Archives For Short-Term Missions

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the seriesShort-Term Missions

How much long-term benefit do Short Term Mission trips (hereafter, STM) have on the ongoing ministry of national (native) churches?

This should be the first question that we ask before asking for thousands of dollars to fund our 2 week trip overseas. Unfortunately, this question is rarely ever considered. And here’s why.

The primary reason that Americans promote STM is usually the spiritual benefit such a trip will have on the participant. For instance, if we send Johnny on a 10 day trip building houses in Ethiopia, he’s going to come back a changed person, spiritually ignited and ready to serve Jesus in new and radical ways. Or better, Johnny will more likely become a career missionary which might not have happened if he didn’t venture on a short term trip.

Shockingly, however, research shows that the lasting benefits that STM has on its participants is not what we have assumed. For instance, the whole “STM leads to career missionaries” logic has proven to be faulty.

Research has shown that while there has been a dramatic increase in STM participants over the last two decades, the number of career missionaries has stayed the same. For instance, one pole examining 690 Protestant mission agencies indicated that there were around 40,000 career missionaries and 60,000 short-term missionaries in 1996. In 2001, the number of short-termers increased to about 350,000 (almost a 600% increase) while the number of career missionaries stayed the same (R. Priest, et al., “Researching the Short-Term Mission Movement,” 432). If STM participants are more likely to become career missionaries, then the number of career missionaries should have increased along with the enormous increase of STM participants. But it hasn’t. The conclusion: STM doesn’t in itself lead to more career missionaries.

Ok, but wouldn’t Johnny be more likely to give financially to missions after returning from his STM—even if he himself doesn’t become a career missionary? You would think, but again the research shows otherwise. Missiologist Robert Priest performed a meticulous study of whether or not STM participants end up giving more to missions and concluded: “No methodologically sound research we have discovered has yet demonstrated a significant average increase in giving by participants cause by STM experience. In short, one claim about STM, that it helps to create higher levels of financial support for the career missionary enterprise, does not appear to be true.” (Priest, et al., “Researching the Short-Term Mission Movement,” 439-440). And this doesn’t consider the additional problem of the church’s money, which normally is allocated to career missionaries that is now being giving to STM.

Regardless of whether or not STM produces more career missionaries or more giving towards missions, we need to engage in STM primarily for those to whom we are seeking to minister, not for the potential benefit it may (or may not) have on us. The very “missions for me” mentality reveals more of our American consumer mindset than the “others-centered” mindset of Christ. Ministry, in whatever form, is primarily for others (see Corbett and Fikkert, When Helping Hurts, 172). Thus, even if the research above was reversed, we still need to ask the question, “What lasting benefit do STMs have on national churches,” rather than assuming that the spiritual benefit on the participants in itself is worth the cost of the trip. Instead of a “missions for me” mentality, we need to be driven by a “missions for them” one.

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the seriesShort-Term Missions

In the previous post, I questioned some often assumed benefits of short term mission (STM) trips; namely, that they help produce more career missionaries and that they increase financial giving from the participant. Statistically, the answer to both of these questions is: not necessarily.

In this post, I’d like to follow up with another issue that can hinder the long-term benefits of STM: self-perception.

Self perception can be very deceiving. People are often their worst critics, and when it comes to missions, national churches are slow to criticize STMs. For instance, the self perception of Americans in doing short term theological training is often very positive. Consider the following comments, which are actual quotes from American teachers who just returned from an STM doing theological training:

  • “They were really hungry [for the training].”
  • “The training [was] outstanding…I think they were hungry, very hungry. I would even say more hungry overseas than they are here…because they’re looking for more effective ways and tools”
  • “They would sit and listen. They wouldn’t get up and go to the bathroom every five minutes or say, ‘I need a break’ every couple hours. They were enduring heat…humidity…the small environment…And they didn’t get up and leave. I mean they were spellbound…in listening to the message, the methodology…the format…the how to’s and the philosophy.”
  • “It was fresh and new [like] they had never heard it before. They really soaked it in.”
  • “They were so thirsty. They just hung on every word.”

Sound familiar? If you’ve ever taught overseas (like I have) these responses probably echo your own. But is it real? I mean, is this what the national students would actually say? Well, consider some responses from the indigenous students of the SAME training session:

  • “You conclude you’re communicating effectively because we’re paying attention when we’re actually just intrigued by watching your foreign behavior.”
  • “It was a nice day, but I don’t think what they taught would ever work here. But if it makes them feel like they can help us in ways beyond supporting our ministry financially, we’re willing to listen to their ideas.”
  • “I’m glad the trainers felt respected. They should. What they need to realize, however, is that we would never think about talking or getting up to leave in the middle of their lecture. It would be repulsive to do that to a teacher in our culture.”
  • “I wish we could have shared more about the real challenges we’re facing in our ministry. How do I lead a church when most of our godly men have lost their lives in battle? How do I help a parent care for their AIDS baby? Those are my pressing issues, not growing my church bigger or starting a second service. I didn’t get that whole discussion.”

Self-perception can be deceiving indeed. The Americans didn’t understand, for instance, that respect for one’s teacher and his lecture is a cultural matter, and this does not necessarily mean that they were dying of thirst for our American wisdom. The lesson that can be learned from this example is this: the actual benefit of our STMs should be determined by those whom we are serving, not by the self perception of the participants.

Now, to be sure, this is only one negative example. Surely many other positive encounters on both ends could be reported. However, these “other sides to the story” have largely gone unnoticed and should at least cause us to venture into such cross cultural settings more prepared. We need to be informed about the potential limitations—or even long-term hindrances—of STM teaching trips in order for us to maximize them and use them to produce positive results among the host churches.

