Thursday, December 08, 2011

The Faces of Oaxaca...

As I have served over the years in Oaxaca, one of the things I have seen in a people with little to celebrate in life is an indomitable spirit, proud of their Oaxacan heritage.

I put this little picture book together last year and would like to offer it up to you.  It makes a great gift to someone who has served with us, or would just appreciate the art of photography shown in the faces.

The photography was primarily done my friends at Mission Focused, a great group of people trying to document in pictures what God is doing around the world in mission.

Click here to see the book and to order it.  It's not expensive and every book sold helps fund a little bit of what Adventures in Life Ministry is trying to do in Oaxaca, Mexico.

If you want a copy in Spanish, let me know.  Those will be available soon too!

Monday, December 05, 2011

More From Jesus is the Answer Short-Term Missions

Fresh off our success with quick easy short-term mission adventures, Jesus is the Answer Short-Term Missions has just announced a new venture sure to excite millions of faithful believers looking to make an impact in the world today.

Why should you hide what you do for the Kingdom under a rock?  Doesn't the word tell us to "let our light shine before man?"

For you and many others just like you, this is the question they have been asking... How can I do good for Jesus, and be famous for doing it?  

Ask no more!

Jesus is the Answer Short-Term Mission is now offering a chance not only to change the world at a great price, we are going to film it and make you the star of your very own reality TV Series!

That's right.  For a small add on fee to our regular short-term mission trip, you and your friends will not only be blessed by getting to help some poor impoverished people understand true faith like we do, you'll be able to watch yourself transform their life when you get home!


 I've been serving with Jesus is the Answer Short-Term Missions for years and have always felt like something was missing after one of my trips.  Now I know what it was.  No one was able to see me doing good stuff.  Now all of my friends can look at me and want to serve and be famous just like I am!

Molly W., Second Methodist Church, Helmutville, Iowa


Director Sam Burnett said “This is a different twist on a kind of short-term mission trip evangelicals have done for a long time.”  “It turns short-term mission into an entertainment model, where you can feel good watching it, people feel good doing it and you and your friends can get exposure.” 

"Look" he said, "young people today want to be on television, they want to be famous.  What better way for that to happen than to marry their world changing hope with television and entertainment?"

When questioned about the potential to exploit poor people for the financial gain of Jesus is the Answer Short-Term Missions or the television network, Burnett scoffed.  "These poor people want to be on television too and if it takes a reality show like this, so be it.  The bottom line here is that we are doing good.  Are we gonna make some money on this? Absolutely, but we will be reinvesting a large percentage of our profits into helping even more people achieve their goals to do good and be famous."

So what are you waiting for?  Add this option to one of our regular trips for the small amount of $49.00 and for less than two C-notes, not only will you be helping some poor person understand Jesus like you, you'll be on your way to stardom.

But wait there's more... if you call today, we will give everyone in your group their very own DVD of the show that was filmed on their mission trip signed with thanks from the poor person you helped.

Don't be left behind!  Operators are standing by now.  

Call us immediately at (634)723-SAVE to book your trip with Jesus is the Answer Short-Term Missions and be sure to tell us you want the reality show upgrade and free DVD!

Nothing like this could be further from the truth...
Think we're Kidding?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Texas Sized Love Affair

I spent the last week in Texas.  Like the popular jokes say, everything really is bigger in Texas.
Especially churches.
Everywhere I looked there were gigantic church buildings, almost all of which had mega-sized electronic billboard signs.  No matter where you went, one of those larger than life signs would be giving you a bible study schedule, a bible verse, or telling you that God wanted to have a little talk.
Now as most of you know, I travel, serve, and live a significant amount of my life in Mexico.  As we look at the people of Mexico, we are able to see that although a significant number of people identify with the Catholic Church, many are what we would call “Cultural Catholics.”
As Protestants, there are times when we speak almost derisively about the average Catholic and his or her faith.  We argue that even though they are connected to their church, the reality of Jesus is not making a real difference in their lives.  To put it another way, there seems to be a disconnect between Sunday and Wednesday.
Every Sunday millions of Mexicans flow into cathedrals and chapels all across the country, yet on Wednesday, that Sunday experience seems to auger no real transformation.
Driving through Texas, looking at the millions of dollars that have been spent on these massive churches, I was confronted with the same questions.
Are our churches making a difference in the daily life of people here in the United States?  Or, as we say about our neighbors to the south, has the US church experience become just part of the culture for a majority of our people?
Has church here become what my friend Camilo would call just a show, much like it would be described in Mexico for the Catholics?
I’ve been asking pastors here recently a very simple question... “Who in your church is in love with Jesus?”  Not the concept of Jesus, mind you, but Jesus himself.
I wish I could say these pastors were rattling off lots of names, but I can’t.  The last pastor I asked got a little contorted and told me that was a very hard question.
Let me just say that if in our ministries, whether they be here in the United States, or around the globe in countries like Mexico, China, or perhaps Uganda, we are not seeing people come into a loving relationship with Jesus, something is wrong.
If we are not seeing lives radically transformed by the reality of the Gospel, something is wrong.
If all we are seeing is people who know a lot about Jesus, but are not passionately committed to loving and living for Him day by day, something is wrong.
I fear that many people here in the US have become little more than culturally Christian, much like the great majority of Catholics in Mexico.
What say you?  
Is it all as my friend Camilo calls it, a show?  Or can you say that the great majority of people in your church are passionately in love with Jesus?  How about you?

