Few things are black and white in this life. Many people pass judgment on short-term missions from a purely sending perspective or as a bad use of funds. “Why spend so much money sending our team to Africa, what difference can they make?” “I’ve read that mission teams do more harm than good.” It’s so important to look at difficult, complicated, multi-level situations from many perspectives. Frequently, if we honestly try to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, we see things in an entirely different light.
A few years ago a member of my American staff here in Mexico was very vocal about how terrible all the new factories in Mexico were. Through her studies in college, she learned how the factories were abusing the workers and taking advantage of the low wages in Mexico. She had never actually been to one of these factories though or talked to the workers. After she had passionately shared for a while, a good friend of mine who was raised and educated in Mexico walked in. He was very familiar with the factory systems and had many friends and family members working in manufacturing. As neutral as I could, I asked him “what’s your feeling on the factory programs?” His immediate response was “send more,”. Living in Mexico with the factories, he saw them providing much-needed jobs at a higher pay scale than had been seen in generations. Yes, the workers are making less than their American counterparts but they we’re making more than any of their peers. The factories provided good health care, in many factories there was free childcare, and the workers actually had a lot of rights. Perspective is critical before we pass judgment.
What are the unseen blessings of sending groups? How do the receiving organizations and communities see short-term missions? Although there has been a great deal written in the last few years about the damage short term mission can do, you would be hard-pressed to find a single hosting organization who doesn’t want more teams to visit. Why is this? Don’t they see or understand the “damage” groups bring? Of course they see it, but the benefits to the missions organizations, the communities, and people in the field far out way the headaches of hosting most groups.
How many orphanages, churches, schools, or medical centers would not exist without the teams that built them or support them? How many long term missionaries would be in the field today if they had not first taken a short-term trip? In twenty-five years serving in Mexico, I’ve never met a long-term missionary that didn’t start out on a short-term trip.
When done right, short term missions can have a real and dramatic impact, beyond anything we might imagine. A few years ago we had a well-meaning group sign up with our organization to build a house in our town through a home building program that we run. When they signed up, they were sure they would have a large team and the funding. As the trip dates got closer a few people dropped out, and then a few more dropped out. They were left with six high school girls, one leader, and almost no funding. On paper, from a logical standpoint, not the ideal group to build a house or go on a missions trip for that matter. In most people’s eyes questions were raised: What are six high-school girls going to do? What difference can they make? Shouldn’t they just stay home and use the money more effectively? In spite of the reasonable questions that were raised, this group REALLY felt they were supposed to take this trip. They reached out to us and asked what to do. I told them to come, join our team for a week, and we’d find a way for them to serve.
Once the group arrived, I paired them up with a few local construction guys that I work with. The plan was to help pour a cement foundation for a house in town. The family receiving this blessing had been on our waiting list for a while, living in an old trailer. This single child family had a believing wife and a husband that was more-or-less the town drunk.
For a week the girls worked alongside my local team. The father could NOT figure this out. It confused him. A lot. He stood for hours with his arms crossed trying to figure out two things; Why are these odd, blond, American girls helping his family? And why were these local construction guys having such a good time? My guys are all strong believers. They were picking on each other as guys do, flipping wet cement at each other, laughing a lot, and having a blast. They weren’t cussing, they weren’t drinking, and the father couldn’t understand any of this. He had never seen or experienced healthy male relationships before, and he just didn’t get it. At no point was the gospel presented in words, there was no pressure on anyone. This project was just a collection of Christians from two cultures serving a needy family. The collective team was putting Christ’s love and example of service into action.
The week ended, the girls left, and it might have ended there. But the seeds of Christian service had been planted; the father witnessed Christ’s love in action. The following Sunday he was at our local church, the next week he came to the Lord. No one, including him, knew at the time but he was very sick and he died about 90 days later. Because this small, unskilled, under-funded team (that didn’t speak Spanish) pressed forward; this man is now dancing in heaven.
If we go into any area of our lives with an attitude of empathy, of trying to see things from the other person’s perspective, we will be more effective. As we approach short-term missions we need to move past our preconceived ideas of the people we’re serving, the needs we think we’re addressing, or even why we are going. Go with a plan, but be sensitive and open to just being present and experiencing God alongside others. Maybe God is just sending you to change you through the people you’ll encounter.