When you’re traveling on a short-term mission trip, how you’re perceived might be very different than you might imagine. Being accurately self-aware is difficult and very few people get it right. You have an image of yourself and who you are, other people have an entirely different image of you, and what you can do. Until we come to a closer understanding of how people actually see us, it’s hard to build relationships and move past the polite niceties of life.
Years ago, I was visiting West Africa with my wife and a small team helping with staff training at an orphanage in Ghana. About an hour from the orphanage was a small grade school that had been, in large part, funded by a friend of ours from the United States. Our friend had asked us to stop by the school to say “Hi”, and to see how they were doing. It didn’t seem like that big of a deal. As is often the case in short-term missions, what we envisioned or intended turned out to be vastly different than what happened.
We had scheduled our “down day” from the work at the orphanage and had called the school to ask permission to come by in the morning to visit. Not a big deal, we thought we would meet with a teacher or two, maybe shake hands with the director, and hit the road. Yikes, were we wrong. When we pulled up, it looked like they had some traditional festival going on. We quickly found out that the “festival” was because some FRIENDS of the guy who funded the place were dropping by. They had suspended classes and put together a program with a few speeches honoring our visit; then each class performed a traditional dance for the benefit of our small team. After the dances they brought out some cookies and a few cokes for us as refreshments. It was a heart-warming, special time. It was also wildly awkward. We were nobody, we hadn’t done anything, but they shut the school down for us for the day. Afterward, it led to some great discussions and a lot of soul-searching among our team.
Money, or the perception of money, changes everything. In hindsight, we realized us showing up to that school was like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet (two of the richest people in the world) stopping by for dinner. Our team collectively was fairly broke, but in the eyes of the people at the school, we were wealthy beyond their imagination. Just the idea that we could pay to travel halfway around the world was a mind-boggling amount of money for them. We wanted to have a real conversation with the school director, but we could tell right away that it was just too weird all around. She was too intimidated by our perceived wealth and connections; she was too afraid to offend, the relationship was just out of balance. We did everything we could to tell them we were nobodies but it just wasn’t going to work.
We need to think about what our impact is in missions by just being present, for good or bad. We assume just showing up and watching might have no impact, but as we saw happen at the school, our visit might have wildly unintended consequences.
Here at our orphanage, we hold Sunday service on site in our small chapel. The service is kid-focused and a special, set-aside time for our family here in our home. We have a lot of visiting groups, and they’re sometimes surprised when they find out they’re not allowed in our service. “But we just want to watch and experience it.” OK, but if we add 10, 20, 30 Americans to our service, it just becomes a show for the American teams. It shifts the focus from our kids, and God, to a cultural presentation for our visitors. Not our goal.
We love our groups; we love when they visit, but for the good of the children in our home we need to maintain boundaries. If a group wants to experience a local service that’s great, we just send them to one of the many local churches in our area. We know their presence will change the dynamic of the local church service, but we’ve talked to the local pastors, and they’re fine with the groups joining in. The groups are welcome there. But the reality is they will change the “feel” of the service just by being present as foreigners. Foreigners that are perceived as being financially wealthy and well connected.
Short-term missions are important. Organizations around the world need help and want teams to come. I’m a huge advocate for short-term missions, and the powerful changes trips can bring into the lives of all those involved, both the teams going and the teams hosting. But it’s so important to do it in as healthy a way as possible.
We need to serve with humility, to serve with sensitivity, and to serve in a way that has as positive an impact as possible. Place yourself into the minds of the people you will be visiting, imagine the impact. Seek to be self-aware, to understand how people view you and be aware of how you are perceived. To be empathetic to others, to understand what they are experiencing, is one of the first steps to effective ministry.
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