Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Mission, Missions, and Missional

I got a call the other day from a well known national ministry. They found the number for Adventures in Life in the telephone book and assumed we were a church.

As such, they were calling to ask me, as a supposed youth pastor, if I was interested in my students participating in a mission trip in Las Vegas.

A few years back I was working with a denominational group that was putting together a missions conference for their local congregations. One of their goals was to celebrate what God was doing as the members of these local churches served God in their neighborhoods.

As I talk with pastors and leaders about missions, I constantly hear about a renewed focus on local mission opportunities.

These experiences have got me to thinking. Is it possible that the church, in our rush to embrace the term missional, has defined all of what we do as mission so that we feel better about ourselves?

Think about it like this. If youth pastors are missionaries, if sharing Jesus with the barista at Starbucks is mission, if giving socks to homeless people is missions work, then what isn’t mission?

It is as if we have decided to define all that the church does as mission, so that we can look at ourselves and conclude we are doing a good job missionally. We have changed the descriptions enough so that no matter how little, or how much, the church does, we look heroic.

So here is what I am wondering. How much does this new thinking impact the church and her involvement in cross-cultural international mission? Is it possible that we are raising an entire generation of people who see no need to leave our shores and involve themselves in the work of God “over there?”

Could it be that with these new definitions of mission and being missional locally, we are robbing the church of some of the very people who 50 years ago might have gone “to the ends of the earth?”

I am not sure what the answers are to all of this, but I just can’t stop thinking about it.

What are your thoughts?

Monday, December 14, 2009

In Short-Term Mission, Who Serves Who?

I recently came across an organization with a web site that offers mission-adventure and mission-wilderness trips.

For anyone serious about quality short-term mission work, this should be a real concern. Because the focus of these types of mission adventures is almost always primarily, or first, on the person going.

In a practical sense, let me give you an example. I was recently contacted by a church about serving with us alongside one of our partner ministries in Mexico. In order to make sure that their students were not exposed to anything too different from their home church, they asked me to get the pastor in Mexico to agree to limit the way he and his church worship God.

I don’t know about you, but that kind of self-centered thinking worries me. Unfortunately, many of us in the short-term mission world are as guilty as anyone in perpetuating it.

We regularly talk about, and even promote our ministries as places where you can come and really experience God’s passion, as if that is not possible in your home church.

Short-term ministry advocates call on people to leave their comfort zones and go serve, yet the emphasis is typically on the benefit they will receive as a result of going. You are changed. You are discipled. You will never be the same.

I have used those same phrases myself!

How do we square this with the Gospel account in Matthew 16 that to really seek after Jesus, one “must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me [Him]?” Isn’t a discipleship model focused primarily for our own benefit not what He desires for us?

The church example I cited above is a logical outgrowth of this type of me or my church first thinking.

When our primary concern is about our own growth and discipleship, as opposed to those with whom we serve, we make demands. Demands that we be served or that things be how we want them.

If we truly believe that we are called to emulate Jesus and serve others as part of living a missional life style, then we have some work to do.

Any thoughts?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Youth Ministry, Discipleship and Short-Term Missions

My last post was about short-term mission and youth ministry. I commented on the lack of training and preparation many youth pastors receive prior to leading short-term mission trips.

As a result of that post, I have been asked to expand my thoughts and submit an article to a major U.S. Christian magazine. It will be published, I hope, in January, so I am now in the process of some final research.

One of the people I have asked for input is Seth Barnes of Adventures in Missions. Seth has been involved in short-term mission at many levels in his more than 20 years AIM.

Here is what Seth had to say. And yes, I am the unnamed guy who is "going to write an article."

I got an email from a guy who is going to write an article about how training for short-term missions is inadequate. I replied,"The problem is not that youth leaders don't have access to training, but that they don't value it, have time for it, or have pastoral support for it."

He wrote back: "How do we break the cycle as it applies to youth ministry?"

Well, that question opens a can of worms.

To see into his can of worms, click here.

And then let me know what you think.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Short-Term Mission and Youth Ministry

I recently returned from an annual conference sponsored by the Fellowship of Short-Term Mission Leaders. We bring together leaders connected to this movement that has become known as short-term mission to learn, dream, and improve what has become a one billion dollar industry.