I hope and pray you are able to say you have a Texas sized love relationship with Jesus!

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Word Cloud

Here's a fun little gizmo I found over at a friends site.  You plug your web address in and it analyzes your blog and gives you a word cloud.

This is what I got from mine...

You can see what's important here!

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Supporting the Mission... a radical approach to a growing problem

I have often felt that short-term missions held the key to funding long-term missionary work around the globe.
Thinking about this, I struggled to discover a way to connect the dots.  
No more!
Dr. Larry Hovis of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina gives us a clear path to exactly what I believe can be the key to our ongoing missionary witness across the globe. But only if our churches and both career and short-term missionaries are willing to see themselves as interconnected as part of the global mission of the church. 
The Challenge
We are seeing a decline in long-term mission giving that predates the worldwide financial crisis.  In the early 2000’s, both the American Baptists and the Southern Baptists were experiencing significant declines in their ability to sustain missionaries in the field.
Both of these historically robust missionary minded denominations were bringing more people off the field than they were deploying, primarily due to a lack in funding.
Yet as that was happening, the short-term mission movement continued to grow, both in participants, and its ability to get funded.  
Little Johnny was showing an ability to reach out and into the wallets of his friends and family for his short-term journey to Uganda in a way the career missionary can only imagine.
The simple fact that someone spends his or her life on the field, halfway around the world, means that they do not have the personal relationships here in the United States to leverage into real support.
And they should not be expected to!  Yet that was quickly becoming the new model for funding long-term missionary support.
If our career missionaries are doing their jobs properly, the majority of their closest relationships should be in the countries where they are serving, not the United States.
To ask these dedicated men and women of God to return to the US and drive around begging for support from thousands of people they only see once every four years is almost unconscionable.
What Should We Do?
This is where Dr. Hovis’ idea comes into focus.
He suggests that every short-term mission team that visits another country should raise double their cost, and give that extra money directly to the in-field host receiver or career missionary as part of his support.
Imagine the impact of an idea like this on our global missions movement.
On-field host receivers and career missionaries, serving the constantly growing short-term mission movement would see an immediate increase in support.  This, I am sure, would lead to better relationship between these two divergent styles of ministry, and would finally cement what has been an uneasy, though necessary partnership.
Over the years, we have seen a hostility towards short-term mission, often from on-field career missionaries.  There has been this belief that the STM people not only are engaging in useless feel good project ministries, but that they are also sucking needed financial resources from “truly important missionary efforts” done by the long-term missionary.
I refuse to see short-term mission in competition with our longer term global missionary efforts.  I have always believed the Kingdom would be better served if we merged the two sides of this coin for a greater good.
A Radical Idea

What if career missionaries acknowledged the real accomplishments of short-term missions and changed their methodology to one of acceptance and even joy at the prospect of working together for His Kingdom?  
What if the short-term mission teams acknowledged that without the career missionary preparing the way for their week long journeys, short-term mission could not exist and that as such, they have a calling to support that ministry, not only with their presence, but financially?
Perhaps Dr. Hovis is onto something.  Using the incredible ability of little Johnny to raise funds not only for his personal journey, but for the larger missionary calling of the church.
It’s a radical idea and one that I believe the church ignores at her peril.
Will we continue to place unrealistic financial burdens on our missionaries in the field, or will we empower and expect the short-term mission movement to become part of the solution to our current missionary retreat?

