Wednesday, March 10, 2010

When Short-Term Mission Gets Messy

You’ve bought your airline tickets and you’ve been reading up on where you’re going. You have been earnestly praying, and now you’re ready to get on the plane. After a long flight you finally arrive at your destination, only to find that everything is not as you had planned, or expected.

Close, but no cigar.

You were told there would be hot water, and now it is only cold. You were promised a real bed only to find out that all you are getting is a couple of cushions on the floor instead of that the plush platform you were dreaming about.

Perhaps the expected bus for your transportation turned out to be an overcrowded jeepney, or you learned late in the game that your favorite {insert country name here} food was not going to be on the menu.

And now you’re upset. You’re wondering why everything was not as you expected, ready when you got there, or all prepared for your arrival. You sent your money, so what’s the problem?

If there is one area where short-term mission frustrates participants this is it. We expect our hosts, whether they are American, or nationals, to have control of every aspect of our short-term mission experiences.

From the moment many of us are picked up at the airport until we are safely back home in the arms of loved ones, it is as if the primary job of the local missionaries is to be focused on our welfare, often at the expense of the local congregation.

Let me give you an example.

I recently hosted a team of men in the southern Mexico State of Oaxaca. On our last day of scheduled work, the area where we were serving experienced a huge rainstorm. Apart from the rain, our local hosts were late getting back to take care of the men because they were with our other team of doctors serving in another area and were overwhelmed with patients. They wanted to stay as late as possible to care for those who needed help.

As a result of that rainstorm, we lost a day of work, had to change our transportation plan, and got soaked to the bone. We then ended up eating a haphazard dinner late in the evening standing around in a dismayed group. Definitely not a picture of organization

I bring all of this up because when you serve with others, in their churches, in other countries, to be effective, you must cede a share of control. And when you cede that control, things like efficiency and order, at least as we see them, sometimes seem to go out the window.

The problem for many of us from the United States is that we struggle with this. Not being in control, and submitting to the leadership of people from other countries can be incredibly difficult. Especially when decisions are made that differ from the ones we might have made. Yet, if we are to serve with the attitude that Paul calls us to in Philippians, that of humble submission, considering others better than ourselves, what choice do we have?

Are the decisions locals make always the ones we would choose? No. Are they ones that will always be the best at that moment? Again, no. But, they just may be the best decisions for the long term health of the ministry, and the relationship between the local body and the visiting short-term team.

That day in Oaxaca was a frustrating day not only for the American team, but for the locals as well. They knew the day had ended badly. The local pastor, with whom I have worked for almost ten years said this was one of the toughest days he had ever experienced in ministry.

It was a day that was beyond our control. As I believe all short-term mission should be. Because I believe if we are to serve alongside foreign ministries, ultimate control of the mission must rest with locals, not with us.

And sometimes that can be messy.


btc said...

We really are that anal, aren't we.

Dave Miller said...

It was truly an interesting day... and night!

James' Muse said...

I think this is something we struggle with at home, as well. At home, we complain if our latte isn't made right, and make the Starbucks employee remake it. If we aren't 100% satisfied with our product, we can return it. In the United States, we have conditioned ourselves that it is all about our 100% satisfaction.

The problem is that we bring this consumerist culture to the table with God. I know I am guilty of this. We, as a church, demand to be satisfied. If we don't get that "God High" at camp, it wasn't a great camp, and we most likely won't go back. If our mission trip to Mexico/Africa/the inner city made us uncomfortable and we don't see the positive results right away, we don't go back. Or if we do, we go home talking about what God did through us.

It's all about me. But God, the Church, and missions is not about me. It's about them, and ultimately, about God. "Dying to oneself" and all of that.

But how do we do that? How do we truly "die to ourselves" when all day every day we are making the companies we buy from die to us and our desires. It has to start somewhere, but I'm not sure exactly how to do that.

Dave Miller said...

James, that's a great point about us desiring to have companies cater to us and our whims and how this happens for people who are supposed to "die to ourselves."

I guess that is part of the eternal struggle and process of becoming more like Jesus.

But as you noted, it ain't easy!