I was watching as the group leader and his team worked on a project for a church in Mexico.
Having the benefit of many years serving in this type of ministry in Mexico, I have become accustomed to seeing the glitches that lay ahead for inexperienced people in my adopted country. I may not catch all the potential mistakes, but having made many of them myself along the way, I catch a lot.
Knowing the cost of materials, and how long it takes to get things done over there, I was concerned that they would not be able to get the project to point where the next group could easily continue.
I went over to talk to the leader and ask him a question.
Would he be willing to change what they were doing, for the good of the local church, so that the next few groups would be able to really move forward?
I was pretty nervous. It isn’t everyday you ask someone to set aside their goals for a larger goal, but I was amazed when he graciously agreed to my request.
I left that day feeling encouraged, and excited about the next few weeks of ministry on this particular site.
Until late the next day when I returned. Not only had they gone ahead with their previous plans, they had also decided to use the remaining funds they had brought for the church in Mexico as they saw fit, rather than how us “in country” folks felt would be best for the overall ministry.
When I asked him how they came to that decision, he sheepishly told me that the team felt they had to honor a decision that had been made at their home church in California about what to do. He then added that the people back home were “expecting pictures of a specific project” and he did not feel he should disappoint them.
Recently I was reading an article by Dr. Dennis J. Horton, Associate Director of Ministry Guidance at Baylor University. His article, Short-Term Mission Trips: Are They Worth It? raises the very question missiologists have been struggling with for years.
What struck me as fascinating was not necessarily the article itself, although he did reference Dr. Robert Priest, who spoke last year at The Forum, a conference I help organize, and who has done some great research on short-term mission, but the comments.
As I read those comments, a very important point began to emerge. Horton wrote about the value of STM on the goer-guest.
The people commenting were asking why the focus was not on those being served.
Dr. Horton had done what so many others before him had done. His initial look into the value of STM was from the lens of those serving, rather than the lens of those being served.
While not denying that those going may get some sort of benefit from serving cross-culturally in short-term mission, our primary objective should always first be the lives of those we are serving over there.
When we fail to do that and look for the Kodak moment, as the team leader in the story above did, we have failed, and to quote one person who responded to the article:
“[We have taken] advantage of an imbalance of power to enter other people's communities to gain these experiences and further [our] own agenda.”
How is that being like Christ?