Short term missions is something I have thought about for a long time, generally not in the most positive light. Before my trip last month to Musoma, which itself was not the most ‘traditional’ mission trip, I had only ever done one, in 2005. But this post is not actually about short term mission trips, but rather some of my thoughts on ways to effectively report them. I list a few principles below, both what I think should be avoided and what should be done.
– Avoid the need to make everything sound cool and exotic
The first short term mission trip I went on was to West Virginia, during spring break in college. And we did do a few meaningful things, like help tutor some kids at an after-school program for a couple days. But most of the time we didn’t…and in fact most of the time we spend chopping wood to light a furnace to warm the building we were staying in, which would not have needed to have been warmed if we weren’t staying in it. Now let’s be real, that isn’t actually very impactful ministry, it’s largely a waste of time, effort and money. How many times does that wall in Mexico need to be painted?* But so many of us possess excellent skills in spinning such experiences to sound holy and important. We learned the importance of faith and patience even in confusing circumstances, and of really meeting the people where they were at. What does that even mean? I strive to be real and not over-glamorize things, which is not always easy at all.
– Avoid making over-generalizations of what ‘the people’ are like
I cannot count the number of times I have heard or read mission trip reports saying the following:
- The people were so beautiful.
- I love the people there.
- The best part was the people.
- My favorite part of the trip was being with such wonderful people.
Now what’s slightly ironic is that sometimes these same mission trips beforehand paint these same people in dire colors, at times the most extreme implying they live in primitive barbarism, lost in a terrible land of misery and ignorance. But then when you got there they turned out to be so beautiful and wonderful to you? Obviously both can be somewhat or largely true, and are probably said with good intentions. But both imply that these ‘people’ are completely ‘other’, separate from us, and sounds more like you are visiting a zoo: “The animals were so cool, but they live in such terrible conditions!” People are people, and while certainly some people live in worse situations than others, and some are utterly lost and have a tremendous need because they have never even heard the name of Christ, I do not believe that any group is actually better than any other group.
All people and countries and areas live in sin and need Jesus, and I do not believe any are actually more ‘wonderful’ or ‘beautiful’ than another. I would expect for even the most fervent short termer reporting what I said above, there were countless people they actually considered highly unattractive, and many who were not welcoming or friendly at all. Probably some tried to take advantage of them, while some were sincerely glad to meet you and hear why you came. But we’ve developed a culture where we feel the need to report earnestly on the beauty and wonderfulness of ‘the people’, whether that even means anything or not. It is meant as a compliment but I believe it actually comes out as condescending and patronizing.
Imagine you are going to visit your in-laws in Cincinnati. Would you say when you returned to Nebraska, “Wow the people are so beautiful there – the best part of my visit was ‘the people’, they were simply wonderful”? Your friends would look at you like you’re crazy and be like, um, what are you talking about? Because they would think that’s Ohio, are they really that different from us? Plus its Ohio… but even if life in Nebraska and Cincinnati is different in various ways, and you did feel very welcomed, I bet most would never distinguish ‘those people’ from ‘your people’, because of the solidary you feel as Americans. And the differences are much less than traveling cross-culturally and cross-racially. But we’re all people…so why shouldn’t we feel solidary because of that?
So what should be done? I don’t want to imply that I have all the answers for this, and I still struggle with how to write missionary updates, but these are some thoughts and recommendations I would have:
– Focus on what God is doing
One of my favorite stories from the Bible is when Elisha and his servant are surrounded by a huge army, and the servant is terrified, telling Elisha this really doesn’t look good! What’s are we going to do? And Elisha is like, oh yeah he can’t see the army protecting us, so he prays to open his eyes to see the much larger army surrounding the other army.
I believe God is doing tremendous things all over the world, and it was awesome to see what He’s doing in northern Tanzania, and be a part of that for a week. Our team actually saw so many miracles on this trip, we prayed for a blind lady who couldn’t see who was then able to make out shapes and
– Report on things that the people you’re talking to wouldn’t actually know
Since coming to Kenya, I have found out that Africa is not actually always very hot! Sometimes it’s pretty cold. Last month I saw more demon manifestations that I have ever seen in my life, especially since I hadn’t personally seen any before then… The service I was at went on for about 5 hours, and included most of the attendees doing synchronized dance numbers at the front of the church. That’s pretty different from many services in the US, isn’t it? The family I stayed with for a night didn’t have running water in their house, and their rent for a household of 11 people was $50 dollars a month. When we transferred money for our ministry expenses, it came out to 9.4 million shillings, which I carried across the street in a huge envelope because it was such a massive block of cash!
– Encourage the people you are reporting to
If they supported you with prayers and finances, then thank them for the opportunity to see and do what you did. And tell them that they don’t have to look down on themselves or disparage their own faith and Christian experience. It is so easy to look at another culture, and idealize their experience, and say man they have the power, they have the passion, if only I could be like them. When I was at Wheaton, we used to read about “Africa” and say, They have true faith there, really power, if only we were like them. But you know what? Now that I live here in Africa, in Kenya, I’ve heard friends say, Now China, they have real faith there, real power, if only we could be like them. And I told them, actually that’s what we say about you in the US…and I bet there are some in China who look elsewhere and say the same thing. So don’t do it! Learn from others, and the faith and passion and power they do have, but don’t despise your own. The grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence…but God is at work in all places and cultures, and the more I live overseas the more I believe that many churches in America are spiritually mature, vibrant, and doing incredible ministry right where they are.
There are many other points which are becoming more and more widely acknowledged, such as not seeing yourself as the savior of these poor desperate people, and assuming that most of what you’ll be doing is really more for your own spiritual benefit than the people you’re ministering to. That last has even become an overused short term missions cliche… but it is often significant to emphasize so I don’t really know how to avoid it, but I don’t go out of my way to stress that point because it is so often said.
*from a story I have heard about a wall in Mexico that was painted each week by different high school groups which came through. It may be apocryphal but I’m sure similar things have happened…