I’ve done a 180

A meeting earlier this week made me realise that I have done a 180* when it comes to what I think about short term missions trips. (I’ve already said this out loud to a couple of people, so it’s already public knowledge!)

Let me start by saying I hosted STMTs (Short Term Missions Trips) both as a missionary kid and as an adult in my own right. I’ll be honest I wasn’t very fond of them. They were taking a lot of time and energy with few results for those on the field. I often thought their money would be better spent in other ways. STMTs are expensive in more ways than one and lets face it for the most part those people were part of your life for a week maybe two (heck, maybe even a moth or two) and then they were gone.

Then I worked in a missions agency and my feelings were largely confirmed. Most of the missionaries didn’t want to host STMTs and those that did found them time-consuming and taking up lots of time, energy and finances. Most of the debriefs with the missionaries confirmed that even with a good leader and proper training the results were questionable. There were even cases where it was felt the STMT or person took the long term missionaries work backwards due to naiveté.

THEN….I find myself working in a church in midwest America. Guess what? I now think STMTs are an essential part of a church life. Now I know I am reading ‘When Helping Hurts’ and I’m guessing they might say STMTs ‘hurt’ and in many ways they are right, but there are two sides to this coin.

Anyway, my word count tells me I’ve already written 231 words and I haven’t even begun to tell you why STMTs are essential to the North American Church. I think I could write a book about this.

So why do I think STMTs are so important to the average church/person here (as a reminder I now live in Indiana in the US), because until a person has experienced God outside their cultural norms and expectations I am not totally convinced that they will ever ‘get it’. God will continue to remain for them in a very comfortable box.

I believe I might have my next two posts ‘Get It’ and ‘God Sized Boxes’.

PS I should add that I am completely open to being challenged on this topic and look forward to reading more of ‘When helping Hurts’.

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About Angela

Coffee lover, foodie, PW, TCK, wine taster, MOPS mentor mom, Pampered Chef, wife, mom, auntie, sister, daughter...I have many labels, but the only one I let stick is Child of the King!
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9 Responses to I’ve done a 180

  1. Emilie Reading says:

    I think I disagree, but I’ll leave my justification for why until later…

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  2. stacey Redpath says:

    My ‘short term’ mission was 2 years in Poland. Coming from a non-christian home, I had no idea what a missionary was, so I jumped straight in!! Now working ‘long term’ on the mission field, I’m interested to hear why you think short term is good. To me it just seems like a holiday with less guilt attached…

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  3. Kristin Sismey says:

    I completely agree with your statement about the need to experience God outside our cultural norms and expectations in order to understand more about who He really is, but does it not also depend on whether a person is prepared to have those cultural norms and expectations questioned?

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  4. Naomi ouns says:

    I’ve come a long way in grasping the importance for churches/individuals to have this experience. Still, I long for balance…for churches/individuals who will sincerely ask ‘is this a good time for us to visit?’ ‘Can we really bless you in a visit at this time?’

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    • Naomi, that is exactly where I am at. It seems that churches want to send big teams and missionaries can make best use of small teams. And the teams need to learn that there is going to be a great deal of ‘down time’, but they need to learn to use that time in study or prayer or disscussion.

      Kristin, yes! They must be open.

      Stacey, I could probably write a whole post about that…Ithink what you just said is probably true for many Eupopean Christians.

      Emily, you know I want to hear it!

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  5. Emilie Reading says:

    I have written about 1800 words on the subject! Ha ha. I don’t think it’ll allow me to post something that big here… but I’ll try….

    I think that the effectiveness, benefit, justification, appropriateness, and even acceptability of short term mission teams depends greatly on the destination of the teams, the quality of their prior training and briefing, and their agenda. There can be benefits for both the individuals, their home countries, and the field (although I would question the extent of the later), however they can cause a great deal of damage to the field, invite a culture of living for “mountain” moments, and can even negatively impact the individuals and their sending churches. Having said all that let me justify and expand on my statements a little.

