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.
Please share with your missions pastor or on Facebook.
To say the church in America is going through challenging times would be an understatement. There are churches on almost every corner but in-spite of all the efforts they are dying as fast as shopping malls and book stores. Most traditional denominations are quite literally dying as congregations age, and the next generation is not embracing the old church model. Fewer millennials attend church on a regular basis than any prior generation and the fastest growing belief system in the US today is atheism. For every church that opens today, four close.
Today more than ever there are hundreds of options competing for our time. It’s common to see people on their phones during church checking social media. As technology increases, there are more and more demands on the few precious hours we have available. This lack of time creates a huge challenge for the American church. How do you compete with the unlimited activities and interests screaming for our time, attention, and involvement? How do you break through the noise? The default reaction is to make the church as “friendly” as possible by adding more coffee houses, spending more on worship, and remodeling the stage to be as Pinterest friendly as possible. This is not working.
So, how do we reach people at a deeper level? We need to let them see and experience others who are on fire for Jesus. Short-term missions can do this. The standard model for missions is “let’s go and tell that group of people over there about the Gospel.” It might be time for us to flip that model to “Let’s go over there and experience a level of faith we have a hard time finding at home.” Maybe, just maybe, if we go out with an open mind, something different might happen. If we go out with the attitude of “Yes, we’re here to serve, but what can I learn from these people who are so on-fire for God?”
Years ago, before vaccinations, if a child had chickenpox, it was common for the moms in the area to get together and have all the kids hang-out so they could infect each other. It was much better to have chickenpox as a child than maybe have it later as an adult. By spending time with someone who’s been infected, the children were much more likely to develop the disease. By hanging out with anybody who’s contagious, we are more likely to catch whatever they are carrying. Faith acts the same way. We can read about it, be preached at, maybe even be exposed to it through family history or tradition. Until we hang out with someone who is deeply passionate about their faith, someone who has been infected by their experience with Jesus, it’s hard for our faith to become real and personal to us.
I’m assuming if you’re reading this blog you are a believer, if you’re like the vast majority of believers, you were first drawn to the faith by spending time with someone else who was passionate about their faith and their walk with Jesus. This is truly how faith spreads, one-on-one and relationally. Even if you came to the Lord at a large concert or outreach, odds are you were brought or invited by someone else who had already experienced the joy of walking with Jesus. Can faith sprout spontaneously when someone is reading by themselves or just spending time contemplating the Lord? Absolutely. But it is much more likely to be spread by contact with another believer.
There are churches in America that are doing some incredible things. There are pockets of revival and people of passionate faith anywhere. God is not limited by geography. Just as a plant can survive growing through the cracks of the sidewalk, faith can live anywhere. But for a plant to thrive it needs better conditions, better nutrients, the right climate to grow into the healthy living organism it was intended to be. There is no greater influence in our lives than the people we surround ourselves with. We need to be spending time with churches that are on fire, that are going through revival, churches that are passionately in love with Jesus.
Around the world, God is doing incredible work through financially poor, persecuted, understaffed churches. Standing in a church in the middle of Ghana you can experience a level of real, joyful worship that makes anything you can experience in a US mega-church pale in comparison. In a cramped living room in Cuba listening to an “uneducated” pastor preach the gospel makes the best-trained theologian sound dry and feeble by comparison. Hearing the stories of the pure joy experienced by persecuted American missionaries in Muslim countries makes the writings of Paul come alive. The church in America is in desperate need of experiencing faith as a child, faith that is all consuming, faith as God intended our relationship with Him to be.
If we hang out with people who eat too much, we will eat too much. If we hang out with people who exercise, we will exercise more. If we hang out with people who are cynical and sarcastic, those traits will grow in our own lives. Faith works in the same way. If we spend time with people who are passionate about their walk with Jesus and are truly living it out, we will be drawn to do the same. If our church spends time and builds relationships with churches experiencing revival, with churches trusting in God at a deeper level, our church will be healthier. Short term missions can help to save the church in America.
By taking teams to other parts of the world and learning how to serve others, ultimately it can change the lives of the teams that go. The phrase that comes up over and over again from short-term missions teams is “I’m leaving with so much more than I came with.” Obviously, they’re not talking about material wealth; they’re leaving with something so much more valuable. The teams are leaving with a renewed and energized faith. In the grand scheme of things, their renewed faith is something extremely more valuable than any skills, supplies, or financing they might have brought to their destination countries. They leave infected.
