Helping People

I have been closely following the comments on Jamie the Very Worst Missionary’s last two blog posts, which raise the question: can short-term missions trips do more harm than good?

Only a couple weeks before this was posted, I had told someone: “I think there’s a right way and a wrong way to do short-term missions, and I want to be involved in doing it the right way.” When I was sitting around a few months ago asking God and myself what a 21-year-old girl with a bunch of random theology knowledge was good for (if not grad school), that is what caught my attention. My dream job (as in, 1-2 year assignment) is to live with a team of missionaries in Latin America and be the short-term point person, helping teams do their jobs and process what they’ve experienced.
But the right way and the wrong way to do missions is not very easily defined. Actually, that’s not entirely true. For instance, when Charlemagne instituted the death penalty for idolatry and enforced mass baptisms upon the barbarians in his realm, that was the wrong way to do missions. And the prosperity gospel – oversimplified, watered-down, self-centered borderline heresy – wrong way to do missions.
So what if your short-term team leaves all their swords at home, and never even quotes Jeremiah 29:11, let alone misinterprets it? The problem is, we can bring other things with us to the mission field, and no TSA agent is going to catch them before we get on the plane (Sir, could you pull your superior attitude and cultural insensitivity out of your pockets and put them in this bin of scissors?). These things are hard to catch, and even harder to fix, and so we just keep sending teams of shiny Americans to faraway places to Help People but they don’t know what they’re doing, and they don’t even know enough to know that. But too often, when you try to point out that good intentions don’t actually change the world, you become an easy target (how DARE you call these kind, caring individuals to a higher standard of stewardship and love?).
(OK, that might have been sort of bitter, but witness reactions to Jamie’s posts [above] and this, which earned me a place right next to Tiger Woods in the rankings of people-getting-hated-on-via-social-media.)
I could make a list of problems with short-term missions done the “wrong way” as I see it, but I actually have a couple of solutions that might be more helpful and fit better in a blog post of [somewhat] reasonable length. So here is one of them.
As far as I can tell, the best thing a short-term leader could do for their team, the trip, their long-term hosts, and the People they’re going to Help is months – literally months – of preparation. You spend that much time fundraising. Why in the world aren’t we spending that much time preparing to use our neighbors’ money well? Here are some things people should understand before setting foot on the mission field:
1. “Getting people saved” is not the same as “making disciples.” “Getting people saved” is not in the Bible. Making disciples (Matthew 28:19) takes years, lifetimes, and it’s hard, and it’s not a three-step process. You might be involved in it on your trip, but please acknowledge that some things just can’t be done in the ten days you’ll be there.
2. You are still you when you get there. Whatever crap you’re carrying around before you leave will still be with you when you arrive, except it will probably be amplified by jet lag and culture shock. If you are arrogant or insecure or fearful, you will not turn humble or self-assured or courageous because you went to another country. Missionaries are not a magical people; effective Christians are in a process of constantly growing no matter where they are.
3. No culture is better than another. “Falling in love with Honduras” or wherever is a good thing, but please recognize that you won’t be there long enough to fall back out of love with it. So don’t patronize the country by believing it’s inherently better than yours. And just because you don’t like black beans doesn’t mean that your country is better than theirs, either.
4. God is honored by love and humility, not by construction projects. You’re not special because you put a roof on a school. But if you did it out of love, in order to glorify God, with genuine concern for the people using the school, then it’s quite possible someone saw Jesus in you. Becoming more like Christ is the real point of your trip. And your life.
5. There are poor people here, too. Short-term teams need to have long, complicated discussions about poverty, and then they need to go to a homeless shelter, and then they need to come back to church and realize how much more complicated their discussion just got. Hopefully when they go overseas, they’ll be able to put their experiences with poverty from both countries into a larger context. Helping People in other countries gets weirdly romanticized while serving soup to the poor in America is a task relegated to people with the sadly unglamorous “spiritual gift of helps.” Whatever that means.
6. In fact, we are all poor. Some people have unmet physical needs. Some people have emotional or relational or spiritual needs. But I really believe that recognizing your own poverty – and God’s provision – is the only way to understand true humility. The guy in Nicaragua needs a house, but more importantly he needs a job, and more importantly than that he needs to understand his own value as a human being, made in the image of God. That’s what he has in common with the borderline-anorexic girl in your youth group, and that’s something only God can give them.
Short-term missions can be an incredibly valuable experience in the spiritual development of individuals and groups. They’re often an encouragement to long-term hosts and lead participants to more involvement with long-term missions, as supporters or even as long-term missionaries. But the same principles that should be in effect for any other ministry have to be in place for short-term missions, and without them the whole enterprise can turn harmful, just like any other “ministry” done without proper preparation, prayer, humility, and grace.
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