Friday, September 23, 2011

God Hates Short-Term Mission Trips... and these things too!

You read that right.

Put simply, the term short-term mission trip has led to an environment where people, by packing their bags and getting on an airplane, can check off one of their Christian bucket list items.

This short-term mission trip thinking has led to a belief that excuses us from living a missional life the other 51 weeks of the year.

A few years ago Adventures in Life Ministry saw our mission as “Giving participants from around the world the opportunity to grow in their relationship with Jesus by serving on mission in Mexico.”  As that statement was being proofread for a brochure, one of my good friends mentioned that we were missing the letter “a” before mission.

Notice how much differently that statement would read if we included the “a”.  With just one small change, mission becomes “a mission”, or something with a beginning, middle, and end.  An event, not a lifestyle.

The Pilgrimage Concept... Courtesy of DELTA Ministries and The Next Mile

Wouldn’t God be more pleased if we adopted the view that we are always on mission for Him, all year, no matter where we are, as opposed to our one-week mission trip?  I believe He would.

But let me share three other STM sacred cows that I believe also anger God when we serve on mission.

When our mission is all about us.

You’ve arrived on site and are ready for the specific task for which you and your team spent weeks preparing.  Within minutes of arriving, your host receiver informs you that circumstances and your mission have changed.

A challenge now exists.  Will you set aside your agenda and joyfully serve in the way your host receiver now needs, or will your group stubbornly hold on to their goals and what they hoped to achieve?

A couple of years ago I had a team serving with us in Oaxaca, Mexico.  We had planned to stay in one village and work on a specific project.  Unfortunately, days before the groups’ arrival, the leaders of the local village passed a law banning outsiders from staying overnight.  The new law was clearly aimed at our planned evangelical work.

As I explained this to the team leader, he looked me and said, “Dave, we are here to serve.  Use us as you need, it’s not about us.”

What a blessing it was for me to know that this leader, and his group were willing to set aside their agenda for the needs of the field.

I believe if we saw more of that attitude from short-term participants, we would see a real desire by more long-term missionaries to work together for His Kingdom.

Zeal without knowledge.

Easy, relatively cheap air travel has made it possible for those with means to get on a plane in the morning and land later that afternoon half way around the world.  This reality has led to countless problems in overseas mission work.

What we are seeing on the field are groups combining their passion to serve with their abilities and resources, and getting on a plane without a plan and very little training.

It is as if many teams have adopted a strategy that since God can use cracked pots, there is no need to try to make those pots water tight.

I do not believe God is blessed when we arrive on field devoid of any real preparation and training, even though our intentions are good.

When teams and individuals receive training that goes beyond just receiving the details of their upcoming mission, they are better able to serve and thrive in the rigors of cross-cultural mission work.

A focus on what, as opposed to who.

Americans can be very project oriented. While this is a great asset to have on mission, it can quickly become a liability if it gets in the way of building Kingdom based relationships.

Remember that all mission needs to be about sharing a relationship with Jesus.  It does not really matter if the building gets finished or the cement floor poured on our schedule.

We must never lose sight of the fact that while the projects we complete might look great, only relationships built on a foundation of Jesus Christ are eternal.

So there you have it.  Four things I believe God hates about short-term mission.

The good news is that while each of these can deal a destructive blow to successful mission, with just a little work, we can turn each of these liabilities into some real victories for God!

This article was originally published by Delta Ministries in The Hub, a gathering for STM articles, resources and opportunities.  Check them out, your mission will be better for it!

©dave miller... adventures in life ministry

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Cultural Preparedness... One of the Keys to Successful Mission

Few things make mission more work than a lack of cultural preparation.

That is even truer in short-term mission where you do not have the benefit of time to repair the damage that you may do by being culturally unaware.

Oftentimes what we as visitors see as a harmless activity can be seen by locals as offensive. Let me give you an example.

Years ago I was serving in the small village of Santa Rosa, just north of Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico.

Our project during the visit was to get the first coat of stucco on a church that we had finished a few weeks earlier.

Our group worked hard to get the paper and then the wire all nailed, stapled, and ready for the mezcla. Soon students were busy putting the cement on the walls to make sure this church was going to be safe from the elements.