The church in America is an interesting animal. Over the years the church has done some incredibly positive work and at the same time, if we’re honest, the church has done a lot of damage. One ongoing and problematic issue the church has is that it tends to have a pack mentality. The church tends to embrace whatever the current trend is. Whether it’s calling for the prohibition of alcohol one hundred years ago, the rabid opposition to secular music about 30 years ago, or the spike in end-time studies that seems to come around every 10 or 15 years, the church follows trends.
One of the current trends in the church (besides coffee houses and pallets EVERYWHERE) is to question the value of short-term missions. I’m not saying there isn’t a lot to question, but there is also a great deal of positive when done right. Missions have been a double-edged sword through most of the history of the church. Missions have done a tremendous amount of good, and some deep damage, but missions are an important part of our faith. We’ve been instructed to “go into all the world.” We have a responsibility and calling to serve others. It’s important we take an honest look at missions and do it correctly, lovingly, and with a humble heart.
If one looks at marriage as an institution and judges it on the end results, it would be very easy to mount an argument for abolishing it. Marriage is messy. Marriage is difficult. A healthy marriage is complicated requiring ongoing effort. Frequently, marriages require outside counsel and guidance. Way too many marriages ultimately end badly. Way too often there is intentional or even unintentional abuse. All that being said, very few people in the church would say the institution of marriage should come to an end. When marriage works and both parties are serving with humility, understanding, and a desire to build each other up, the institution of marriage can be a spectacular gift from God. If people enter into marriage with selfish motivations or unrealistic expectations, it makes a healthy marriage incredibly difficult if not impossible. How we prepare and enter into marriage sets the foundation for a healthy loving endeavor, and God is glorified.
Okay, now go back through that last paragraph and wherever you see the word “marriage” replace it with the phrase “short-term missions.” Short-term missions are messy, can cause deep harm and they require a great deal of effort. All these things are accurate. But, when it does work well short-term missions, like marriage, can be an incredible gift from God that changes the lives of those involved for the better. It is worth all the effort.
When a marriage does end in divorce, it usually comes down to one of a few issues. I recently read one theory that the majority of failed marriages are because of unmet expectations: “I thought marriage would solve my loneliness.” “I thought you would be a better homemaker.“ “I thought you would be a better provider.” “I thought it would be different.” When our high expectations bump up against reality, it can be very easy to be disappointed. When people go on short-term missions with unrealistic expectations, the same thing happens, disappointment and discouragement. The trip can be seen as a failure.
When planning or participating in a short-term missions trip, it’s so important to set realistic goals and expectations. Once the goals and expectations have been defined, it needs to be communicated to everyone involved, while realizing the importance of flexibility. It’s very rare when our expectations happened to line up with what God has planned. This conflict of expectations and reality can cause profound disappointment in any situation if we don’t have the right outlook.
We once had a home-building team come down to Baja with the goal of building a house in four days. This project was highly ambitious, but they were up to the challenge and very focused. About 30 minutes into the project the power in the town went out bringing the project to a stop (when the power goes out it’s usually for a full day) They could have been upset and judged their first day as a failure, but they had realistic and flexible expectations. They were willing to flow with whatever was thrown at them knowing very little was under their control. This team was great. They spent the day playing soccer with a few local teens and the family receiving the house. It turned out to be the best day of their trip with some real ministry going on and relationships being built. Building a relationship is much better than building a house. By not being tied to their specific expectations, they had a tremendously successful trip.
Like marriage, short-term missions is a huge blessing wrapped in a challenge. The enemy doesn’t like marriages or missions, and he will do what he can to destroy them both. By being mature, and having realistic expectations in anything we approach in this life, God will guide us into blessings that are way beyond what our expectations might be.
Short-term missions, when led in a healthy way, can change lives for all those involved. You can teach your team members the importance of working in complicated situations, being flexible in whatever comes their way, and seeking God’s will in any situation. By teaching your team the importance of controlling and managing their expectations, you will set them up for success in whatever life brings them: in missions, in marriage, and in life.
