Musings on Missions and Evangelism: Are Short-Term Missions For Us or Them?01/22/2013
“Our main goal for this short-term mission trip is to provide a powerful spiritual experience for our kids.” These were the words of the leader of an STM group that was “evangelizing” in the Chiang Mai University cafeteria where we were eating. I approached the leader and asked about their trip in response to the following situation that occurred moments before.
Lek was a sophomore and had come to two or three events with our church. She did not know much at all about Christianity but seemed to enjoy hanging out with us. On this day in the cafeteria, she was sitting with Katy, one of our interns. When Katy went to get some desert, a teenage girl from the States sat down with Lek and began talking about how awesome it would be if Lek was a Christian. She sat really close to Lek, spoke loudly and excitedly, and constantly made physical contact. Finally, the girl said that she would get one of her leaders to come over and talk about saying a prayer of belief in Jesus. Then they would be sisters in Christ! Once the girl left the table, Lek quickly gathered her belongings and retreated in the opposite direction. Katy tried to ask her where she was headed in such a hurry, but Lek did not stop to talk. Lek never came around again.
Once I pieced the story together from Katy and others sitting nearby, I decided to go ask the group’s leader about their purpose and strategy. That is when she informed me that they organized these trips primarily for the benefit of their kids.
My inner monologue, at this point, went something like this. Providing a “spiritual experience” for your kids came at the cost of alienating a sweet girl in northern Thailand. If you want to have a spiritual experience, then go hang out on a mountaintop where you cannot engage in gross cultural insensitivity. How would you like it if someone used you as a means to his or her own selfish desires? In reality, I said it was nice to meet her and hope her time in Thailand is fun.
I have used this story, which happened about twelve years ago, in graduate school papers and in classes to illustrate the danger of doing ministry for the sake of the one ministering. Whether in the context of STMs or local humanitarian efforts, I railed fairly hard against the idea of doing ministry for the sake of your own spiritual formation. My thesis was that ministry, and STMs more specifically, should be done for the sake of the other. If you are going for your own benefit, then stay home.
However, while that story still makes my stomach turn after all these years, I have begun to change my feelings about who STMs are about. Though I do not like the strategy of that particular group, I am starting to think that it is time to admit that, in fact, STMs are for our sakes. And that is the way it must be. Let me explain with an analogy.
I think healthcare is one of the best vocations and acts of service in which a person can engage. Therefore, I am planning to go on a 2-week surgery rotation at a local hospital. I will spend that time learning from doctors and nurses, making diagnoses, and performing minor surgical procedures on unsuspecting patients. Though I might not be trained in surgical procedures, I am sure the patients will not mind because, after all, I really do want to help them. Plus, I want to experience the joy that comes in healing a sick a person.
This is obviously a ridiculous scenario, but I do think it surfaces the dynamic present in STMs. I believe that most people who go on STMs have true and sincere motives, in that they do want to help and serve others. However, if we are honest with ourselves, we know that we do not have the skill set to do the task well. We cannot speak the local language. We are not trained in construction. We know very little about the religious, political and economic situation within the local culture. Yet, we still go.* And I believe we go because we think the benefit to ourselves will result in a net gain. We will be changed. We will give more money to missions afterwards. We might become long-term missionaries as a result.** We will better understand poverty. We will learn and appreciate a different culture. We will grow closer to God.
I think most of those are good motivations. I believe they provide a good basis upon which to build the STM experience. But that means there needs to be a significant shift in the mindset and practice of STMs, which centers on recognizing that we are going primarily for our own benefit and then discerning how to do that in healthy ways for all parties involved.
So, here are my broad, sweeping suggestions for the future of STMs. (Many of these have already been written in books and articles.)
- Spend far fewer resources on STMs. Spend more on long-term development. (Though we think STMs produce more long-term missionaries and workers, STMs actually produce more STMs. The best way to produce long-term missionaries is to model long-term church planting and development, particularly in your local community.
- STMs should have two primary purposes:
- The building of relationships across cultures – The interaction between those going and those receiving should be based on humility and mutual respect. The only agenda should be to enjoy being together. There should not be any preconceived plans and ideas for how “we” can help “them.”
- The education and formation of those going – There should be an explicit intention for the trip to connect to discipleship and the long-term relationship between the senders and the receivers. In other words, how is this trip going to contribute to long-term development, discipleship and partnership for both parties? The goal should not be to just go on a STM, as if that is an end of itself. The goal should be to join God in what He is doing long-term, both in the sending community and in the receiving culture, and then discern whether this particular group of people going there for a short time contributes to that goal. If it does, then the preparation stage should be focused on learning about the cultural, religious, political and economic circumstances of the destination. The schedule of the trip should reflect the purposes of spiritual formation and education (e. g., times for prayer and reflection, opportunities to hear from locals, exposure to existing works, etc.). The post-trip should have intentional times for reflection and discernment for what the trip means for the future.
- Short-term missions should not be geared around service, doing good works, evangelism, and the like. (I use the word “missions” here, but I join the chorus of those who say we should find better language, such as “short-term learning opportunities,” to talk about this practice.) This is because, as I still believe, ministry must be done for the sake of the other. And if we really do not know much about the people in the host culture (i.e., their language, values, pains, strengths, etc.), then how can we expect to serve them in truly loving ways? Plus, going with the expectation of providing for a “need” they might have can quickly become a form of paternalism and perpetuate the inequality of power. The only opportunity for such tasks should come at the request of local church leaders, without any provocation from the missionaries or the group. (If it sounds like I am being too dramatic in saying that STMs should not be about “doing,” then just imagine a group of Thai, non-English speaking, teenagers coming to your church and insisting on evangelizing and helping take care of your needs.)
- Whenever there is a sense in which the group is being exposed to the poverty and suffering in the local community, be sure to leave cameras tucked away in a bag.
- Local church leaders (i. e., not missionaries nor the sending church leaders) should be the primary catalysts for inviting and organizing the trip.
- Local church leaders should be the ones the group hears from the most as the group seeks to understand the local culture.
- Those going on these trips should use their own money to cover at least half, if not all, the cost of the trip.
- The exception to all these suggestions: coming to babysit the children of missionaries in northern Thailand.
For anyone who is involved in short-term missions, particularly those planning and overseeing STM programs, I highly recommend Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience by Brian Howell.
*I am speaking in generalities. There are situations, like doctors doing a medical campaign, in which the person going has the right skills. However, even in the case of medical missions, I think a doctor or nurse needs additional skills to do cross-cultural service well.
** Though the rationales of increased long-term missionaries and increased giving to missions sound like good warrants for STMs, the research is starting to show that STMs do not actually produce an increase in either.