Now one of the things you have to know is that you always need at least two coats of stucco. And after each coat, you need to make sure that you “scratch” it so that the next coat can adhere better.

Normally, you will use a special tool like the one pictured here and afterwards your building will look something like this one is starting to look like between coats.

When we got done, the entire building was ready for the next coat but it was also completely covered with verses from the bible in both Spanish and English. Sometimes that happens when you are working with a group of 20 high school students.

It took the locals almost two years to tell me that we had made a big mistake during that trip. Our drawings and verses, which we had thought were just innocent fun, had been seen as mocking not only to the people of Santa Rosa, but also to God and His house!

If I had been a little more culturally prepared beforehand, we probably would not have made that error.

So with that in mind, I’d like to share a few resources that I believe will help you, your team, and your church be better prepared when you serve cross culturally, whether that is overseas, or even right in your own neighborhood in our increasingly multicultural and diverse country.

“From Foreign to Familiar” by Sarah Lanier – This little book will be a God send. Ever wondered why some cultures do things differently than you? Read this book and learn why. Often times, just knowing why things are the way they are, is half the battle!

“Culture Shock” – I have the Mexico edition, [pictured above] but this book exists for almost every country. If you want to understand the cultural clues and know why people where you are headed refuse to shake your hand, or do not cross their legs in meetings, this book is indispensable.

“Short-Term Mission Workbook” by Tim Dearborn – I have used this book for years and if you have served with me, you have been the recipient of some of the lessons it contains. The “Eight Great Questions” for effective debriefing come from this book.

“Serving With Eyes Wide Open” by Dr. David Livermore – Livermore is tough on the STM crowd with this book, but fair and his examples ring true. This is one of the most important books I have ever read on STM.

Finally, let me recommend one other resource to make sure is in your bag when you go… a Culture Gram. These little five page missives give an incredibly concise picture of where ever you are headed. At a cost of only $4.00, anyone serving without having read one of these is almost guilty of malpractice.

So there you have it. Five great resources that will help you avoid some of the cultural gaffes that are possible when you serve overseas, or in other cultures!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Want To Improve Short-Term Mission? Join Me At The Forum 2011

“Don’t worry, I’ll show you everything you need to know.” Those were the words of my pastor when I was told I would be leading the youth group on their annual short-term mission trip in 1990.

My training consisted of a shopping list for supplies and a map of where we were going. Once there, I learned how to keep locals from getting in the way of our mission, the subtleties of buying clean drinking water, and what to do when your group scares the local chickens so much they cannot lay eggs.

That was over 20 years ago and certainly many things have changed. However, too much of our short-term training is still based on a model of pray, trust God, and go!

Thankfully, through the vision of a dedicated group of leaders that included people like Roger Peterson, Wayne Sneed, and Gordy Grover, things are a lot different than they were in those early days.

In the mid 1980’s, a small group of leaders began meeting annually to try and bring a little professionalism to a then young movement called short-term mission. Over the years the group of people attending those annual gatherings became known as the Fellowship of Short-Term Mission Leaders.

I became part of the Fellowship in 2004. It has changed my life, my perspective, and my mission. There is no single event in which I participate that I find to be more important to the continued success of Adventures in Life Ministry and my mission than the annual conference held by this group.

As a leader I get a chance to interact with and fellowship with peers in my field. I can seek counsel, test ideas, and see where short-term mission is headed in the coming years. It also gives me a great chance to slow down and consider where I believe God is leading AIL Ministry in future years.

This year’s conference, The Forum 2011, will be held at Green Lake Conference Center in Green Lake, Wisconsin, October 12 – 15.

Our Keynote Speaker will be Robert Guerrero. Robert, the founder of Del Camino Network and an on field host receiver, is going to tell it like it is from someone who has received thousands of STM teams.

If you, your church, or your organization wants to improve your short-term mission, there is no better place to be. If you are a pastor, and your church is sending out short-term teams, you need to be here. If you have been wondering whether God is calling to the foreign mission field, a few days at The Forum can help you better understand that call.

Adventures in Life is better because of this conference. Please consider joining me and the Fellowship of Short-Term Mission Leaders this year at The Forum 2011.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Mission and Ministry... Is Our Approach Balanced?

You were walking through the furniture mart looking for the perfect stool. In the distance you saw one that would look great with your d├ęcor. It was the right color, the exact height you needed, and, because it was one of those do it yourself gizmos, even the price was right.