    Let me first deal with the advantages and benefits as I realise for many these will be a little easier to accept and require a little less explanation and they are more widely talked about and pushed forward. Short Term Mission can be useful for individuals to achieve a variety of ends. Firstly they can provide an experience of another culture, see some of the challenges Christians in other parts of the world face, and the freedoms they enjoy, maybe even help them to appreciate an aspect of God’s character which they were before less aware or understanding of. I would however question the quality of any real insight the participants may gain of another culture in just a few weeks. To get any real depth of insight into a culture I would argue that you would need to be living (not living, not just holidaying) in that place for at least 2 months, however I do believe aspects of the culture can touch them and cause new understandings. These trips can also be beneficial for those testing out whether or not they feel called to the field long-term, and whether that particular country or part of the world is where they should be. In fact, I would say that individuals who go with this purpose in mind are the only short-terms who are really worth the risk. They can also benefit their sending churches, they go back with fresh ideas of how to do “church”, new experiences of worship and teaching, encouraging stories of the outworking of God, and in some cases come back with a contagious passion or even compassion.

    Other benefits are for the field they benefit. These I believe are limited. I sit here with some of my other “m” friends and one thing we all agreed on was the fact that it is often refreshing to have new, unworn out, people around. It was also mentioned that it is great for dating potential! People who are passing through often provide good refreshment both socially and spiritually, they can also prove great sources of outlet, people you feel you can offload on, or simply de-stress with as they are unattached from the toils of everyday life and work on the field. They other benefit they can provide is taken back fresh news and vision to their home countries and once there spreading awareness and raising prayer and financial support. They take back a better understanding of the work and the place than those who simply read newsletters, and news articles. Their more frequent and probably more regular and longer-standing prayers are of no doubt great benefit and can only do good. In SOME places, and when the hands are flexible and humble, an extra pair of hand (or lips, or eye, or legs) can be really useful. In countries which are more open and free a pair of hands to hand out literature, a pair of eyes to look for the interested person, a pair of lips to speak to the inquisitive mind, may provide useful if the right pre-training and briefing has been given.

    So the disadvantages, which I am aware for many may be harder to accept or understand especially if no substantial amount of time has been spent on the mission field. Firstly for the individual. If the trip has been poorly planned, or the participant has been given poor briefing, the shock, or simply miserable time they have may put them off mission for life, and re-enforce or introduce negative stereotypes. On the other hand it may make them discontent in the life they have at home, or have grievances with their home church over the way they do things. In some cases they individual may have to face great tragedies, or go through crisis situations on the field, and if these alone are incurred without having any positive experience to go along side them, or without being able to develop a sense of purpose from the trip, this can be seriously damaging and scarring for the individual, especially if proper debriefing isn’t administered. Individuals can often go in with high expectations of how they will be used, and when these aren’t met can be left feeling discouraged. For those who have a positive experience it can reenforce their desire for “mountain top” experiences. They want to keep going back for short periods to get the high of being out there, and live their real lives simply as a means to go back somewhere else short term. They fail to realise the valleys of service, that its not all great triumphs, and they begin to cope poorly with the daily drudgery of their normal lives. The disadvantages to the home churches generally stem from any harm done to the individual, if the team comes back feeling overly discontent with the way things are done in their home churches, are left feeling uninspired by their real life, yet unwilling to change it or to move, this apathy or discontentment can spread. Also if they have faced great trauma or had a negative experience and stories they bring back are often tainted by this and can lead to lessening support, and less inclination for people to be interested in that particular field.

