I am going to step into it here. I’ll just be upfront.
Sometimes, no matter how good our intentions, people should just stay at home. Because good intentions, or a good heart are not always enough to ensure a good outcome in short-term mission. In fact, they can sometimes lead to a bad outcome.
Let me explain.
There is generally no shortage of people wanting to serve on short–term mission. In America, it is almost part of our DNA to help others. Add that to our understanding of the biblical call to missions, and you have an abundance of people willing to go and serve.
But are willingness, and an ability to go sufficient? Should we take, or allow to go, each and every person who desires to help, regardless of his or her skills, spiritual maturity or cultural sensitivity?
This is a very real issue facing those of us who are leaders in the short-term mission arena. It is even more of an issue for those of us serving our neighbor to the south, Mexico.
Due to a shared border, Mexico attracts the majority of people involved in short-term mission from the United States. Every Spring and Summer, you can see hundreds of ubiquitous white vans heading south through California and Texas delivering more than 300,000 well intentioned people to places like Juarez, Tijuana, Mexicali, and Ensenada.
Many of these well meaning participants are of dubious spiritual maturity, have not developed a cultural sensitivity, and come from an Americentric theological view that can clash with local understandings, customs, and mores.
Let me give you a concrete example of good intentions gone bad. One of the main ministries brought by short-term groups to Mexico is Vacation Bible School. You know the drill. Teach a story, help kids memorize a verse, play some games, have a snack, and then give the children an opportunity to receive Christ.
All of this is done by groups of well-intentioned people. The problem is that seldom do these groups of people have a strong enough grasp of Spanish to be able to teach in a way that is understandable to those attending.
What we have is a program usually translated by the one Spanish speaker on the team to a group of feisty kids who cannot be controlled because no one else in the group understands the language, or the culture or ethos of the area.
Not exactly an effective way to teach, or communicate something as important as the Gospel Message.
I know, because I have done these very types of Outreach Clubs. Usually what happens is that the short-term group leaves feeling good about themselves, and the difference they made, not realizing that there is a mess being left behind that the locals, and us in-country folks must somehow clean up.
So what is the solution, should we stay home? I am not willing to go that far because I have seen the positive aspects of short-term ministry first hand, but I think we should really ask ourselves a few key questions before going.
1. Is your group properly trained? There are some great organizations available to you as a leader whose sole purpose is training short-term mission teams.
People and groups that participate in short-term mission that make it a priority to get good training before leaving home are miles ahead of those who feel they can just “wing it.”
Never underestimate the impact of effective training. I know there is a cost involved in this, and I have heard many leaders tell me they just cannot afford these costs.
But I want to ask, can we afford not to send fully trained people on these mission journeys?
2. Can you communicate to locals effectively in their language? And I am not talking about using a translator. There is no substitute for a firm grasp of the local language when serving cross culturally. If you are unable to do that, perhaps a teaching ministry in another culture is not for you, or your group.
Now this does not mean do not go. It simply means that maybe you need to reevaluate your perspective ministry based on the gifts and skill sets of your participants.
Maybe a construction-based trip is a better fit. Think creatively with your host receiver missionaries, or agency, to find a more appropriate method of serving during your trip.
Perhaps if your group has some strong creative skills, they can come alongside the local church and help them to do activities like crafts, games, and music, leaving the teaching completely to them.
This type of approach, that of working together, side by side, is more in line with an interdependent style of mission ministry. It is one that sees value in both sides of the ministry team and encourages real ministry partnerships, a key component to effective cross cultural mission.
3. Are you guilty of a double standard? Would I be able to bring a team of outsiders to your church and present a week long VBS of the same quality that you are preparing to present on your mission trip? If you thought twice before answering yes, then maybe you need to rethink your mission.
This is a tough issue for American sending churches to hear. Frequently I have heard from US churches that the Mexican church should be happy with whatever help they can get from America.
To me, that is like saying “beggars can’t be choosers.” I am not sure this is the attitude we want to communicate to our brothers and sisters in Christ who live south of the border.
It is as if short-term mission in has become the new Christian Camp/Experience. With the publication of Rick Warren’s “Purpose Driven Life” and his call for everyone to go on a mission, for many, the short-term experience has become a sort of check mark on the to do list of many Christians.
This has led many to come, and take part, but neglect the necessary hard work needed to insure a positive ministry outcome on both sides of the border.
Short-term mission holds unbelievable promise for the local church. Channeled effectively, the thousands of people who participate annually in these missions can be real salt and light to not only those they are serving, but also their home congregations.
It will take more than good intentions. It will take hard work and lots of it; before you go, in preparation, and while you are on the field.