So you took the box to the cashier, paid your $39.99 and put it in the car for the drive home.

After lunch you went to work putting it together. And that’s when it hit you. No matter what you did, that stool wobbled. Because the three legs on that new stool you had just purchased were not of equal length.

This is the same problem that faces many internationally missions minded people in the field today. We are trying to make our ministry stools sit level, but the legs which support our ministry are uneven.

While in today’s world we would just return that stool and get a new one, in ministry, we need to figure out a way to make things work.

Let me explain where I am coming from.

I believe our missionary work needs to be multifaceted and balanced. Like our stool, it must have three legs that are equal, or it will not function properly.

It has become my firm conviction that as much as possible, our ministry needs to take into account not only the spiritual health of people, but their physical and economic health as well.

These are the three legs upon which our ministry stool must stand and be balanced.

It is this type of holistic ministry, that I believe holds the most promise for seeing radical transformation of peoples lives and real, faithful, sustained reconciliation with God.

Unfortunately, the church, and by extension, her missionary outreach, has been guilty of putting too much emphasis on the God leg of our stool, to the detriment of a balanced lifestyle rooted holistically in Christ.

Now, I am not arguing that we need less emphasis on the spiritual health of people with whom we have contact. I am arguing that instead of cutting that leg of our stool to match the others, we need to spend some time developing the other two legs.

We need to improve our mission and ministry so that we are able to see transformation in people's physical and economic lives, as well as, their spiritual lives.

Unfortunately, far too often this style of ministry, of seeing all areas of life as interconnected and needing God’s healing touch, is not seen as valid by many in the church today.

I serve with a pastor in Oaxaca, Mexico who had a girl die in his arms of malnutrition. When he asked his pastor friends why this happened, he was told that the work of caring for the poor was not the work of the church. We are to “Preach the Gospel. Besides, the girl was in heaven, a better place.”

I wish I could say that was an isolated response. But it is not. Today the response of many in the evangelical church is to dismiss the types of ministry and mission work that also put an emphasis on physical and economic healing in addition to spiritual healing as somehow not related to the Gospel of Christ.

We see all through the Gospel accounts that Jesus healed, and that he empowered the disciples to do so, also. We see in Acts that the early church felt it was part of their ministry to care for the poor in their communities. We also see in the prophetic call of the Old Testament that God expected His people to work and stand for economic justice.

Yet somehow, many in today’s evangelical church have decided that work on those legs of our stool is not part of our mission or ministry calling.

By neglecting these two vital parts of an effective holistic ministry model, we are effectively telling millions of people around the world that the Kingdom has not arrived for them today.

Unless and until we figure out a way to practically integrate all three areas of health, the spiritual, the economic, and the physical when we are working with people, our ministry stool will forever be like that wobbly one I mentioned earlier.

A wobbly stool is not very useful and unable to really support the fully transformed lives God desires for His people today.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Justice, Oppression, Poverty and Mission... Where Do We Stand?

What do you do when what you believe no longer seems to be orthodox?

What do you do when you have arrived at a place where it seems that if you share where you are at, you’ll be exposed, sort of like the Emperor with no clothes?

In Isaiah 58 we read... “If you do away with the yoke of oppression… and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will shine in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”

Years ago I was at a training event for youth pastors. The speaker, a well known Christian leader opened his presentation by saying he did not care if another kid ever came to Christ through his ministry.

You can imagine the uproar that came from the room. Here was this respected leader telling everyone there that what they thought was important, was not very important.

As the crowd readied their pitchforks, he explained.

He was saying he was not interested in getting people to pray the prayer; he was looking for people to develop deep seated long lasting relationships with Jesus. And he wanted the people who he was serving to have food on their table at night, be able to walk the streets of their neighborhood without fear of gunfire and live a life filled with hope and expectation not just for that eternal future, but for the present too.

They weren’t buying it. The Gospel is the Gospel is the Gospel. Period. And let’s not mix it up with all this social justice stuff.

Working in Oaxaca, Mexico has changed me. It has brought me face to face with such systemic evil that at times it is hard for me to even share.

Things like oppression, hunger, injustice and poverty are not just concepts I read about, they are facts of life in the corner of the world I believe God has called me. But here’s the rub, a significant number of people that support Christian missionary work do not believe working to alleviate these horrible realities is part of our Gospel calling.

