Archives For Short Term Missions

Reflections on Nepal

Preston Sprinkle —  January 16, 2013 — 5 Comments

I hope you’ve enjoyed the updates and personal reflections in my last few blogs about my trip to Nepal. If you’re just now jumping in, it would be best to go back and read through my previous posts to get some context for what I’m going to say here.

jumping

Me acting like an idiot

Naturally, I’m filled with many different thoughts and emotions as I reflect on my trip. I really don’t want to be that obnoxious American who just came back from a short-term missions trip and now wants to bark at all his American friends who just don’t get it. Nor do I want to come home and forget about the amazing work that God is doing here in Nepal. Mark put it best when he compared reentry to tuning a guitar string. Pull it too tight, and it’s way out of key (the obnoxious short-termer). Don’t pull it tight enough, and it sounds flat (the unchanged short-termer). So don’t hide your $5 Latte’s when you see me around town. I’m not going to judge you. I’m sure I’ll fall back into my own Latte-slamming routine before long. But I don’t want to forget about the many needs in the church of Nepal. I simply can’t forget. They’re now a part of me.

So here are two thoughts that have percolated in my mind this week. First, the priority of indigenous ministry. As I’ve thought and written about missions over the past few years, I keep coming back to this idea. And my trip to Nepal confirmed much of what I’ve thought. In short, local pastors and leaders are much more effective in the “on the ground” ministry than foreigners. We don’t know the language. We don’t know the culture. We can hardly breathe the air! And even when we do spend a few years and become as “Nepalese” as we can, we will always be Westerners. Beki and I had a lot of good discussions about this. “Some missionaries,” Beki said, “come in and take over our churches. After they minister in a church for a while, they say it belongs to them.” Friends: these things cannot be.

Now, please hear me out. I’m not saying that being a missionary to Nepal is worthless. I’m not even saying that taking a short-term trip to Nepal doesn’t do anything. But what I am saying is that whether you come full-time or part-time, you must come underneath and alongside the indigenous leaders—the Beki’s and Babu’s of Nepal. They know the work. They know the people. They know the needs. Let’s join them in their ministry and let them tell us what to do.

The second thought that keeps gnawing at me is money. Nearly every ministry I experienced here in Nepal was to some extent hindered by money. And yet never did any of the leaders or believers here ask for money, nor did they advertise their needs. I’m well aware that in many countries, becoming a Christian is the first step out of poverty, and becoming a pastor is the gateway to western wealth and power. So my eyes were peeled; I was on the lookout for such unhealthy attraction to the west. But there was none of that here. Or at least, I didn’t encounter it with the leaders I met. I practically had to drag their financial needs out of them, and even then they didn’t flash their Puss-n-Boots puppy dog eyes so I would dig into my wallet. But when I did get them to put their needs in concrete terms, I was shocked at how little they need and how far it would go. (I’m well aware, too, of the long-term danger of creating a never-ending system of dependency, where the Nepalese church is always dependent upon the west to survive. If western churches get excited about giving, then this discussion will need to happen.)

I’ve already mentioned some of these needs in the previous blogs, so I can just summarize them here.

  • We saw at least 2 churches the size of a mid-sized American bedroom that were packed with dozens of recent converts (there are many more we didn’t see). Both of these congregations pooled enough money together to lay the foundation for a church building, but don’t have enough to complete it. The cost to finish? $3,000-$5,000, depending on whether they put build a tin or concrete roof.
  • Babu helps support 14 different pastors at $50-60/month. They need about $100/month each to be freed up to pastor their congregations.
  • Babu’s orphanage can only afford to care for 50 orphans, even though he could physically take on 100. He’s turning away kids almost daily for lack of funds.
  • Beki oversees 10 different fellowships and many of them need pastors. Local pastors are being trained. They have the manpower. But lack of money prevents these pastors from going into full-time ministry. (BTW, being an unpaid lay-pastor is not a real option for most leaders here. Ministry is way too time-consuming, sometimes requiring pastors to drive 2-3 hours a day to meet with believers in the church. They couldn’t do this and hold down a full-time job.)

