I was in the 450 year old Cathedral of Guadalajara a number of years ago when one of the people on a short-term mission I was leading asked me a question.
Looking at the hand carved confessionals and artwork that had been there hundreds of years, he wanted to know why we were wasting our time looking at that stuff when we could be outside “saving souls.”
I have thought a lot about that statement in my work in Mexico with Adventures in Life Ministry.
Most Christians would agree that the reason for mission is to help people know Jesus.
However, few seem to agree that even a rudimentary understanding of the local culture is an important part of a successful mission.
There is a sense that time spent learning about the culture, history, and beliefs of the people you are serving is time wasted, because it takes away from the whatever is the central task of your mission.
Whether it is outreach, construction, or even medical work, many short-term missionaries, out of great motives, are reluctant to spend part of their in country time to experience the life of those they are serving.
With a majority of short-term mission pre-field training focusng on logistics, health, food and bathroom issues, people leaving our shores to serve are getting on planes woefully unprepared to really understand the complexity of life abroad.
Even taking the approach suggested by long time missionary to Honduras, Kurt Ver Beek, of using the first day or two after a team arrives to orient and expose them to the culture becomes a challenge to US based teams dreaming of high production and instant results from their mission work. They want to get started on the “real” work.
This attitude of choosing to ignore the culture where we serve in favor of “the more important” work is one of the major shortcomings of short-term mission. With limited time, participants want to be as productive as possible, but at what expense?
My Co-founder of Adventures in Life Ministry, Grady Martine was a long time worker with Young Life. He always spoke of “earning the right to be heard.” This was the idea that when you invest personally with people where they live, he would say you earn the right to have that important Gospel conversation.
It is too bad that for much of short-term mission, we see that value as only being useful in the United States, choosing to ignore its important ramifications when we leave our shores.
Successful cross-cultural mission, with long term lasting transformation only happens, when we truly understand the people whom we are called to serve. Because as we get to know the people and their heart culture, we gain the respect and cultural insight necessary to take part in God’s work of “saving souls.”
The Apostle Paul inherently understood this. The only way he could become all things to all people was to understand who they were and what they were about. And he did it all for the sake of the Gospel.
For us, it is a lesson we must learn and practice if we are to truly realize the promise of cross cultural mission, both long and short-term.
“Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became a Jew to win the Jews. To those under the law, I became like one under the law.... I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means, I might save some...”
1 Corinthians 9:19-23