I believe that justice and everything connected to it needs to be a central part of our holistic Gospel witness. But that belief puts me dangerously close to heresy in the eyes of many in the church. It also negatively impacts the finances that are needed for His work, not just in Mexico, but around the world as people look to ensure their gifts and donations are being used for "pure Gospel work."

As I have lived and served in Mexico, I have come to see the human existence as a stool supported by three legs of health. One of those legs is spiritual, one economic, and one physical. If you take out any one of these legs, the stool will collapse. If any one of those legs is over, or under developed, the stool will not function properly.

For too long, the church has only focused on developing one of these critical legs, which makes for a pretty unstable stool upon which to depend.

As I look across the landscape of ministry in Mexico generally, and in Oaxaca specifically, I see a church that has grown into maturity and is doing a good job in the spiritual health department. Sure, there are areas that need improvement, but overall, the Christian church in Mexico has arrived.

So why am I there? Because I believe that we need to strengthen the other two legs of people’s stools. Because I believe we need to spend our lives on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed!

Then our light will shine in the darkness.

Next up... Connecting economic and physical health to the Gospel.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Striving For Your Kodak Moment: Missing the Point of Short-Term Mission

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?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Short-Term Mission, Long-Term Impact

If you’ve been connected to short-term ministry as long as I have, you’ve seen a lot. US built structures sitting empty, the same kids accepting Jesus year after year, tools left in the exact place where we left them the year before, and a seeming inattentiveness to the things in ministry that us outsiders value, and often times, are key to providing.

All of these and more are the types of things that drive well intentioned, but often ill-prepared US Short-Term Mission Leaders nuts.

It doesn’t have to be that way. With a healthy investment of time, talent, and of course resources, short-term mission can be the valuable asset to the ministry of the Kingdom we all want it to be. But only if we are willing to see our ministry as part of the larger long-term ministry of God where we are trying to serve.

Jesus said, “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays a foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Luke 14: 28 - 30

If we are really serious about short-term ministry having an impact that lasts long after we’ve returned home, shouldn’t we too, as Jesus implored, look towards the end goal? For too long, US short-term ministry has been guilty of short-term thinking because we have not wanted to truly consider the real costs of our short-term mission.

Let me give you four suggestions on how we can reframe our thinking, and in doing so, give short-term ministry a better chance of long-term success and impact.

1. Understand that there is no such thing as short-term ministry, or mission. There are many people who travel to “ends of the earth” places to participate for a short amount of time, but the mission and ministry where you work a week, is investing long term in the Kingdom.

As we continue to play up the value of short-term mission and ministry in the United States, we are facing the risk of an entire generation of Christians growing to maturity with the idea that the mission of the Gospel can be accomplished with a short-term investment of time.

Projects take years to move from ideas to completion. Translating a bible into an indigenous language can be a lifetime endeavor. Church planting and discipleship are not tasks that can be accomplished in a one-week ministry trip to another country.

Effective ministry that understands the local customs and builds lasting relationships with people takes a long-term investment of your time, not just a one-week, or even a one-month commitment.

2. Do not go it alone. Nothing can impede moving towards a long-term perspective more than trying to go it alone. This approach, while initially providing some short-term successes, can quickly lead to burn out, frustration, and relational challenges as the goer guest struggles to maintain contact and communication from abroad.

A better approach is to connect with a mission organization or missionary that is already on field where you want to serve and is connected with churches and locals in a way that facilitates long-term ministry.

Then, after some time serving together in the same location, you will be better able to assess whether that particular area, or ministry and your group are a good match.

Find yourself a ministry partner and stick with them. Walk with them as Paul walked with Barnabas, as long time mutual encouragers in the work of the Lord.

Recently I had breakfast with a doctor in Oaxaca, Mexico who frequently works with short-term teams from the US. After a while at the table, I asked him to tell me where Americans have erred while working in Mexico. As he started, he caught himself and then looked me in the eye, asking a question.

“Are you sure you want to hear this stuff?”

The people with whom we serve in other countries should feel that they have the freedom to be critical if we screw up, and the security to know that the airing of those shortcomings will not dry up mission support or end the ministry partnership.

That only comes from an intentional effort to work alongside others when you decide to participate in short-term ministry. You will also find that not only can this approach give you valuable insight into the people you are serving, it can also help shield you from being deceived by local ministries that are not always interested in a mutually beneficial relationship.

Let me explain.