Again, I don’t want to be that abrasive short-term-reentry-guy who glorifies third world churches and looks down upon the American church. Believers have issues wherever they are, and there are no perfect Christians—not even in Nepal. But let me vent just a little. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but the American church generally speaking spends many thousands of dollars a year (a conservative estimate) just to pull off a polished service every Sunday. It’s hard to tell if all the money invested into services and programs is actually fueling the Great Commission, or whether it is merely luring sheep from the other church down the street. Either way, we can trim. We can do with less. We don’t need all the costly bells and expensive whistles we think we do. And again, I wonder if all the costly clutter actually prevents us from valuing Jesus. I don’t mean to be snarky, but please convince me that I’m wrong. I love it that at one point Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley resisted the mega-church dream and gave away 50% of its yearly revenue to outside ministries. I love it that Anthem church in Ventura county (where I attend) every year gives away a huge sum of money on “generosity Sunday.” (I think we gave away more than $30k dollars last time.)

Let’s keep going! Let’s push harder! Let’s hold off on updating that 5 year-old sound system so that 50 kids can find God at Babu’s orphanage, rather than becoming sex-slaves. Let’s keep striving for simplicity in our churches so that pastors in Kathmandu can be freed up for ministry, and so that the much needed (not just wanted) church buildings can be built. Every church should be striving to be ridiculously generous toward other more needy ministries in impoverished areas. The apostle Paul spent more time in his letters talking about the redistribution of wealth within the global body than he did on justification by faith.

Someone once visited Mother Teresa and asked her, “What can I do?” She answered, “Find your Calcutta.” I think we might have found our Calcutta just north of the Indian border. Pray, and look for yours.

I mentioned before that our book of the month feature wasn’t necessarily going to be a monthly feature. I wasn’t lying. We’ll just post about great books we’ve read whenever we feel like passing them on to you.

This “month” I want to recommend When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert. You might think that this book is only directed at people who are ambitiously trying to end world hunger, but the reality is that this book is a must read for every Christian. If you’ve ever gone on a short term mission trip, this book is for you. If you’ve ever donated money to a ministry that reaches out to the underprivileged, this book is for you. If you’ve ever felt any degree of compassion for those who are suffering…well, you guessed it.

Though North American Christians often try to live as though there were no major problems in the world, poverty is a huge problem, both overseas and in our own neighborhoods. Corbett and Fikkert convincingly argue that very often, our efforts to help those who are impoverished show our ignorance regarding the issues involved and the solutions that would truly help these people. Because of this, our efforts to help often hurt both ourselves and the poor people we are reaching out to. We hurt the people we are trying to help by making them dependent on us financially, making them feel inadequate or dehumanized, and/or removing any opportunity they have to work towards a solution to their own problems. We hurt ourselves by fostering our pride and sense of superiority when we swoop in like superman to save the day.

Their book explores the nature of poverty, the problems and systems that cause it, and the right way to think about help those who are hurting. This doesn’t mean that we leave the materially poor to solve their own problems. It means that we get actively involved in correctly diagnosing the situation and offering solutions that include the impoverished in their own relief.

I’ll highlight three profound observations that Corbett and Fikker offer, observations which have completely changed the way I think about helping those who are hurting.

The first observation is that an “asset-based” approach to addressing poverty is better than a “needs-based” approach. In a needs-based approach, we go to the affected person or area, figure out what they need, then provide it, donate it, or build it. In an asset-based approach, however, we start by finding out what the affected community has to offer. What skills, knowledge, and systems do they bring to the table that can help them address the crisis using their own resources? This is an infinitely better approach because in addition to solving the immediate problem, it also gives those who are hurting affirmation and ownership over their ability to do what needs to be done.

The second observation is an insightful distinction that Corbett and Fikkert make between relief, rehabilitation, development. We tend to think of poverty as poverty, so we respond to it all the same. But they argue that not all poverty is created equal. Some situations (such as the aftermath of hurricane Katrina) require relief. Something needs to be done immediately, and often it will entail providing money, counseling, and building materials. Rehabilitation comes when the initial crisis is over, but the community needs to rebuild to get back to where they were before. Development comes when the infrastructure of a country needs long term work to improve the overall quality of life. The problem is that North Americans tend to treat all poverty through relief strategies, and providing this type of aid typically cripples rehabilitation and development.

The final observation comes through the way they define poverty. Material poverty is what usually comes to mind when we hear about poverty, but Corbett and Fikkert identify poverty in four fundamental relationships: with God, with our fellow man, with ourselves, and with the rest of creation. When these relationships are not working properly, we are impoverished. For this reason, middle to upper class North Americans are some of the most impoverished people on the planet. Often a poverty of relationship leads to material poverty, but the most important issue to address is the poverty of relationship.

If you choose to read this book, I can pretty much guarantee that it will be a game changer in terms of the way you view poverty alleviation, short term mission trips, and the nature of poverty itself.

Buy it through our Amazon store:

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?