Let me ask you a question. How would you feel if someone asked you the best way they could serve you, and then ignored your answer and did something else?
Sounds far fetched doesn’t it? Unless you are talking about short-term missions.
We are currently in the middle of a massive disconnect between those who want to serve in short-term missions and those of us who are host receivers or full-time in country missionaries.
It is an issue that is affecting mission work around the world, but because of the sheer volume of short-term participants, is perhaps most evident where I serve, in Mexico. Let me explain.
A few years back I was facilitating a short-term team from the states serving in Ensenada, Mexico. Their new youth pastor was leading the team. Before coming to this church, he had served in the same position at a prominent mega-church in Southern California.
About halfway through the trip, we were talking. He shared with me how much he appreciated our style of ministry. One that was focused on long term relationships and looked for ways to serve the local church body in Mexico. He said that after years of serving in large-scale mission trips at his previous church, he could really see value in this type of ministry.
So I asked him a question. “How do I, as someone who organizes these short-term mission trips, and you as church leader, sell this type of mission to your church?” He looked at me for a few moments and then responded, “Great question Dave.”
I was in a village south of Ensenada one day with a team and one of the women of the church I had known for years came to share something. Maria wanted me to know that I could always bring my groups to that little village. I told her I knew that and said thank you. As I was getting ready to move on she grabbed me to add something else, “David” she said “You can just bring your groups here to listen to our stories and hear about our life and our church and not do anything else. You being here is an encouragement to us. It means we are not forgotten”
Think about that for a moment. Our presence can be an encouragement to the body of Christ. The simple act of us being in the same place as those who are “over there” can have a profound effect on the ability of the church to grow and expand.
Isn’t this what we all want? Effective local churches that are encouraged and active in sharing the Gospel around the world? If so, and if our presence alone can be an encouragement or a motivating factor for the local church, then perhaps we need to rethink our short-term mission strategy to focus more on relationships.
Maybe our effectiveness could be enhanced if when we participated in these short-term mission experiences, we took a longer view of how we might be able to bless and assist the local church when we go to serve.
Here is how this might look.
First of all, go small. Now I know this is completely against the grain for many teams, especially those focused on students, but smaller can be better. With a smaller team you are less likely to over burden the local host receivers and missionaries.
You are also more likely to have a better quality team since you are not feeling compelled to take people just to reach some arbitrary participation number. Given a choice between a smaller team of quality people and a large team of people who need constant supervision, most missionaries will opt for the smaller team.
Second, take only people who are already living a Christ centered life. I know this means less people, but it also makes achieving the goal of sending smaller teams much easier.
Let’s face it; STM has become the new Christian camp for many participants. Proponents of STM frequently extol the life changing virtues of these one and two week experiences. It is true; the lives of many who serve are changed in incredible ways. However, foreign mission service, whether long or short term, generally should not be used as a training ground.
Third, seek long-term effectiveness with your short-term mission. This means establishing multiyear partnerships between your church and the local missionaries or host receivers. From a field perspective, if we can plan on your church to participate for a number of years, we can think in ways that are not only beneficial to our local ministries, but will help serve yours as well.
With this type of approach, your people will be better able to learn about the local culture, serve as David Livermore says in his book of the same name, “With Eyes Wide Open,” and be a blessing, not a burden to your host receivers and missionaries.
Finally, think through your exit plan. This is a difficult area for many of us because we hope that our partnerships will last forever. However, the reality is that there will come a time when most sending churches will find a need to move on. The question then becomes how to do this in a way that considers both sides of the short-term mission experience.
I recommend at least a one-year notice from the visiting church of any substantial change or alteration of the existing relationship. This includes your decision to withdraw from, or terminate the relationship for any reason other than a clear moral failing by either party. This allows the host receiver or local missionary time to plan, and prepare for any coming changes.
One year I had a church serving along one of our partner churches in Ensenada, Mexico. They had been doing so for three years and everyone thought all was good. Imagine our surprise, and the feelings of the local church when one of the visiting students informed the locals in their mid week service that this was their last year and that they would never see each other again after that night.
The work that had to be done to reassure the local church congregation that this separation was not their fault was tremendous. We later learned that the visiting pastor had never planned to serve with this church more than three years. He had just not bothered to tell anyone.
All of the hurt and confusion of this type of exit could have been avoided if this church had thought through their exit plan ahead of time and notified the local church after their second year that their next trip was going to be their last.
I wish I could say that the pastor I mentioned above went against the grain and decided to come back and stay connected to us. But it just did not happen. He told me that he needed a more exciting program for his youth group.
From what he was saying, he understood the need of the local churches where we were serving. But he said he had to consider the needs of his group and his church first.
I worry that he may have had the idea of mission and serving backwards.