I have served in Mexico for over 20 years. In that time one of the Spanish phrases I have learned is “Presta Cristianos,” or “Rented Christians.” Here’s how it works.

One pastor, knowing an American group will be at his church serving for week, “rents” a group of believers from another church so his church will look like it is a growing and vital ministry. Then when that other pastor has a group, he “rents” believers back from the first church.

The result is this. Both churches look like they are growing and vital, for a week. The American church gets a great experience, some feel good time, and a chance to serve the body of Christ. The Mexican church gets some needed financial help, perhaps part of their church built, and a lot of encouragement.

And no one is the wiser and both groups, at least on the surface, get what they want. The chances of this happening are greatly reduced when your ministry partner is looking out for the interests of both the goer guests and the host receivers.

3. Involve your entire church. Most short-term ministry teams are seen as a ministry of the local church here in the US. In reality, these teams are usually a ministry of a church department like the missions or youth department.

This type of compartmentalization can lead a to lack of long-term funding, an inability to truly commit to on-field ministries, and the type of short-term ministry that never makes the leap to a long-term ministry perspective.

I find it interesting that as churches interview people for a position as a Senior or Youth Pastor, programs such as Sunday School and Youth Bible Studies are never seen as something the new hire can choose to end, or even radically change.

Yet that is exactly where short-term ministry finds itself whenever there is pastoral change in the local church. It is one of the biggest frustrations and worries host receivers face. Will the ministry partnership survive a change in church leadership; because that ministry was never really adopted by the entire church! Instead, it was adopted by a department and a few dedicated individuals in the church family.

If we want our church to have a long-term ministry perspective regarding overseas ministry, that ministry must be connected to the entire church body, and not just the youth department or the mission commission.

4. Finally, be prepared to invest! Now I am not just talking about money, I am talking about time, leadership, and people.

Short-term ministry with a long-term view is going to take an investment. From a time perspective, the field is saying we need smaller teams for longer time periods. We also need US churches to make a commitment up front to partner with us for more than just a one-time visit. We need churches to give all of us involved sufficient time to begin forming the types of relationships necessary for effective ministry together.

Perhaps instead of sending a ministry team the first couple of years, a better strategy would be to date. That’s right, think of your time as a date.

One thing I do with most first time groups in Oaxaca is ask the leader to come with just a few leaders the first time. When they arrive, I give them a chance to see a variety of the ministries we have. We can then talk, pray, and dream about how our ministries might work together and where they see their church fitting best in this new relationship.

Then and only then, can we really begin to think about specific ministries.

What are the skill sets their people have, what limitations does their group have that might impact ministry, and how do they see their church, not just their team, being involved.

And yes, money should be on the table. Even a relatively inexpensive short-term ministry these days can cost upwards of $1500.00 per person once you factor in transportation, training, and post field debriefing. Extend that out for a group of ten people over 5 years and we are talking some serious cash.

Short-term ministry with a long-term perspective means a real investment from our churches, our people, and our pocketbooks.

So often we neglect to really consider the real costs of short-term ministry. Are we busy building “ends of the earth” short-term foundations that will be left to wither and die as Jesus warned? Or, are we working towards ministry models that seek to have a long-term ministry impact.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Friday, March 18, 2011

After 21 Years, A Long View of Short-Term Mission

Time for a little reflection.

21 years ago this month I participated in my first short-term mission trip to Mexico. I went as the new youth pastor from a church in Santa Monica, CA.

My group at that time was a bunch of interesting guys. Most of them wore black, carried brief cases, had some type of weapon on them, and loved rap music. The violent, thuggish kind. Think Two Live Crew here, most famous for their album “Nasty As They Wanna Be.”

I can still remember coming home from that week and thanking God that I would never have to return to Mexico. Boy, did He have other plans.

Tonight I am sitting in a small cafe in Ensenada where I annually return as faithfully as the swallows return to Capistrano. Every spring, after a few months away, I long for this little slice of heaven on earth and a chance to renew friendships, serve, and be reminded of God’s sense of humor.

Who else but some supreme all powerful being could possibly have imagined a nerd of all nerds white guy, marrying a beautiful black woman, speaking Spanish, and serving in Mexico with a group of Asian students from UCLA?

And so, here I am. Ready to serve again.

