Wise advice for short-term mission

October 17, 2011 in Africa, Mission by Mark

Short-term mission is something that is hugely popular here in the US, with millions of dollars spent each year to send people of all ages overseas for anything from a week to a few months. A significant amount of research has been done in recent years into the effectiveness of such trips, generally concluding that they can have a very positive or very negative impact, in large part depending on the extent to which the local church and community is involved in the planning, and how the trip relates to long-term missional engagement in the community.

While the visiting team will almost always benefit from their cross-cultural interaction, this should never be the primary reason for the trip, or the determining factor in planning. These are issues that in Wycliffe UK we have tried to think through in some depth in recent years as we sent summer teams to Africa and Asia, seeking to focus on relationships, visiting existing long-term translation projects, and hopefully building ongoing links.

Two blog posts about short-term mission have recently caught my attention. The first was by Jamie, who exposes some of the backward thinking of parents who send their children to poorer countries to teach them “how fortunate they are”.

Poor people aren’t stupid people. Poor people aren’t less perceptive. Poor people aren’t always pleased to be living what we deem “simple lives”. And don’t you dare fool yourself into believing that poor people aren’t making the exact same lifestyle comparisons you are.

They know.

They know it costs a butt-load of money for you and/or your kid to fly across the ocean to come and take pictures of them. They know that you spent thousands of dollars to hand deliver $200 dollars in toothbrushes and sample size toothpaste. They know the difference between the new shoes your kid is wearing and the old ones you’re donating.  They know by the look on your face, by the way you gesture to your teammates, by the way you slather on hand sanitizer before you eat, that your life is very different than theirs.  They know you have way more of everything – food, money, luxury, opportunity – than they will EVER have, and they know you think those things are “Blessings”.  And, yes, they know what an iPhone is.

When we descend upon the impoverished to improve our family’s perspective, we may as well be saying to the mothers of these children, “Pardon me, I’m just gonna use your poor kid to teach my rich kid a lesson for a minute. I’ll be out of the way in no time – Oh, and I’ll leave you some shoes…. and a toothbrush.”

The not-so-hidden lesson there, the lesson we’re teaching kids worldwide, from the suburbs to the ghettos, is that “The rich are Blessed”  – which, of course, means that the poor… can suck it. Read more…

The second post contains some very wise advice for short-term visitors from a theological educator in Africa, posted on the faculty blog of Eternity Bible College:

They said: don’t teach. I know you’re a teacher, you even have a PhD, and it looks like you’re doing a fine job in America, but if you come to Africa, don’t teach during your first trip. Before you teach Africa, first be a student of Africa. Sure, hundreds of schools and institutes would love to have you come teach. You’re educated. You’re white. You’re the very symbol of wealth, wisdom, and upward mobility. But frankly, you don’t know the culture, and you have a better chance at doing more harm than good if you go in and dump all your knowledge—and perhaps a wad of cash—with no awareness of the complexities of the culture. But what you could do that would be hugely beneficial for both you and them is to learn. Find an African bishop, priest, or pastor, and follow him around. Be his shadow when he’s visiting a mother dying of AIDS at the hospital, or at a refuge camp where displaced Christians are wrestling with forgiveness. Go with him to the slums, to the cities, to the villages, and to the homes of congregants living in grinding poverty. Follow him. Ask questions. Take notes. Stare into the eyes of the man who lost his daughter to the militia seeking young soldiers. Don’t teach. Don’t counsel. Just learn. Drink deeply from the rich wells of African wisdom. And if you do this for a couple of months, you will be in a much better place to teach in Africa—if your heart beats hard enough to bring you back. Read more…

But if you are going to learn, isn’t this just selfish? Shouldn’t you give something from your plenty to help those in need? There are certainly many things that we can give, but we might need to think more creatively than just our material things and our knowledge. We can give our time to listen, our commitment to an ongoing relationship with the local community, and our effort in learning the language and culture as we attempt to see the world through the eyes of our host.

I wonder if short-term trips are often made up of doing, building and teaching because these things are easy to give and then leave feeling good that our mission was accomplished. I think in reality it’s often the mutual giving of vulnerable ongoing relationship that is much more difficult and messy, but will ultimately be a greater witness to the nature of God’s kingdom and God’s mission.