers.
Yesterday I opened up a conversation about short term missions and some of our blind spots and shortcomings in this popular system. Thanks to those that have shared the article or commented on Facebook. Share your thoughts in the comment section of this blog that way when people read my thoughts, they can read yours too. Lets keep it going.
I wanted to continue that conversation today and look at a couple other areas that I see as being a bit off. If you didn’t see the post yesterday (Part 1), I definitely suggest it before you continue with this one. The topics of discipleship and effectiveness are fundamental to what we’ll look at today and in my estimation are more important.
Today we’re going to look at a couple other elements and I want to re-iterate what I said yesterday that this not about tearing down what we do or who we are, but building up. We must be aware of our problems, if we are going minister and grow effectively.
This is something that I talked about yesterday, but wanted to beat the drum once more. How the trip is funded matters, what money goes towards on the trip matters. The money shouldn’t come in just any way and it shouldn’t be spent flippantly. This gets back to the sacrifice question that I raised yesterday.
I had a team leader on one of my past teams advise us that we could put our tithe into our own individual fundraising account. Now, that is truly between a person and the Lord, but it does make me think. If my offering, which would be going towards my church or another Kingdom work, is now going to fund my short term trip, what does that mean for the others that I was supporting with that money? Sure it kind of kills two birds with one stone; I don’t have to be guilty about not giving an offering to the Lord, and at the same time I get myself that much closer to the plane ride across the globe. But is that best? Is that exhibiting trust in the Lord with my finances? Is there something more that I ought to be giving? Something that really costs me something?
Furthermore, one has to ask if the short term trip is worthy of someone else’s regular offering. I want to raise these questions, because they really matter and too often aren’t addressed. When I went to India in 2010, I had already moved to Tanzania and was living off the support of others in the US. When I felt God lead me to go to India, I didn’t have much opportunity to fundraise for that (which had to be done completely aside from my own organization). Subsequently I had only three people give towards the trip and I paid for nearly 90% of the trip myself. Of the three ladies that supported me, one was a good friend who already supported me at TOA. After reading my blogs from Asia, she told me that she herself often wonders about supporting short termers, because it seems in many cases to be “missionary tourism” as she said. She said that she still supports them, because its not on her to determine their hearts, but the concern is nonetheless there. Especially when the missionaries often stay in the nicest hotel in the city, get a couple days for sightseeing and come back with a bunch of pictures of cute, little orphans.
Furthermore, many of the projects that are done on short term teams ought to be done by nationals. All this money is spent to come across the sea and the team paints houses for a few days. That sounds admirable and I don’t mean to belittle anyone, because I believe their heart is almost always in the right place. Not to mention, this is right up my alley as I’ve had teams help paint my house, friends’ houses and the halls at TOA. But think about the alternative, while you spend that money in getting there and take time to do an unprofessional job, your church could have given a fraction of that money directly to the ministry and they could have hired a national to do it professionally. Hence the short termers spent a lot of money to come over and put a national out of a potential job.
I took this from a book that I’ll recommend later, but play this scenario out: A team from France contacts your church and wants to come over and do a VBS. They have twelve people on their team that would come, they’d put on skits (in French), talk about Jesus through a translator, have crafts and songs, probably do some things that seem a bit odd (I mean it’s a very different culture over there) and after they spend the week at your church, they’ll ask if you could take them to the nearest tourist attractions. They’d then head back to their own country after about a week and a half. The airfare for their team cost nearly $20,000 to travel during the summer and they spent another $10,000 on supplies, food, lodging and sightseeing.
Now, let’s say they’re a forward thinking group and they say “or we could just give you $30,000 to do your own VBS and whatever other ministry the money could help.” What would you do? You’d take the money! And you know what? You’d be way more effective with it than them!
I’m not saying we just throws gobs of money around (because it only works if its strategic… and we do that often enough anyway), but I think you catch my drift that maybe the way we often spend isn’t the best, nor the way that we fundraise.
Africa. Pause for a second and tell me, what comes to mind when I say that?
I’ve called Moshi, Tanzania my home for the last two and a half years. Moshi is merely a small town on a massive continent. Check the photo inset that I think is ingenious. And its not just land mass, but the population of Africa is over 1 billion. Nonetheless, I constantly hear people make these bold claims after only a couple days in Moshi about “Africa is this” or “Africans do that.” I’ll tell you that it bugs me and people, even other missionaries, have told me that it’s just a pet peeve of mine, but I truly think that we are walking on thin ice with these broad generalizations.
First off, they very often aren’t accurate. Certainly not of the entire continent which is so incredibly populous and diverse. But often coming to any conclusion of a totally new culture after only a couple days or couple weeks is just unfair. There are so many layers to culture and teams hardly scratch the surface. There are friends of mine that have been there for so much longer than me and even they haven’t plunged the furthest depths. After fifteen, twenty years, they’re still learning. Furthermore, when we come up with these generalizations, we not only miss the point, but we miss the heart of the people who behave in a way that we don’t understand at the surface.
For example, Tanzanians, especially the Masai people, practice very long greetings for one another. I kid you not that in a normal conversation, people will just greet one another for a couple minutes. Americans say, hi, how are you, and then cut to the chase. Tanzanians often ask not only how are you, but they’ll ask how their family is doing, what’s the news at their home, and all sorts of other greetings that wouldn’t even make sense to you if I translated them into this post. To an American, they could conclude that Africans waste time in conversation and aren’t straightforward. They then post some broad generalization on their Facebook.
In reality, Tanzanians are very relationship-based more so than Americans in many ways. They greet one another, because they enjoy talking with one another, they want to see how they’re friend is doing and be polite, cover all their bases even. It makes the utmost sense in their own cultural setting.
Beyond that, I’m willing to bet that people in Tanzania (Africans) are a lot different from Algerians (Africans), Namibians (Africans), Egyptians (Africans) or even the neighboring people of Mozambique (Africans). Cultures are different, languages are different, customs, religions and standard of living are all very different.
Imagine if I took four Tanzanians and sent one of them to Idaho for a couple weeks, then another to Guatemala, another to Quebec and still another to Cuba. I then ask each of them to tell me what North America is like. What would their responses be? “Its cold there,” “Its hot there,” “They speak English,” “They speak Spanish,” “They speak French,” “They’re rich,” They’re poor,” “They’re capitalist,” “They’re communist,” “They’re welcoming,” “They’re snobby” and so on.
Aside from being insulting and belittling to those to whom we ought to be serving, false perceptions end up perpetuating poor development practices.
When I told you to think of Africa, did the word “poor” come to mind? It probably did. The truth is many Africans, across country lines live off far less then Americans do. The majority are indeed impoverished. However, when the main perception becomes strictly “poor,” we typically jump to some form of relief (which I discussed yesterday), not realizing that many African countries are rich. They’re rich in natural resources and in man power. They have the ability to become a thriving 21st-century country, but won’t do so if everyone just thinks “poor” then sends relief. Furthermore what’s needed in Cameroon will probably differ a lot from Libya or Madagascar.
As you can easily gather, so much of these false perceptions are remedied by a humble approach to relationship which gets us back to the discipleship that I discussed yesterday. Discipleship is the hinge on which effective global outreach hangs. I hope you’ll come back and check the blog in a couple days to hear some ideas that I believe would get us to more effective discipleship in missions. I believe in the work of the Holy Spirit stirring up compassion and justice in our hearts. So check back in on Monday to hear more.
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.
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…
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…