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...


Pastor David Curtis said...

I am trying to think this through as a local pastor who wants his people to serve and be involved in missions.

I would say that the first and second points are frustrating and limiting because of the lack of resources in most churches. To say that they are frustrating does not mean to take away from their validity. It is just that with the constant pressure to have programs and opportunities for people in your church, it is nice to be able to just send people on a trip and assume that everything will work just fine without training or strategic planning.

The third point you make however is very insightful. Many pastors are very guarded in who they allow in "their" pulpits and who they will allow work with their children. In fact from an insurance standpoint the whole outside group doing VBS can be rather complicated.

Concerning the blog concept itself. I would shorten the posts a little. This particular post could have been four separate posts and that would allow to more fully develop the thoughts. Focus on tools and resources to help churches do missions better not just criticism of what they are doing poorly.



James' Muse said...

I agree, Dave. The conundrum here is that often, the short term trip leads to the long term trip. Like my first trip with you guys in 2002 for that week. Yes, I was an immature 16 year old, but I remember having fish tacos at Alex's place, looking at the hills with the lights and the town lights a ways away. I remember feeling called to come back and serve with you for a summer. That was a big step for a 16 year old. I remember my friends didn't think I could do it. And then I did, in 2003. And that summer changed my life, put me on the course I'm on now.

(O)CT(O)PUS said...

Dave: "the short-term group leaves feeling good about themselves ..."

This phrase caught my attention because one has to ask about the motivations of those who want to serve.

I approach this post not from a mission perspective but from a clinical psych viewpoint … acknowledging similarities and differences. Of course, any counseling practice requires years of training and a qualification and certification process. A ministry would be hard pressed to put volunteers through such hurdles; but there are a few guidelines, one may assume, common to both … starting with motivation.

This statement, for example: There can be no emotional, intellectual, or spiritual growth without humility. Whether the context is “good works” in a clinical or a religious context, I think this applies equally.

I would certainly have reservations about volunteer candidates who seem arrogant, authoritarian, intolerant, or domineering. I would surmise, in missionary work as in a clinical setting, sincere people do good work whereas questionable personalities can harm the very same people one is trying to help.

Thus, if motivation appears to come from less than humble origins, caution would be advised.

Dave Miller said...

All good points David. I'll come back to some of this in my next post.

I am only planning on doing this one once, or maybe twice a month, thus the length, and the tough topics.

I want to give people something to gnaw on over time and coffee.

Dave Miller said...

Great points Octo. From a missions standpoint, we would call this a learner-servant attitude.

There can be no substitute for humility when visiting and working in another persons backyard, so to speak.

There is always training and growth that will take place on site, as there really is no way to replicate that experience, but careful preparation can be a big help in this area.

James, I am not saying every student needs to have it all together. But the attitude needs to be there, as it obviously was with you.

For me, even after 20 years, I still make some big mistakes, and miss some seemingly real clear clues.

But by coming with an attitude to learn, and serve, rather than lecture, I receive a lot of grace from our ministry partners.

Pastor David Curtis said...

Once or twice a months seems managable. I could probably take enough time to interact with this depth of material about that frequently.

James' Muse said...


I'm not sure that my attitude was right that first summer weeklong trip in 2002, when I was that hyper punk 16 year old. I was there to pick up chicks, man! At least, in the beginning. By the end of the week, though, I think God had legitimately changed my attitue & heart.

Dave Miller said...

James, well that is the question. Should these types of experiences be to change people, or for people who evidence in their lives, change.

It is a tough question because the answer may preclude some from participating.

Pastor David Curtis said...

Having led a few of these mission trips I would have to contend that they are for those who have given evidence of change. That being said, I have only removed one individual from a team in the five different trips that I have led.

However, in my current church I recommended to our elder of missions that he not allow some young people to attend the trip because they are openly living in sin. Not that I am trying to say that living together is the ultimate sin, but that it reveals a lack of trust in what God has said is right.

That decision has led to some really good conversations between he and his grown children and has forced some people to face the reality of their sin and its ramifications.

To me there is a difference between going to another culture to serve, and serving as a missionary that is representing the Church and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Dave Miller said...

Excellent point David. I know this is a constant yin/yang thing for many pastors.

They do not want to deny an opportunity for their people to have that James moment, and so they bring people, especially to Mexico, who they would never take to say... China.

Why is that?

James' Muse said...

I think American churches view Mexico as the US's poor little cousin, so they bring them there.

