OK, it’s a clickbait title, but a lot of people do believe that short-term missions are horrible. Many others believe short-term missions are a huge blessing. Like so many topics, the truth is somewhere in the fuzzy middle. When done correctly, short-term missions can change lives for the better, if done poorly, they can do a lot of damage. It’s good to take a balanced look at both sides and move forward wisely. Continue reading
A famous pastor once said there are exactly three ways to crash in ministry: pride, lust, or greed. The way he put it was: “Avoid the glory, the girls, and the gold.” It’s a great lesson. If you’re in ministry and doing it right, it’s so easy to fall into traps that will slowly damage you, and the ministry, beyond repair. The enemy knows us well and knows how to draw us into areas that will destroy us. Men and women of God better than you and I fall every day. We need to be alert at all times and remember we are broken, messed up people.
It’s impossible to cover the countless ways people in ministry, or people in general, fall into sin. I do want to share one story where God reminded me about the need to stay humble, to avoid the glory. As I am constantly reminded, I have much to be humble about.
A few years after my wife and I moved to Mexico to take over management of a struggling orphanage, things seemed to be coming together. The children in our care were doing well, the staff was learning the ropes, things were flowing along nicely. One day, I had several local leaders and officials scheduled to come in for a string of meetings. My usual “uniform” was flip-flops, shorts, and a t-shirt. Not exactly business attire. With the officials coming in I went all out: dockers and real dress shoes. (there is a point to this clothing detail.)
After a day full of meetings, I felt pretty good about myself. “Look how professional I am”, I thought as the day moved along. About 4 pm, after the meetings had wound down, an older, scruffy looking gentleman came to my door and informed me he was here to kill a goat. We had a few goats on site, and I knew we were planning on butchering one, so this wasn’t a big surprise. Usually, our maintenance guy would take the local goat butcher back to the pens, and point out which unlucky goat was on the menu the next day. For some reason, our guy wasn’t around so I told the “goat guy” that I would show him. Now, being raised in Southern California, the idea of raising and butchering your own meat was still new to me. But I thought “Sure; I can handle this, how hard could it be.”
After walking the goat guy back to the pens, and pointing out the future taco meat, he asked me to hold the goat for a minute. “Ummm, OK.” He had to show me what to do. I entered the pen and straddled the goat between my knees like I was going to try to ride it. I then held on to the two horns to keep it still. I assumed as I held the goat he was going to get a rope, or needed to prepare something else so that I could get back to my “important day.” While I waited, I was talking softly to the goat to try to calm it down. (I’m an idiot.) Just then the goat guy walked over and, without warning, slit the goat’s throat causing it to thrash around while it bled out. I was kind of freaking out at this point; the goat guy, on the other hand, was enjoying this little display immensely. I honestly think to watch this “soft American” hold the goat while it went to the great goat beyond was the high point of the goat guy’s week.
After I got out of the pen and my adrenaline dropped a little, I walked back to our house. I had blood splatters on my shirt, my dress pants below the knees and my dress shoes covered in goat blood, and I had bits of straw sticking to me. As I staggered into the house, my wife asked with wide-eyed panic, “what happened to you?” I looked like I had been part of a murder scene. I told her, “I think I’m fine, but I am now marked for Passover.”
The point of this little story is to show how God will give us what we need. I had embraced pride. The ministry was growing, and in my mind, I had more to do with it than I did. In spite of all my “important meetings,” the local goat guy showed me that I was not that important. I needed some humbling, I needed to look foolish, I needed the goat guy in my life at that moment.
The battles we fight in ministry, and in life, don’t stop. We need to be aware of these battles, or we’ve already lost. Even the greatest men and women of God stumble and fall, we all need to seek God’s help and guidance to avoid the subtle snares the enemy has laid out for us. We all need a goat moment now and then.
(For anyone offended by the demise of this poor goat, please know, people eat goat meat in most of the world. I can also personally vouch that this particular goat was delicious.)
