Critical Questions: Short Term Missions

Written by Michelle Murray-Schlitt

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“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” -Matthew 5:5

As a student of Global Development, and as a Staff Member serving on missions bases in the summers, I spend a lot of time thinking about, and studying short term missions, as well as serving on the ground. In my experience both in practical missions work and in considering the broad concepts and themes of development and humanitarian work, I have seen both the great good and great harm that can come from Short Term Missions work through the church. Striking the balance between these two polar opposites, and ensuring that the missions work you and your church are involved in is having a positive impact is difficult. However, I believe it can be achieved with one key thing that often is lacking… HUMILITY.

Having witnessed the power of short term missions that work, with organizations that are invested in the long term with indigenous populations, I believe there is a place in the church for short term missions. Well established organizations who are invested in the community in which they work, who see indigenous churches and groups as cultural resources and partners and who understand the context in which they are working can certainly have amazingly positive influence on the community in which they work. It is FUNDAMENTALLY necessary that as a church and as individuals going we examine our motivations and know our own hearts before engaging in cross cultural missions work.

Here are a couple of ways to best prepare ourselves as individual team members, and as groups to serve completely with a heart of humility and to do no harm.

Learn about where you are going (Know the organization) 

This first point is primarily directed towards church leadership as they are the ones making the decisions about where and when to send teams. Some questions need to be asked ahead of planning a trip to ensure the organization your church is partnering with is having a long term positive impact where they are. Some preliminary questions to ask are:

  • How long has the organization been there?
  • Do they involve locals? (Do they have local staff members, can the work you are going to do be done by locals?) If organizations are not involving those whom they are trying to help, the work they are doing is likely not sustainable and will not make long term meaningful impact on the community.

Note:  Be VERY careful about work that involves ORPHANAGES – these trips are almost never truly beneficial to children and have been widely discouraged by organizations such as UNICEF and Save the Children. Both structurally, (the increased demand to help from the Global north has led to an increase in orphanages in the Global South to supply that resource for us), and individually (a steady stream of different faces who take care of children for two weeks or a month before leaving exacerbates extreme attachment and abandonment issues in children who are already without parents) “Orphanage Tourism” has been created by our well founded desire to help- however in this case it is far better for us to stay away.

If the organization you are in talks with turns out to display some of these characteristics just WITHDRAW and CANCEL. Even if partway through the process you find out more, it is so much better to not go at all then to bring a team to do something that will cause long term harm to the community.

Once you have selected an organization you trust, try to learn the basics of language before you go. Though realistically your team isn’t going to learn a new language in the eight months leading to your trip, knowing the basics through holding some language classes prior shows respect and an interest in the local culture and people.

Basic phrases like: Hello, goodbye, how can I help, sorry I don’t understand, God bless you, where can I find ___, etc. will serve your team well!

Understand your role realistically 

Both as church leadership and as individuals, we need to be conscious and careful about the way we perceive ourselves in relationship to those who we are serving.

Be careful about the way we present our work:

Try not to perpetrate a single story of poverty. When advertising or fundraising, be very specific and clear about where you are going and why. What people group are you working with? What is their history within the country? Avoid generalizing and homogenizing. (Example: you are not fundraising to go to Africa, you are fundraising to go to Lilongwe, Malawi!)

Understanding the larger structures of Global North to Global South interactions:

When you go on a missions trip, you are not operating in a political void. For example, if you are a church team from the US going to serve in Managua, Nicaragua, understanding your two countries history and the way that US operations impacted the development of the Nicaraguan political and economic system is entirely crucial. Even if you don’t know the history, the people you are serving absolutely will and it’s your responsibility to know and understand what you are representing.

Though we have these responsibilities to be cautious and wise about where we go with teams, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go. There is so much room for partnerships within the body of Christ- and many organizations doing such good work for the church around the world. The key here is that it needs to come as a lateral, equal partnership, not a top down system. We need to go with mindsets of partnering with our brothers and sisters around the world, rather than delivering aid or viewing ourselves as saviors. If we can root our short-term missions in the way that Jesus did mission work, then there’s opportunity for us to have positive impact. Jesus loved the least of these, he continuously shocked religious leaders and people in power with those he chose to spend time with and love. Jesus’s radical humility is what should guide us as we go, as we attempt to find even the smallest reflection of that great love in ourselves.

“what do you have that God hasn’t given you? And if everything you have is from God, why boast as though it were not a gift?” -1 Corinthians 4:7

Go humbly 

At an individual level this mindset should encompass all your preparations before your missions trip, and should guide your steps as you do your work when you go. In my experience, the best teams are the ones who have humility at their core, and who let it influence all their actions throughout their trip. Seeking to serve as Jesus served, without pomp or praise, but simply seeking to give all of yourself to those whom you are serving is paramount.

Final Note 

I believe that there is a place for Short Term Missions that will benefit both the Kingdom of Heaven, and people here on Earth. I believe that the church now needs to rethink the way we do Short Term Missions and simply take more care in how we do them – as we have more information now about effective and sustainable development the church can learn from our history, and from development scholarship and professionals to take positive steps forward. It is imperative that we are humble enough to check and balance ourselves, and we do not allow our pride to stop us from taking steps necessary to do no harm where we go.

The church can beneficially serve its brothers and sisters around the world.  I have seen the fruits of missions work that is done with cultural understanding and grace and it is so beautiful. The   Lord has called us to serve – let us do so in humility and love.

Critical Questions 

Here are some questions to ask yourself, as a team or as individuals, before partnering with an organization or deciding to go on a trip. Some are more practical, and others will require more prayer and discernment, however I pray that these can serve as a jumping off point in pursuing missions work rooted in humility and love.

  1. What is this organizations history in the area I want to work in? How integrated are they in the community? Do they employ development professionals and locals?
  2. What is the economic and political history of this region? Why are they in need of development partnerships today? What has the relationship between our two countries looked like historically and what could it symbolize for me to be there?
  3. What are my views on the relationship between me and the people I will meet there?
  4. In what areas of this trip or experience does pride have a hold on my heart?
  5. What does the Bible say about service and humility? Where can I better integrate those principles in my trip?

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