Perhaps they should first take people to a bible camp to volunteer as a counselor through the church. Then, if they pass that test, they may go on a foreign trip the next year.

Pastor David Curtis said...

What if a church actually had an intentional discipleship program that they brought people through before they serve as a counselor or missionary?

Wouldn't that be crazy if churches actually discipled their people and prepared them to serve.

Unknown said...

Keep it up. I'll interact as much as I have time for. Since FSTML has been cut from my budget, blogs like this will be very helpful to me.

I'm leading trips to Bolivia for my church during the summer. Next summer we might expand that to Brazil and Alaska. For the next five years or so, we will only be serving missionaries that our church has supported for a while, in some cases, decades. So host-receivers are missionaries that we have known for years and they guide and direct the on-field ministry. We trust them to craft the ministry as appropriate so that it fits their goals and objectives, and we rely them for post-field followup of the nationals.

That being said, what I am struggling with now is the motivation of my goer-guests. I'll include a quote that illustrates what I'm talking about. "I think the tolietries and toys are great for the villages we travel to - it gives us a connection with the people - the moms and the kids - I will do anything to have a chance to connect with them. I think probably Caranavi we don't need the little gifts as much. What do you think???? Also, the flip flops are what is on Deena's heart for those rural villages. God gave her a special message and provided a way for her to get 45." "Yeah Stacy. I was hoping someone thought like Geri and I. With the gift card/cards you have, get what you feel moved to get. It can't be wrong."

So the missionary has said something isn't really necessary to bring, and the response from my team members is, "God told us to do this, so it can't be wrong." Got a post on that one? How do I combat this flawed missiology? I've done quite a bit of training, and for these two individuals it is their second trip with me, so they have a little experience. How can I get through to them that we need to take the missionary seriously and not just brush off what he says?

Pastor David Curtis said...


It sounds like to me what you have is an issue of submission and authority. The group members have decided for themselves what is best for the mission trip and are unwilling to listen to either the host missionary or yourself as their group leader. I don't think it is necessarily an issue of education but rather one of submission.

To play the "God told us card" is a classic attempt at trying to sanctify a sinful attitude with out having to give up the attitude.

Scripture is clear that we are to submit to the leaders that God has placed over us. There is no way that God has given them a directive that is against the decisions of the leadership.

Dave Miller said...

Peter, I think churches connecting with their long time, long term missionaries is a model that we will used more often in the future.

I am wondering how well prepared those long term people will be to handle and work with short-term people.

As for your other issue, I think David handled it pretty well. It is stuff like that that us host receivers find so frustrating.

btc said...

Props for asking the tough questions.

Unknown said...

Creo que muchos son con buenas intenciones y otros son con ganas de salir de casa y de la rutina, creyendo que matan dos pajaros de un tiro, haciendo la "voluntad de Dios" y pasear un rato al mismo tiempo. Creo que es cuestion de la Iglesia, que esta haciendo en los proyectos, como se involucra y aconseja al que quiere hacer misiones y no esta preparado, como decirles que no sin que se ofendan?, como insistir al que tiene habilidades pero no quiere ir? "Mira que te ordeno a que te ESFUERCES y seas VALIENTE". El que quiere ir hacer misiones se tiene que esforzar y el que no quiere, tiene que ser valiente y tener FE que la obra la hace Dios.

Pastor David Curtis said...

Dave - could you please translate Abigail's comment. I would love to get her perspective on this.

Dave Miller said...

Dave, here is a pretty rough translation.

I believe that many come with good intentions and others come with desires to leave home and escape the routine, believing that they can kill two birds with one stone. Getting away, and doing something good for God.

I believe this is a question for the Church that is doing the projects [and ministry]. How can you be involved in missions, give advice, and not come prepared. And how do we ask [these questions or tell people] in a way that is not offensive? as to insist to which has abilities but does not want to go?

"I command you to be strong and be brave". The one that wants to go to do missions has to be strong and the one that does not want to go, has to be brave and to have FAITH that the work is of God.

Pastor David Curtis said...

Thanks for the translation Dave.

Good thoughts Abigail, thank you.

Anonymous said...

AMEN!! I HATE the notion that churches have limited resources! Like all of us in America we spend money on what we value most. So, lets just say it how it is, we want Walmart missions...give us the experience at the lowest cost and commitment possible.

I loved this quote of yours regarding many STM participants..."dubious spiritual maturity, have not developed a cultural sensitivity". Scary but true and unfortunately I'm not at all exempt from this diagnosis.