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Over the last few years, the term “voluntourism” has come into the missions vernacular. It’s generally used as a derogatory term for people combining vacations, with serving, with a dash of poverty tourism thrown in. It’s a simple term, but it’s more complicated than the black and white way most people present it.
I’ve you’ve watched cable news or visited any social media website in the last few years you’ve seen a widening divide. Whether it’s Democrat vs. Republican, opinions on gun control, or any one of dozens of topics, the reasonable middle ground can be hard to find. The problem is, in most cases, that middle ground is where logical solutions are found. The calm voice of reason has been silenced by the shouting from both sides in too many discussions.
I, along with my team, host a LOT of short-term mission groups in Mexico every year. Are some of these trip more about tourism wrapped in projects? Sure, it happens, it’s actually a sliding scale with any group. Some people come for purely educational or recreational purposes, some come who only want to serve, most come with a mixed agenda and we’re OK with that. As long as the groups coming down are respectful of our home, and the people we serve in the community, we want the groups here. We want bigger groups, and we want them to tell their friends to come.
The term voluntourism paints all service trips with a broad negative brush. It claims that service trips are all about the people going on the trips, and those people looking good on social media. We’ve all seen the pictures of American teens surrounded by poor children. The thing is, for this current generation, everything is documented to social media. Whether it’s dining out, giving birth, or the Pinterest wedding, everything is now photographed for online publication. Is it odd that service trips are also so well photographed and shared? As long as the people being photographed have given permission, and the local culture is respected, is this a problem? Or does showing people the need in various areas of the world actually help to promote aid to those areas? Few would argue that’s it’s better to keep needs hidden. When these trips are healthy and respectful, everybody wins.
People attacking voluntourism without knowing the desires and goals of the people receiving the groups are actually showing incredible arrogance. “I know what’s better for them than they do.” This attitude of well-meaning American’s determining the wants and desires of people groups and cultures they know very little about is actually hugely condescending. Passing judgment on people without knowing them, their needs, and their wishes, is exactly the wrong thing to do. By going and visiting people where they are, talking to them, and getting to know them, real progress can be made. Call it voluntourism if you want to, but it’s a good thing.
Across the board, people in our area want more groups to come down. Even though some groups give just a half-hearted nod to a service project, they still bring huge benefits to our community. There is a reason every city in the US promotes tourism: people who visit buy food, supplies, and create jobs in the local community. Between the several ministries in our area, over 500 missions groups are hosted in our town of 4,000 people every year. These short-term mission teams and their projects are the economic engines that have brought our town from poverty to middle class in the last 15 years. Some groups have been less than great, but the overall effect has changed local lives for the better.
So how do you change the shape of voluntourism? Here are a few thoughts:
- Respect the people and culture of wherever you are visiting. Always remember that the people you’re visiting aren’t there for your entertainment, they are just like you but from a different culture and background. Get to know them, talk to them, ask before you take a picture (or don’t take a picture at all). Treat them as you would want to be treated.
- Work on real, productive projects. The best way to do this is to find on-the-ground organizations who you can partner with. There are people in any area who know the needs that need to be addressed and how best to focus your efforts and resources. If you’re working on a project, by partnering with local organizations, you’re much better prepared to help, and not cause unintentional damage.
- Be honest with your funders. If you call your trip “missions” and have raised money under that title, be honest with yourself and your donors. Is this really just about missions or is it about tourism? If it’s just about you taking a trip, get a job and pay for it yourself. If it’s really about serving others and meeting needs, let people know how they can help. Taking an educational and touristy trip is fine, just be honest about it.
It comes down to respect for the people in the countries being visited. Travel is a good thing, it breaks down walls, changes opinions, and works against racism. If we can learn more about our world, our fellow man, and help others while we’re at it, it’s a good thing. Voluntourism suddenly doesn’t sound so bad.
