In our area of Baja Mexico, every tourist thinks they need to visit Puerto Nuevo, a local cluster of touristy, mediocre restaurants and kitschy knickknack stores all designed to suck the money out of people on vacation. A local would NEVER eat or hang out there unless they worked in one of these tacky restaurants. I think most areas have these: San Francisco has Pier 39, New York has Times Square, Chicago has Navy Pier. It’s part of the travel experience to go, take the selfie, and say you’ve been there.
If you want to experience a city, country, or culture, find a local. Most people who live in Baja know the wonderful hidden restaurants, the amazing unexpected views, the great weekly farmer’s markets, etc. This is true of anywhere; until you’ve lived in an area for an extended time, you just don’t know the best places to go and how to get there. You don’t know the cultural ins and outs. Find a guide, find a friend of a friend who is willing to show you where to go and what to avoid.
In short-term missions, finding the correct guide can make or break your trip. You don’t know what to do, where to go, and most importantly: you don’t know what you don’t know.
Many (many) years ago, I was on a short-term mission trip to help at a sizeable evangelistic outreach/conference in Sydney Australia. There was a host church, and we were each given a contact in case we needed anything. I was paired up with a youth pastor who asked me during the conference lunch break what I wanted to do. Without really thinking it through I told him, “What would you do if I wasn’t here?” BEST-MOVE-EVER. He yelled across the hall for a bunch of teens from his youth group, we all jumped in a van, and went straight to a local pub. They proceed to order a round of beers for everyone while we decided what to have for lunch. I was able to blend into the local crowd, listen to what was going on, and experience the non-touristy local culture. I had also never gone out drinking with a youth group before.
The best part of hanging out in a pub with the youth group was being a fly on the wall to observe how their faith played out in action, not at a conference, not at an outreach; it was just life. We had some great discussions, and I learned a lot about the culture and their views on a wide range of faith issues. It was the best part of my trip. If I had flinched at going to a pub and hoisting a pint, (something I wouldn’t normally do at home), I would have missed out on something very profound.
Too often, in missions, we think we’re the ones bringing everything to the table, we know how things should be, that we are there to save the world. If we go into missions with this attitude we will fail miserably; I see it happen all the time. Humility is a big deal in missions, and in life. It’s so much better to go into missions knowing that you don’t know everything, knowing you need to partner with people who know what to do and how to do it.
By finding a local church, ministry, or hosting team, you can learn more, do more, and have more of an impact than you would in ten short-term missions trips on your own. You need a guide, a local, someone to show you the ropes. You might be from a country where culturally it’s okay for a Christian to have a beer in public (like Australia) but if you went to a bar in Ghana your ministry trip would be over quickly, and you’d never be invited back. You need to know how to “be all things to all people.” I’m not saying you should compromise your standards, but finding someone to guide you into a cultural balance goes a long way towards learning about others, being accepted by others, and opening doors for you to be able to share with others.
My team here in Mexico hosts a lot of short-term mission groups. We spend a great deal of our time educating the groups about the local culture, what to say, how to act, and what to expect. “Yes, your yoga pants might be fine at home, but here, they’re fairly offensive.” “I know your evangelistic drama has worked before, but our town has seen it twelve times this year, and our local church performs it better than you do.” In spite of the few entitled or know-it-all groups, we genuinely do love our groups, and most of them are great. We love helping them be as effective as possible, we love guiding them in the right direction, and we love seeing their lives changed through their experiences while they’re with us.
If you’re thinking of organizing a short-term missions trip, find a host or guide that knows what they’re doing. If you have a host or guide in a destination country listen to them, ask them questions, allow them to help you be as effective as possible. Your trip will be better, your team will get more out of it, and everyone will leave enriched from the experience. (and you might get invited to a local pub.)
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