    The disadvantages to the field are wide, varied and great. Before I begin let me first state that my experience is mainly in very closed countries where great sensitivity is needed and so my perspectives and opinions come from that position. Firstly short-term mission teams often come with their own agendas and the time they want to spend seeing projects, visiting groups, sight seeing, even speaking at meetings can cause their hosts a fair bit of work to try and coordinate such things, and can take time and attention away from projects, and other work that they would normally be participating in. Many teams do not go with the attitude of how can we help, what are your needs, but rather this is how we are going to help (whether or not it will really be on any benefit) and this is what we would like you to arrange for us. When entering a sensitive country they can often speak out of turn, be over zealous, behave inappropriately, or dress insensitively. These mistakes often cause long-terms to end up two steps behind where they were and spend lots of time trying to undo the damage short-termers have caused. Their mistakes can have even more devastating effects, they can cause work to be shut-down, regions having to be left, and even result in the killings of others. This is not due to bad intent but rather being overly keen without full understanding and knowledge of the areas to which they go. A friend of mine, Tom Little, once said “For the first two years of being here one is a liability”. His statement was well thought out and justified from decades of experience. His argue was that even with good training, good briefing and orientation, a specific role to be fulfilled, and good language acquisition one is still very prone to make catastrophic mistakes and cause damage. During this time one needs high supervision, mentoring, accountability, and coaching. An experiment once carried out showed that for every negative experience it takes many more positive ones to outweigh it. For example if a child falls off their bike an injures themselves it takes five good rides before that fear will be fully counteracted. Similarly for every negative exchange with a people group it takes many more positive encounters with that same people group for the negative impression to be essentially null and void. In line with this I would argue that for every negative or damaging move a short termer makes, it requires a long termer to re-do, re-educate, speak again, at least five fold for that action to be counteracted. In many cases the person who was negatively impacted may never come into contact with another missionary again. These are just some of the damages that can be done whilst the short termers are on the field. The next chance for damage is when they leave. With their limited knowledge of the sensitivity of the culture, and of security situations stories, situations, and information may be share far too freely without a second thought. This information in the wrong hands can prove disastrous, especially in this age where information spreads so easily and with so little control. A simple social-network status once cost the lives of many.

    So as you can see there are many advantages and disadvantages. Personally I weigh up not the amount of each but rather the quality of the risk short termers prove against the benefit they provide. For me the risks are far too great, they risk having whole works shut down, the death or imprisonment of people, the evacuation of people from areas or even whole countries. These risks along side the advantages of some possible increased prayer support and better understanding hardly seem worthwhile. If the team is small and have some serious intention of coming back long-term then I would say the risks are worthwhile.

    Most of the advantages are to the individuals or their home churches, which is hardly the point of mission. The aim of mission if to glorify God where he has not been before, to make Him known where he has not been known, and to carry his hope, love, and peace into areas which have not seen these things before.

    On a side note I would like to say that in open, free countries, where are simply in need of some extra hands for a quick construction project, for example, then short term teams can be of great value and the risk can be small if properly led and supervised.

    All in all it is my opinion that the risks that short term mission teams provide are far greater than any benefit they offer to the field and are therefore to be discouraged, except for in very specific circumstances.

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  6. Emily, I don’t you’ve disagreed with me at all! ;0) infact I think you’ve backed up all my points. The reason I’ve changed my mind is for purely selfish reasons.

    you said ‘Short Term Mission can be useful for individuals to achieve a variety of ends. Firstly they can provide an experience of another culture, see some of the challenges Christians in other parts of the world face, and the freedoms they enjoy, maybe even help them to appreciate an aspect of God’s character which they were before less aware or understanding of.’

    That is pretty much one of the goals of my job, so how can I now argue that they are a waste of time? For the record I would probably never led a team to the kinds of countries you are talking about for the very reasons you state.

    STMTs are a complex issue with both sides having fairly selfish movitves. Rather sad, but true. Some of the most successful STMTs I have experienced have been where both the missionary and the team see it as a kingdom experience.

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    • Emilie Reading says:

      Well for purely selfish reason yes they can be beneficial. And I do agree there are benefits, but mainly I think they are to the teams rather than to the field. I think if, as you said, they are willing to have a fair amount of downtime and to use that time wisely that is great, and if they are flexible in their timings and what they do then that is also great.
      And yes, just be careful where you send them, because otherwise the risks way outweigh any benefits.

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