Probably the biggest difference between America and most other cultures in the world is that we are more production oriented while other cultures are more relationship oriented. Just look at some of our proverbs:
• “time is money”
• “better sooner than later”
• “make every minute count”
• “the early bird gets the worm”
For many Americans, long conversations and unplanned engagements with people (especially with ones we don’t know, or like!) can be quite burdensome. But other cultures are different. Relationships are central and time is their servant, not master. And research has shown that this has been one of the greatest weaknesses of American STMs: they often don’t foster long-term relationships with indigenous believers.
This has been a near unanimous conclusion from the research. Kurt Ver Beek surveyed all the studies done on STM in the last 20 years and found that:
“STM groups need to do everything possible to ensure that they are partnering with organizations, missionaries, churches, etc… who are involved in excellent, life-changing long-term work with those they serve. While the STM trip may be a catalyst or detractor from the intended changes—it is the long-term excellent relationships are the ones which will most contribute to creating lasting positive change (Ver Beek, “Lessons from a Sapling.”).
David Livermore came to the same conclusion after interviewing many nationals who have hosted STM trips. In one interview with a Rwandan church who received an STM to help with a building project, the Americans were told that 90% of their work was done the minute they got off the plane. The group was shocked, since they hadn’t done anything yet. But the nationals said: “You’re here. Your presence speaks volumes.” The fact is, “The presence and chance for relationship together seemed to be the most pressing need for the Rwandan church beyond any menial tasks that were planned” (Livermore, Serving With Eyes Wide Open, 95-96)
The value of relationships cannot be overstated. In fact, Christian economists Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert conclude that building relationships is the single most important thing to do to alleviate poverty! As good capitalists, we often misdiagnose the cause of poverty as lack of stuff. So our solution to poverty is to give the poor more stuff. But this isn’t the solution, since lack of material resources often is not the primary problem. (Except, of course, in situations where immediate “relief” is needed [e.g. the hurricane in Haiti.]) “North American Christians need to overcome the materialism of Western culture and see poverty in more relational terms” (Serving With Eyes Wide Open, 95-96). The root causes of poverty often have to do with more complex issues than simply lacking material things. In their outstanding book, When Helping Hurts, Corbett and Fikkert conclude:
“While poor people mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms than our North American audiences. Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness” (Corbett and Fikkert, When Helping Hurts, 53)
These root issues can only be overcome through relationships with the poor.
In short, STMs need to see their purpose more in terms of fostering long-term relationships. This can be done in a variety of ways. STM can support career missionaries in their relationships to the nationals; it can help the relationship between the missionary and sending church; or it can build relationships directly with the nationals, provided that the length of the relationship outlasts the length of the trip! Or to my mind, the best type of STM is one that goes to the same place multiple times a year for many years. Such trips can never be as effective as a career missionary will have, but multiple trips have a better chance at sustaining relationships than the typical “drive-by” STM.
Again, we need to ask the question: how is this trip going to help the long-term ministry of the national church and/or career missionary? And are there any potential hindrances this trip may have on such ministry?