Short term missions: The Good, the Bad, and the Downright Ugly

The rush of the summer short term missions is over and it is time to evaluate the success and frankly, the failures of short term missions.  Just because a Christian American plans, pays for and participates in a short term mission, it doesn’t automatically mean they did something good or Godly.  Don’t get me wrong, I am sure the hearts of the short termer and short term leaders are in the right spot; the intention to carry out the Great Commission is a wonderful aspiration and it is scriptural and Godly, but unfortunately, all too often the result is not what we expected, not what we hoped for, and sometimes can be damaging to our Christian goal.  We don’t have to look at the conquests of the Spanish in South America in the name of the Lord, or the popular myth of manifest destiny here in the U.S. that destroyed any Christian witness among the natives for hundreds of years to know this is true.

What is important, critical even, is that we take stock and evaluate lest we be doomed to repeat mistakes or worse yet, ignore them.  The mission trip and the mission team are not finished simply upon the re-entry into the states and the reception of the passport stamp at customs.  We must evaluate and study what we did to show ourselves approved unto God, a workman worthy and not ashamed.

This short article is one in a short series that will attempt to list some guidelines for simple evaluation and share some of the good, the bad and the ugly of short term missions.  The object is that we learn.  It often amazes me that so many people recite the verse that we are to study to show ourselves approved and yet, when it comes to missions they don’t think they need to study methods, cultures and even their own successes and failures to be led to do it the best that they can.  The stories that follow are those that I, as an in-country missionary have experienced, enjoyed, and gritted my teeth through or have knowledge of through other missionary friends.

First: the vision.

Before leaving for another country, during the trip, and during evaluation there should always be an articulated vision, repeated often, for the people perish for a lack of vision or, if you will permit me to apply it, the purpose of your mission will perish without a vision.  The vision is usually not as simple as “Let’s go and tell people about Jesus.”  While that could be a plan in a limited circumstance, it is most often much more specific.  For instance, many missions go to physically build a church for a congregation in another country where that country lacks the resources or ability to build it.  Teams also go for medical assistance and other kinds of service.  The key here is that the goal should be articulated often—for a medical mission it should be something like this:  to provide medical assistance in order to show the love of Christ and provide a Christian witness, supporting the local missionary and that mission.    That seems simple enough and many teams would say that is what we did—but I can tell many stories of where a team provided good medical care but did so while ordering local people about, demanding items that simply weren’t available, and berating the country they were in for not having good supply.  The medical goal may have been realized, but in the process, they were a terrible Christian witness, an awful representation of the love of Christ, insulting the country the people lived in, and destroyed much of the work the local missionary who lived among the people was trying to do.

When building a church building, the goal that doing so should be a witness to the Lord, must be – articulated and all participants in that mission should see the primary end as-not the bulding- but their witness. 

A Good Story

Let me tell you a good story of how it was done right.  A team came to Bolivia for the purpose of assisting a local pastor to build his church.  (Let me point out that the team was ASSISTING the local pastor—they did not take over the project, insist it was done their way, nor demand to dedicate it when it was finished.)  During the work, the team followed the directions of the local pastor, asked what he wanted done and did it the way he was accustomed to building.  In the midst of the project, a native man and woman stopped by the project and asked the pastor why white people were working alongside Bolivians.  The Pastor explained that the people were Christ followers and came from the United States to help in the Christian project.  The man and woman walked inside the frame of the church, the woman, wearing a skirt and open sandals picked up a shovel and began to work, too, and after ten minutes she fell to her knees and her and her husband asked for more information about Christ, prayed to open their lives to him, and joined that church.  They are still there to this day.

And now, for the ugly.

We had a small team come to Bolivia to build a small building for an orphanage.  It was a good idea, although, I’m not certain that the orphanage had much buy in at the beginning.  The idea was that of the American team.  On a prior trip they told the orphanage what they wanted to do and how they wanted to do it and the orphanage said ok.  (That is not to say that this team didn’t often succeed at tasks and demonstration of love.

So, the team raised the money and came to Bolivia to build a brick building according to their own plan. Then a local brick mason came and worked on the building, but one of the American team members told him he was laying the brick wrong.  The mason had laid brick for many years and in fact, had laid brick at this orphanage before, but he did not do it how the American thought it should be done.  An argument ensued and to make a long story short, the brick mason, who was not about to be told by a twenty-eight year old American how to lay brick, walked off the job.  The building was completed American style and is functioning and the orphanage is enjoying it.  Sounds successful and in fact, there is a measured amount of success…except.

That brick mason was the only brick mason in the area and refuses to work with the orphanage any longer.  Plus, the orphanage had been witnessing to the brick mason for some time, but now the brick mason’s idea of Christianity is damaged and because there are not many Christians in the area, he may never be reached for the Lord.  This could have easily been handled differently if the American—well, if he wouldn’t have acted so American, and if he would have showed some humility.  Additionally, the missionary tried to give him instructions on how to speak to the brick mason, but again, he would not listen and did not respect the in-country missionary, who, will never work with him again.

Let me give you another example of a building project.  A team went to Africa to help build a church compound, but they were sent home.  When the leader was asked what happened, he responded, “We were building buildings for many years before the Americans arrived, and we will build many buildings after the Americans left, but while they were here the Americans thought that they were the only ones who knew how to build buildings.”  Not hard to see that the Americans did more damage than they helped.

One more example of building issues:  A team of good hearted Americans went to a country to build a church.  They designed the church and told the people what would be best, paid for the materials, and erected the church on a two week mission trip, then they left thinking they had wonderful success.  But the building sits empty because it was not built by the local people and they say “It is not our building.  That belongs to the Americans.”

To be sure I have some more wonderful stories to tell as well about humble teams willing to listen and learn from the missionaries on the ground.  These teams aid the local teams and don’t enter like they are the king of the hill and know more than everyone else.  We have experienced groups that came so humbly and served the people with their needs that whole villages have opened their doors to Christianity.  Tune in to the next article for how that happened.

In the meantime ask yourself, is your vision to win some for the Lord?  If it is, then building a building, putting in the well, donating clothes and other tasks should not take the priority.  Building a relationship that shows the love of Jesus should be the priority.

An upcoming article on more good and bad mission trips and evaluation tools and standards follows soon. 

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