We had people directing ministries, [like me] practitioners, church pastors, authors, team leaders, host receivers, and service providers. About the only folks missing were youth pastors.

That’s right. The leaders responsible for sending a great percentage of our short-term people around the globe were not represented. Not underrepresented mind you. They were not represented. There was not one youth pastor in attendance.

If you are like me, you wonder about stuff like that. You wonder why not one person who leads and inspires students today in churches across America felt four days of learning and training to be better short-term mission participants was worth their time.

So I started asking questions. I didn’t get a lot of answers at first. Most people seemed to say that youth pastors are a busy group. Or the cost [about $1000.00 once you add travel, lodging, and meals] was too much. Some said that as a group, these people we charge with providing religious leadership for our students are just bad planners and like many adverse to commitment.

Then I asked Don. He is a director for a large mid-western mission agency that sends hundreds of shirt-term participants around the globe in support of their long term missionaries. Don said his ministry was asking the same question. So they did some research using focus groups.

They brought in youth pastors from big and small churches. Urban and suburban. Rich and poor. And they asked questions. Trying to find out what they, as a ministry could do to better serve the youth pastors of America regarding short-term mission.

After two days of questions, conversations, and evaluation, Don, and his ministry got their results. The answers may surprise you. They should shock you. They should anger you.
  • Youth Pastors do not believe they need any specialized training to do short-term mission.
  • Youth Pastors do not want to participate in any training related to short-term mission.
  • Youth Pastors believe that those of us who invest our lives in short-term mission have nothing to offer or teach them.
I don’t know about you, but I find this troubling. I spent the better part of my conference talking to other leaders trying to disprove these results. Surely, I thought, these leaders had indeed come across youth pastors who were seeking out training and leadership in this important area of their ministry.

Nope. I found no one who regularly came across youth pastors that saw a need for stuff like cultural training, developing cross cultural ministry partnerships, or real language learning in short-term mission.

This means that the people arguably responsible for sending more Americans abroad than any other group, believe they are adequately trained and in no need of additional insight from some of the top short-term ministry minds in the country.

Is it any wonder people are questioning the effectiveness and indeed, the very idea of short-term missions?

What are your thoughts?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Short Term Missions and Support

Let’s talk about support. Not the easy type that includes stuff like prayer and encouragement. We’re talking financial. Money. Bucks. Greenbacks. Are you getting the picture?

What I want to open up is this whole discussion of support and short-term missions.

There are three areas to think about:
  • Direct regular support of national churches and pastors.
  • STM leadership and host receiver support.
  • Goer-guest, short-term [STM] participant support.
Today, we will deal with in country national churches and pastors, their needs, and our ability to offer financial support.

As a person who leads numerous short-term mission experiences every year, I am involved with many pastors and leaders on the field. Often these pastors have only one goal in life, to serve God with all of the heart, mind, body, and soul.

The decision to become a pastor in Mexico where I serve, and many other emerging countries around the world, is a decision to struggle financially, often to leave behind family and friends, and lead a life constantly under examination by others.

Let’s look at the financial side of this and the impact of short-term mission.

Here’s a picture of what that might look like. You decide whether it rings true to you or not.

A perspective pastor begins by sharing the Gospel to his family, friends, and people who live nearby. Soon he has a small group of 10 – 15 people gathering weekly for a time of worship and bible study. As the weeks go by, this newly organized group continues to grow and quickly multiplies to between 20 – 30 adults.

Soon after, a US church gets connected through short-term ministry and together they dream about future ministries. At some point during the relationship, the US church expresses a desire to help support this fledgling ministry.

When the US group returns home, their leadership makes the case to the home church that there is a vital Kingdom interest in helping this new church and their pastor financially.

Up to this point, every thing is good. However, this is where many US churches, all with good intentions, get off track. Because with big hearts, we respond without any guidelines. Guidelines that can make the difference between just throwing money at a problem, and being part of the solution to a very real issue.

Here are some guidelines that I believe can make a difference for you, your church or mission board, and that national church, or pastor you want to support.

Be generous. Give enough to make a difference. If your objective is to support a pastor or a church, make sure what you give can do the job. Often a US church decides on a gift of $100.00 a month, without regard to whether this amount will actually be a help, or a hindrance.

