Short-Term Missions (again)

There’s been a lot of talk about short-term missions (STM) lately. Most of it is well grounded and theoretical but not super practical. I really want to dive into why STM are the way they are and what we can do about it. This is incredibly hard to do because there are so many STM organizations and so many different groups of people that want to do something about it.

It would be one long (and hard to read) post if I tried to answer all of that at once. Instead, I’m going to do a series of posts looking at STM from a bunch of different angles. Churches, organizations, groups, and individuals all look at STM in completely different ways. Just like community development work should be done holistically, so should developing a new definition of STM. I’ll start off with a few links to other useful resources that introduce different perspectives on STM.

Here’s a blog post I wrote so you can see my bias right off the bat (though I’ll try to keep it objective throughout the series).

Here’s a book I highly recommend about the subject. I’ll be doing a review on this book shortly.

Lastly, a blog post I’m not affiliated with that does a good job explaining the big picture of STM.

Some things I’ll address in this series of posts:

  • What does an individual need to know about STM?
  • What should you be on the look out for when searching for a good trip to go on?
  • What types of organizations can host an effective STM?
  • Why do STM have such a bad reputation?
  • What can someone do to be most prepared for a STM trip?
  • What are some basic dos and don’ts?
  • How to take and how not to take pictures on a STM trip.
  • What is our role in world missions and community development?

Just so you know: I will not say that you should not participate in any short term missions. I do not think that you should stop giving money. I still think STMs can be an incredible way to share life with people all around the world. It’s an opportunity that my grandparents certainly didn’t have and I’m appreciative that my generation can now do things like this. That said, with great opportunity comes great responsibility. We must do everything we can to make sure STM are helping who we say they are meant to help.

I’ll update this post with links to each new post in this series so you can always come back to it for reference. This is such a big topic, I’d love to get a discussion going. Email goodmudblog [at] gmail.com if you’re interested in something like that and I’ll help set up a google hangout or a Skype session.

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Short-term Mission Trips

DSC_0371Short-term mission trips are almost always more beneficial to the participants than the beneficiaries. I say this knowing it’s controversial. I say this as a participant of countless short-term mission trips. I say this as an employee of a short-term missions organization. Believe me, it’s as hard to say as it is to hear.

Think of your community. What could a group of 20 outsiders do in just a few weeks that could really make any difference? Remember these people have never been to your country, they don’t speak your language, and they probably don’t want your help. That’s not all true, there’s almost always one person in the group that’s “practically a local” because they went on this same trip a year ago; they know all the cool places to eat, shop, and evangelize.

There are plenty of horror stories about short-term mission trips, I’ll only tell one:

A family living in the barrios of Mexico, woke up to the sound of people outside of their home one Saturday morning. They walk outside to see 4 Americans near their home about to begin what looks like a painting project. This family is obviously surprised to see Americans outside of their home but the language barrier makes it hard for anyone to truly communicate. No bother, the Americans say to themselves, love is the international language; this family will feel Jesus’ presence through our being here. So the Americans go about their business while trying to ignore the family because it’s a little awkward. They pull out their paint supplies (that they brought with them from America), and start painting the outside of this family’s home. A few hours pass and the project is over; their home is no longer a boring cement gray color. Finally this family will have some hope! The Americans take a bunch of pictures of the family and then pile in a van worth more than the house they just “served” to go back to the hotel for the afternoon.

This family just became a victim of short-term missions, and they aren’t alone. If they wanted their house painted, they probably didn’t want it painted whatever color the Home Depot in America had on special the day before. If they wanted their house painted, they probably didn’t want it painted by inexperienced Americans. If they wanted their house painted, they probably wanted some say in it.

The worst thing about all of this is when the Americans sit around the campfire and talk about how much joy they saw in the family’s faces when they arrived. These Americans end up taking credit for the joy this family has in their lives despite their circumstances. This family worked hard to have that joy and we take credit for it after just a few hours of doing something that no one wanted us to do. Are most Americans joyful despite their circumstances? We might be able to learn something from this “hopeless” family but we’re too arrogant to think beyond our own perspective.

I think most short-term missionaries go with pure intentions. I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad. I’ve been on more short-term mission trips than I can count. I’m the worst of sinners. We have to start thinking beyond ourselves. Mission trips are fun and you always come back feeling better, BUT we have to start asking ourselves who is really benefiting?

How do you know if a mission trip is helping or hurting?

If you are doing something for a community that it can do for itself, you are doing harm. Think of that the next time you’re digging a well, building a church, or doing a VBS.

The Monkey and The Fish

ARKive image GES136032 - Black howler monkeyI heard this story during the 2013 IWMC. It’s a great story for people who are preparing to go on a short-term missions trip. It’s actually a great story for anyone involved with cross-cultural ministry at all.

There was once a monkey who lived safe and sound on an island with his family. He lived there for years, had plenty of bananas, and the weather was usually nice. The monkey lived near a beautiful river on the middle of the island. One day, he saw a fish struggling in the river. The fish was caught on a rock in the running water. The monkey, at great risk to himself, climbed out on a tree branch and pulled the fish out of the water. He carried the fish to a safe place far away from the rushing river and laid him on the ground. The fish seemed very excited about his new found safety. He flopped around for a while showing much gratitude for the monkey’s selfless deed. It was only natural that after a little bit the fish began to fall asleep; after all, he had had a very rough day. The monkey walked away quietly so as not to disturb the fish after his near-death trial.

Some things to note:

  • The monkey was courageous, sacrificial, and acted out of compassion.
  • The monkey truly wanted to help the fish.
  • The fish had no say in the relief he received.
  • The monkey left before realizing what he had actually done.

Some questions to ask if you are telling this story in a group setting:

  •  What did the monkey assume about the fish?
  • How did the fish feel about receiving ‘help’ from the monkey?
  • What advice do we have for the monkey if he wants to help out in the future?
  • Does this apply to us?