With the flooding in Texas right now many people are jumping up to do what they can. They’re reacting to the horrible images we’ve all seen by heading out to help, this is a great thing. I truly respect anyone willing to step out of their own lives to help others in need, we all need to grow in this, but we need to do it in a mature and wise manner. None of us wants to add to an already difficult, complicated situation.
As an important step in becoming a doctor, medical students must take the Hippocratic Oath. One of the basics of that oath is “first, do no harm” or “primum non nocere,” They need to treat their patient in a way that does not harm them. They can’t experiment, or rush in to “heal” them, if they don’t know that what they’re doing will be beneficial. It might be a good idea for anyone going into short term missions, or serving in an extreme situation, to take this same oath. So often, we rush in with well-meaning intentions but wind up making the situation worse than it already is.
There is an endless list of examples of well-meaning plans that went sidewise once they were put into action. Unintended consequences can have effects way beyond what most people would even consider. There’s a story of how cities across the north east US changed the traffic lights to LED technology. LED lights are cheaper to operate, they last a VERY long time, what could go wrong? Well, LED lights don’t heat up. Once the snows hit, the traffic lights would fill with snow and without the heat from the old-school lights it would just sit there blocking the signals. People had to go around with brooms on long sticks to knock the snow out of the traffic lights. No one saw this coming; no one realized the unintended consequence of this well-intended action.
Often, at first glance, a missions idea to “help” might sound like an excellent idea and an act of generosity. The results of our actions might ripple out in ways we might have never considered.
I know of one local church in our town that hosts a lot of groups. Out of an abundance of hospitality, the pastor feels he needs to offer the visiting leaders the pulpit on Sunday. What winds up happening is the church might go several weeks without hearing their own pastor teach. They hear from a line of well meaning people who they don’t know, in a language that needs to be translated. The visiting pastors don’t know the needs of the congregation or where they are spiritually. These visiting pastors mean well but hold the church back. Unintended consequences.
Here at our orphanage, we’ve had well-meaning people visit and pass out loose change to our kids. They think they’re blessing the kids when they see them light up at receiving this money. Well, if you were visiting a family in the US would you just randomly pass out cash to their kids? It’s just weird. Also, by groups doing this, it teaches our kids to beg or manipulate guests in our home. Before they came to us, many of our children were begging to survive. We try VERY hard to teach our kids how to work for extras in life and not to beg. By people kindly passing out quarters, they’re working directly against some of our goals here with the children in our care.
I’ve seen very well-meaning groups come into a community, find a local pastor, and offer to build a church building from the ground up. On the surface, it might sound great. In a bigger picture, fully funding a church build usually sets up an unhealthy dynamic. Does that Church congregation have emotional ownership of their church if they have no skin in the game? Are they learning to share and give to the church if they think their “widows mite” isn’t needed? It’s incredibly healthy when a congregation comes together to work towards a common goal. I’m not saying we shouldn’t support and help churches in the missions field, but by doing everything for them, we’re not allowing them to grow in a normal healthy fashion.
So how do you go on a missions trip and not do more harm than good? The best way to move forward with any missions trip is to prayerfully consider our impact, both positive and negative, in any community we’re going to serve. Along with prayer, one of the most important things we can do is partner with, and listen to, an on the ground ministry already serving long-term in that area. These are the people who’s ministries are either blessed by your visit, or are left to clean up the rubble. Organizations hosting groups in Mexico, Haiti, or any country in Africa have seen and worked with a lot of groups. They know what works, what doesn’t work, and how to leverage the skills and resources you want to provide. Let them guide you into a productive, helpful trip for all involved.
Here is one example of how subtly shifting a project will bring it from harmful to beneficial. We have teams that want to do food distribution for families in poorer areas. They might hit Walmart in a nearby city, buy lots of groceries in bulk, and bag them up for distribution. Yes, they are providing food and a blessing for families in the community. But what are they doing to the local mini-marts and farmers markets who are losing sales? Most small stores are barely staying open with what little sales they have in poorer areas. The result of this short-term blessing might be people in the community losing jobs. If that same group buys locally, they might pay a little more for the groceries, but along with blessing the families in need they would be pouring money into the local community and help to keep businesses and jobs moving forward.
With subtle, wise shifting, our efforts can have the desired positive impact that we want to bring. Maybe instead of preaching at a local church, ask to participate and listen to what the local pastor is teaching that week. Maybe instead of passing out loose change to kids in an orphanage, we can find ways to bless the over-worked staff who most people ignore. Whether it’s food or construction materials, maybe we should buy locally whenever possible. Maybe for every person on our team pouring that concrete slab, we commit to hiring a local construction worker to help for the day.
We’re called to serve, and I believe short term missions can and does change lives for all those involved. Go, serve, give, but please: do no harm.