This week I will be helping a pastor on his house before I head south in Mexico for Oaxaca. I have known this pastor’s wife since she was a little girl. She has literally grown up around our ministry, first helping in the kitchen, then as part of our ministry team serving in Guadalajara and Oaxaca. Her daughter calls me Abuelo Dr. House.

Tomorrow I will get a chance to see their new son. In the words her husband, my new grandson, Esteban.

There is a lot of talk in mission circles about whether or not short-term missions are effective. I think, like many long-term missions, that some are more effective than others.

But the key is relationship.

If your short-term mission is founded on a belief that before you begin sharing about Jesus, you must build a relationship on mutual respect, you’ll be fine. If your short-term mission is built on a foundational principle of an ongoing partnership for the Gospel, you’ll be fine. If your short-term mission is focused on serving and learning from those whom you are visiting, you’ll be fine.

When the Apostle Paul talked about longing to visit the church in Rome, he spoke of just this type of relationship.

But if your short-term mission is like so many from the US, and is focused on the spiritual development of the participants without a long-term view of ministry together, then you’ll be playing right into the hands of those who are critical of short-term mission service.

Next up, we'll look at how short-term mission really can have the long-term impact we all want to see.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Mangos, Cakes & Bikes, Oh My...

atauflo mangos, grown in the state of veracruz, mexico

Last month I had a long breakfast with Dr. Alberto Zamacona at Marco Polo Restaurant in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Alberto and his wife Laura head up Project Compassion Oaxaca, an organization that shares the Gospel of Christ through medical outreach clinics to indigenous people groups in Oaxaca.

I listened as Dr. Alberto talked about his ministry and some of the lives that have been changed as a result of it.

At one point I shared with him about our ministry using photographers to give families a portrait and the church a way to connect to people they are not already serving.

That began a time where we talked about ways to really help people in some of the areas where we both work.

Let me first say that we are both engaged in ministry to some of the poorest people in Mexico. Oaxaca is the second poorest state in the country and home to majority of the 50 poorest cities in the nation.

Many people in the state lack access to basic necessities like running water and electricity. Concrete floors in many of the homes outside of the cities are a luxury and few people in the rural areas have a regular job that can provide enough food to feed a family.

Both Alberto and I have seen this first hand, and it is an important part of understanding why we believe in a holistic approach to ministry. Put simply, spiritual health is only part of the equation when you are serving in these areas.

Effective ministry in distressed areas must focus not only on the spiritual health of people, but their physical and economic health as well.

This is why my ministry, Adventures in Life, has been working to increase crop yields, provide basic economic help, and facilitate medical clinics in Oaxaca, alongside kid’s outreach clubs, camps, and pastoral training.

As I listened to Alberto, I was getting excited, because in a sense, he was preaching to the choir. Yet he was sharing from a much deeper understanding of the struggles of rural life in Oaxaca than I had.

He asked me if I had connections to some bicycle mechanics, and then went on to explain that many people in the outlying villages did not have cars so they got around on bikes. And like cars, those bikes would break down.

What if, he asked, we brought down a few bike mechanics, offered to fix bikes in the outlying villages, and then taught the skill to the people there? The result would be a blessing to the community and some folks, as newly minted businessmen, would be better able to feed their families.

What about cakes? Did I know a cake baker? Because every village has celebrations, but few have someone who can bake quality cakes. If we can teach that skill to a few women, not only will the village have cakes for birthday parties, weddings and quincea├▒eras, but again, some people will be able to make a living that puts food on the table.

And then he started talking about mangos. Mangos, that wonderful tropical fruit that during the summer months is all over Mexico, but in quantities too large to consume in the few months they are available. The result is that thousands of mangos rot on the streets and in the markets each year.

Maybe he suggested, we could use our connections to develop a women’s co-op to can and preserve mangos, or even mango salsa, that could then be marketed to the tourists that visit Oaxaca each year. Imagine of we could empower a large group of women in something like this. We could see real life change in ways that would make a real difference today in the health and well being of potentially hundreds of men, women, and children in Mexico.

Now imagine if all of this came through the Christian witness of the church.

When asked why we were doing this, we would respond that we were trying to radically model Christlike servanthood in a broken and hurting world. And then as the relationship, that started with a very practical living out of the Gospel grew, we might get that opportunity to share about spiritual healing, Jesus, and eternity.

You think that would make a difference for Christ in Mexico? What if all of our missions around the globe took this approach?

Mangos, Cakes & Bikes, Oh My!

Think about it.