Once again, all of our short term endeavors NEED to ask the question: Is this trip producing a genuine, lasting benefit for the native churches and career missionaries in the region?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the seriesShort-Term Missions

Ok, if you’ve been reading the last few posts (if you haven’t you should skip down and read the last 2), it may seem that I’m super down on short-term mission trips. And in some ways, I am. I am super down on short term trips that cost a lot of money and produce no long term benefit for the career missionaries or the native churches, and I am super super down on short term trips that actually hinder the long term ministry of national churches. But I am not down on all types of STM trips; in fact, there’s a good chance I’ll embark on a few more in the future. I just want them to be done right. I want to be a blessing on the global church and not a hindrance—which can often happen when you venture overseas for 10 days.

In any case, here’s something I learned from some seasoned missionaries who told me of a positive type of short-term trip.

I actually emailed two of the top dogs doing theological education in Africa, both of whom have been doing ministry in Africa for 20-30 years in many different countries. I asked them what they would recommend I do if I had the opportunity to spend 4-8 weeks in Africa. You know what they said?

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.

We Americans have a hard time learning from the people of other countries. Yet until we do so, our cross-cultural ministry will be greatly hindered. Last year a Christian leader from Portugal visited our school and met with Joshua, Spencer, and I over lunch. We asked him: “So, what can we as Americans do to be better prepared to do ministry in Portugal.” Do you know what he said? “I’ve been a Christian leader in Portugal for 30 years and have met many American Christians, and I’ve never been asked that question before.”

Never? He’s never been asked that question?

A Christian leader. For 30 years. And he’s never been asked by an American how we can better serve the church in Portugal.

He’s been told on many occasions what ministry should look like in Portugal, but he’s never been asked.

We’ve got to do better than that. And I think we can do better. I think that the American church can strategically help the global church if we seek to learn from them. Even short-term trips can be effective if we learn from the global church what effectiveness would even look like.

In the next few posts, I’ll look at a few more drawbacks of STM and then a few of the positives. Stay tuned…

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the seriesShort-Term Missions

Of course they are, and don’t you dare question that!! This is the type of response I often get in so many words. I’m not sure what it is, but when it comes to Short Term trips, we sure love our building projects. And questioning the benefits of such trips can get you in hot water.

But I’m going to go ahead and question some things about these trips. But first, a disclaimer. Everything I say below is not intended to discount all types of building projects (i.e. where a bunch of Americans build a church, orphanage, or whatever). I only want to raise the question—the question that should always be raised when we venture overseas to build a building, teach a class, etc.—“is this short term trip worth the money, and is it contributing to the long-term ministry of the national church and/or the career missionaries in the area.”

So how in the world would a building project NOT help this? Well, consider the following equation.

Are most building projects done in rich or poor countries? Answer: poor.
Are there any construction workers, day laborers, masons, or carpenters in the poor country looking for work? Answer: probably, yes.

So let’s then ask the question: how do you think the poor construction workers, who are desperately looking for work, feel about a bunch of rich, white people showing up with expensive power tools and “taking their work?”

“We’re not taking their work; we’re just building a church or an orphanage,” you may say. Yes, but if you are building, then you are doing for free the jobs that local workers would have done to earn money to put bread on the table. And what about the national church and career missionaries? When you zoom in and zoom out, they are the ones who have to live with the reputation of outsourcing the jobs to a bunch of rich Americans who don’t really need the work. Not the best way to incarnate the gospel; not a very effective way to love your (poor, out of work) neighbor. Of course, this is not our intention, but it’s often the perception of the nationals. And perception is everything.

Jo Ann VenEngen, a sociologist in Honduras, has observed some negative effects of STM building trips, which—according to the perception of the nationals—do the work that could have been done by local workers. On one such Spring-break excursion, an American group “spent their time and money painting and cleaning the orphanage.” But, according to the perception of the nationals, the “money could have paid two Honduran painters who desperately needed the work, with enough left over to hire four new teachers, build a new dormitory, and provide each child with new clothes” (VanEngen, “The Cost of Short-Term Missions,” 21). It is striking that virtually all of the positive reports of STMs come from the self-perception of the American short-termers, not from the national host churches (see Kurt Ver Beek, “Lessons from a Sapling,” 13). The few studies that have been done, in which the nationals themselves are interviewed, have turned up some negative and quite embarrassing truths. While the nationals often appreciate the thought and effort, American building ventures often bring unforeseen long-term harm—felt only by the nationals after the Americans leave (see Kurt Ver Beek, “The Impact of Short-Term Missions: A Case Study of House Construction in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch.”)

One unseen curse has to do with the unintended effects that bringing outside resources (material, labor, etc.) has on the local economy. We do not live in an economic vacuum, and neither do our national hosts. We need to at least ask the question whether our building projects are hindering local business owners, thus presenting a very bad witness for the gospel to the very mission field that our hosts are trying to reach (cf. Corbett and Fikkert, When Helping Hurts, 115).

Now, not all STM building trips are bad. Done strategically and with cultural sensitivity, they can be beneficial. Enlisting nationals to participate in the project is one way to bless the community you’re trying to serve, and it also elicits a sense of ownership of the project, which helps foster a more long term benefit of the STM. (People tend to take care of stuff that they put time and effort in making.)

Once again, I hope that the American church never sends another STM again, without first asking the questions: how is this trip going to help the long-term ministry of the host churches? And are there any unforeseen drawbacks that our STM may have on the national church we are seeking to serve?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the seriesShort-Term Missions

Ok, the time has come to look at one of the positive benefits of engaging in a short term mission trip—the long term relationships with the nationals and host churches.

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?

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