Let me explain. Oftentimes a gift that only does part of the job leaves the church in a place of always needing more. With scant resources, she is barely able to keep her head above water, never really having an ability to move ahead.

Perhaps a gift of $500.00 a month is a more realistic amount in light of local living expenses and church expectations. Think about that for a moment.

Would you spend $500.00 a month on a ministry in your own church if you knew that ministry would be serving between 20 – 30 people each week? If the answer is yes, why not a Kingdom ministry elsewhere that also is making a difference?

Whatever amount you can give, you will feel better about it if…

You only give money to an established church. By established, I mean a church with a leadership team that makes the decisions. This ensures that there is accountability within the local body and that the local church you are supporting is aware of all outside support of the local ministry.

A corollary within this, to protect both the pastor and his family from charges of abusing his position for financial gain, is that the treasurer of the church should not be related to the pastor or his family.

Do not designate your funds. This is hard for US churches, but I believe it is vitally important. Let the local church leadership make the decision on where to spend the money. As people who are there 365 days a year, they, better than us, know where the needs are greatest.

If we trust them enough to serve along side their ministries, we should trust them enough to make good decisions with the resources God has provided.

You will be amazed at what this simple step will do for your ministry partnership.

Have a clearly agreed upon exit plan. Years ago I was involved in a new church plant here is Las Vegas. As a small group there was no way we could support a pastor. So our denomination agreed to support us for a period of five years, with that support declining by 20% each year.

That was such a blessing for us. Their support told us they believed in what we were trying to do, but it also told us that at some point, we had to be self supporting.

Open ended outside support of national churches is the kind of support that encourages dependence. It does not lead to stronger church bodies and in fact tells the local members that they themselves do not have to sacrificially support their ongoing ministries.

A clear, agreed upon exit plan, will help you avoid hard feelings in the future, and give the local church the time it needs to build a strong financial base.

Let me give a final note on your exit plan. There will be times when circumstances change. Our current economic situation here in the US is a perfect example. That will demand that everyone involved be somewhat flexible.

But please understand this. Those working on the field, and receiving outside support, have few, if any options to replace a sudden withdrawal of support.

If your church finds it necessary to eliminate, or substantially altar an agreed upon support amount, or plan, I believe you need to give that church at least one year notice to avoid a potential catastrophic situation.

So there you have it. Four guidelines that can help you become a better steward of the resources God has given you or your church when it comes to direct regular support of national churches and pastors.

Be generous, give to an established church, do not designate your funds, and have an exit plan.

What are your thoughts?

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Did You Hear Their Answer?

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.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

When Good Intentions Are Not Enough

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.

Your comments...

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Us and Them

I started this mission journey in 1992. It was then that I sat with a good friend, Grady Martine, and together, we fleshed out the idea of Adventures in Life Ministry. Little did I know what that was going to mean over the long haul.

In those early years we were fortunate to have a guy named Paul Lathrop walking by our side. Paul had served in Mexico and Columbia with Latin American Mission, so that kind of made him our expert. Plus he spoke Spanish, not unimportant if you are serving in Mexico.

Together, the three of us really lived out putting the framework around our short term ministry. We would try something, and if it didn’t work, try something else. And we made lots of mistakes, just like we still do today.

Yet through it all, we remained committed to building relationships. Horizontal, people to people relationships that hopefully would lead folks to consider their vertical relationships with Jesus.

While we were committed to helping the Mexican Church realize their dreams of having a place where they could worship, to us, the churches, or facilities we would help our brothers and sisters in Christ build in Mexico, would always be second to relationships.

Now if you sit and talk with missiologists about this, they will wholeheartedly endorse the idea that mission with a relational focus centered on “them” is indeed the most effective way to be about Christ and make a Kingdom impact in this world.

But we have a problem in America. Our short term mission efforts are primarily about "us." What we can do, how much we can accomplish, what we can bring, and what we have to offer. It is as if we believe God’s Church has a deficit as it is being lived out outside of our borders.

It’s a pretty colonial way of thinking isn’t it? This belief that our forms of Christianity are superior to those found in churches around the world.

Imagine the impact on the Kingdom if the almost 400,000 short term missionaries annually leaving U.S. shores, left with the idea of building relationships and being learner servants instead of leaving knowing it all.

Think how this might change how we do short term mission.

Your thoughts?