Please share on Facebook or with the missions leaders at your church.
Recently, I spent some time with a few adults who were raised in our orphanage. All of them have been out on their own for a while, mostly doing pretty well. I asked them about their opinions and feelings on the hundreds of short-term missions teams they’ve experienced. It turned into a very long conversation, almost all of it positive. One of the things they discussed among themselves was the sheer economic impact short-term missions have had in our community.
We are a fairly small town, about three thousand people. In our community, there are two orphanages, a large free clinic, men’s and a woman’s rehab center, a career skills training center, and a free-of-charge daycare center. All of these ministries are supported by, and through, the short-term missions teams that come and visit our community. Many of the restaurants, mini-marts, hardware stores, etc. are open today, and are supported by, the sheer volume of short-term teams that come to serve in our area. Collectively, more people are employed in our town, either directly or indirectly, through short-term missions than any other “industry” in our area. Is this the norm for most communities? No, absolutely not, but in areas with fewer teams visiting, the teams that do visit can have an even greater impact. By purchasing food, building supplies, and whatever your team might need locally, you are providing jobs and pumping the local economy with fresh funds they would not see otherwise. There is a reason every city in America fights for convention business, people traveling to an area bring cash and can dramatically boost the local economy.
Some people put forth the argument that short-term missions teams can be detrimental to local economies by creating dependency or taking away jobs locals might have. I fully understand that, but if the teams are managed correctly, and are partnering with solid on the ground ministries who know the economic landscape, the impact can and should be very positive. We and many other responsible organizations take great pains to make sure any projects that groups might work on are not taking away jobs from the local community. The projects can be geared to augment work opportunities through healthy partnerships.
One example of responsible group management: We run a home building ministry here in our town in Mexico. These are very nice homes, about 600 Square feet, three bedrooms and very “homey.” These homes cost about $7,000 to build. The families receiving these homes are well screened, truly needy, and it would take them years to build a home that we can bless them with in a week. At first glance, it’s easy to say that the teams coming in are stealing these construction jobs from the local community. Experience tells us that these home projects are adding jobs to the local community. The average family who receives these homes would never be able to hire the workers they would need to complete the construction. The construction would just never happen. The family works alongside the visiting team, and we use some of the funding to hire other locals to work alongside them, creating jobs that would not exist otherwise. Frequently, the groups leave additional funding to finish out the house, creating even more jobs. We also work hard to purchase all of the building materials locally from community hardware stores. $7,000 spent in a small local hardware store has a tremendous impact on their profits and their ability to provide jobs. When managed correctly short-term missions can have a profound, positive financial impact in small communities around the world. But, as with any project, the efforts have to be managed correctly.
There are plenty of examples of people using funds in a way that does no good or even causes harm. Last year a great, well-meaning group built a house for a single mom with two children who lost their home in an electrical fire. In that same fire, the daughter was severely burned. As the group was leaving, one gentleman saw that the house was being powered by running a cord from the neighboring house (not uncommon in much of the world). This very well-meaning man handed the lady over $1,000 to put in the electrical meter and have the house connected safely. $1,000 was more money than she had ever seen in her life and she did not have the experience to handle it well. Two weeks later she had a large new TV, a gaming system, and nothing left to wire the house correctly.
Money is a double-edged sword. Money handled with wisdom can change lives, communities, ministries, and the future of countries. Money handled poorly can destroy lives and communities. It’s a cliche that everyone who wins the lottery says that it ultimately destroyed their lives. Most lottery winners are bankrupt, divorced, and lonely within three years. Over 75% of professional athletes are bankrupt within a few years of retirement. Everyone claims they will be different, but large amounts of money changes how we see the world, how others see us, how people interact with one another, it changes way more than we can imagine.
If teams are focused and wise in how they use the funds, a long-term positive impact is an attainable goal and can transform communities. When done right, micro-loans for small business start-ups can change lives. Partnering micro-savings programs with solid, applicable financial advice can shift a person or families’ future. By providing equipment, medicines, and practical training to an established local medical clinic, you can literally save lives.
Take a short-term missions trip, lead a short-term trip, but please do so responsibly.
Please share on Facebook, or with your short-term mission leaders. Thanks