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A while back, a friend from another ministry asked me to give a reference for someone who had been serving long-term at our orphanage. He asked me two questions: Is this person flexible? Is this person teachable? That was all they wanted to know. I thought those questions were brilliant, as long as the person was flexible and teachable, they could work with them. This is good to think about in short-term missions, and in life.
Here are a few fairly random tips for short-term mission teams. It could be longer, but this is a place to start.:
Be Flexible: Most Americans like to have a plan, they want to know what’s going to happen and when. This is fine when you can control all the variables, but very few situations of life allow us to be in control. When traveling internationally, and in the missions field, flexibility is critical. Flights get delayed, passports get lost, people get sick, standard travel issues occur. Most developing countries have their own unique challenges. Electricity might only work for a few hours a day or go out randomly. Water that we take for granted in the US might be shut off for hours or days at a time due to maintenance or other issues. Stuff happens. Even if the travel, housing, and utilities all line-up, your host might run into unforeseen circumstances. Medical emergencies, staffing problems, broken vehicles, or other surprise issues are the norm with most ministries. Maybe you’re all set to build a house, but a bigger need arises, and you’ll be asked to shift your project. Maybe you were planning on your team sharing at a church service, but the pastor had other plans. As individuals, and as a group, you need to be flexible, or you’re going to experience an incredible amount of frustration. It’s better just to flow with it, be positive, and make the best of whatever circumstances you find yourself in. Unforeseen events are going to happen, roll with it.
Be Low Maintenance: We have an in-house joke at our orphanage: “All mission groups bring joy, some when they arrive, some when they leave.” Most of the groups we host are fantastic. They come in self-contained, they know what they’re doing, and they have a great, flexible attitude. To be honest, some mission groups we dread. They need to be hosted, cared for, coddled, and they treat our team like their personal servants. We’ve had groups ask if we could have ice delivered to their cabins. I had one group get bothered that we didn’t have Keurig pods for the coffee maker they brought with them. One group that was working offsite at other ministries (which we encourage) wanted one of my staff with them at all times. Some people just don’t get it. Once again, most groups we love. Some take a little more grace.
Be Teachable: Being teachable comes down to just being humble. Everybody thinks they’re humble, even when they’re showing an astounding amount of pride. American mission teams have a long history of coming in with the attitude that they are here to save the world. Yes, teams bring in resources and manpower, but it’s important to remember that you’re partnering with people who live in the culture, and have probably been in ministry for many years. Take time to listen to whoever is hosting your missions team. No, seriously, slow down and actually listen to the people you encounter. There are so many fascinating, inspiring people serving in the missions field who want to see lives changed. Here is something most people don’t realize: For most missionaries, they see YOU as a missions field. They want you to experience God in new and incredible ways, and for you to grow in your faith. Listen to them; they know what they’re talking about.
Be Culturally Sensitive and Respectful: Not everyone in the world sees America, and American cultural norms, as the best. Please be aware of this. I know this sounds obvious but how we dress, the language we use, the attitudes we present are the biggest part of our witness. With every action, you’re representing not only the church; you’re representing the ministry you’re serving. It might be a dress that’s a little (or a lot) too short or an inappropriate shirt. It might be acting like the “loud American” in a local restaurant. It might be acting overly picky or turning up your nose at the local cuisine. Unless you have actual allergies, eat whatever is placed in front of you. It comes down to respecting the local people and culture. Sometimes it’s just common sense: The local police chief in our town has my number and will call if the visiting American teams are out of control or doing donuts in rental vans in a field somewhere (yes, it happens). Respect the culture, respect the people, respect the community. You are representing Christ. Walk accordingly. Side note on being culturally sensitive: leave the cameras at home, or at least ask permission before you take someone’s picture. “Do unto others…”
If I come across as snarky or negative, please don’t read it that way. Most groups we host are wonderful to work with and have great attitudes. I’m a deep advocate of short-term missions and their ability to change the lives of all involved. My hope is that people go into the mission’s field well prepared, with their eyes and hearts wide open to experience what God has laid out for them. Go on a trip; it can change your life.
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