A Better Way to Do Short Term Missions (part 4): A Summary

Over the last three posts, I’ve discussed some of the ways in which short-term mission (STM) trips could be done better. We’ve looked at the potential dangers of construction projects, the deceptiveness of self-perception, and the many problems surrounding the “missions for me” mentality. And when this post gets published, I’ll be on a 35 hour plane ride to Nepal for an 8 day mission trip. Therefore, while I remain critical of the way STMs are often done, I do believe they can and should remain part of the church’s overarching mission—but only if done rightly. Here are some general principles that can help cultivate a better way to do short-term missions. And by “better,” I mean STMs that help the long-term ministry they seek to serve.

1. Missions is never short term

I actually don’t like the phrase “short-term mission.” I’m not sure if it’ll stick, but I’ve been advocating for the phrase “cross cultural ministry trip” instead. The phrase “short-term mission” implies that we switch on the missions light for the 2 weeks we’re overseas, and then we switch it off once we come back home. But as Christians, we are always on mission and it’s never short term. When you got saved, God called you into His mission and it won’t end until Christ comes back. And you don’t need to fly over salt water to be on mission. Our mission is everywhere.

2. Have you been invited?

I’m astounded at how many short-term trips invite themselves overseas. It’s shocking. I guess we just assume that they need us so badly—being overseas, and all—that of course they want us to come. But this sort of savior complex will always hinder the long-term ministry you’re seeking to help.

“Are we invited?” should be the first question we ask. And the second question should be, “how can we help you in your ministry?” Again, we’re not going for us. We’re going for them.

3. Establish a trustworthy host

Whether it’s a career missionary in the area or an indigenous leader that you already know, it’s crucial that you have someone “on the ground” you can learn from. You need someone who will be honest with you and your team about whether or not you’re helping their ministry in what you’re doing. Such a host will help minimize all the cultural violations that often happen when Americans venture overseas ill-prepared.

This leads to the next important principle.

4. Education and preparation

Short-term trips are much more effective if the participants is well-prepared. Learn the culture. Study the country’s history. Find out the cultural taboos that Americans love to violate. Women: You must find out the culture’s standard of modesty; otherwise, you may be mistaken for a prostitute. Or just another American whore. Sorry, that’s just the way many majority world countries view American women, with all our skimpy tank-tops, short-shorts, and skin-tight jeans. So go out of your way to dress modestly.

Guys, you need to find out the cultural code of conduct among national women. When I was in Zambia, I looked all the Zambian women in the eye and said “hi” just like I would if I were in America. Sounds harmless, I know. But I found out later that saying “hi” to women and looking them in the eye meant that I was trying to make a move on them. Maybe this is why the Zambian men didn’t take too kindly to my “advances” on their women.

One of the main differences between American culture and most other cultures in the world is that we operate on “clock time” while other countries operate on “event time.” For instance, if we throw a birthday party, we say that it’s from 2:00pm-4:00pm on Sunday afternoon. We are ruled by the clock. In many other countries, the birthday party begins when people show up, and it ends when people decide to leave. They are ruled by relationships; the clock is their servant not their master.

So don’t get annoyed when events run much longer than planned, or start three hours later than anticipated. And don’t think that our way of doing things is superior. It’s not. It’s just different. I know it may feel annoying when nothing starts or ends “on time.” But you need to realize that it is “on time,” just a different sort of time. “Event time” people get just as annoyed by those of us who are slaves to the clock.

5. Participants should be serving locally

If aspiring participants aren’t engaged in the mission of God here, they shouldn’t use the church’s money to engage in it there. If I were in charge (and I’m definitely not), the first criterion for STM would be: Have you demonstrated faithfulness in serving Christ at home? Are you loving your neighbor? Serving the poor? Preaching the gospel? Loving your enemies? Pouring into others? If you're not doing it here, then you're probably not a good candidate for doing it there.

6. Participants should contribute part of the cost

It’s human nature and it’s undeniable. We all place more value in things—or trips—that we contributed to financially. An STM could easily turn into a paid vacation if we don’t have any stock in the trip. Plus, how can we ask others to pay for our trip if we’re not willing to pay some of the cost ourselves? If we truly desire to help the global church, when our wallets will reflect that desire.

7. Relationship over tasks

Most Americans are task oriented. We love to build. We love to accomplish. We love to come back from our 10-day trip and report all the stuff we did. But other countries are usually much more relational. Accomplishing a task isn’t the only way to measure the success of a trip, and in some ways it can hinder success. I’ve heard countless stories of American teams busying themselves on their STMs, while the indigenous people would have much rather engaged in conversations, long meals, and afternoon tea and coffee. This can be hard for us. Quality relationships are tough to quantify and the people who gave us money for the trip won’t be impressed if we came back with little to show but intangible relationships.

8. Repeated short term trips

The best kind of short-term trips are those that keep returning to the same place and continue to deepen long-term relationships. This is the heart of Touch Nepal. The reason why we keep coming back to Nepal is because we believe that maintaining deep relationships with the indigenous leaders (that is, our friends)  is crucial to the health of the ministry. If you just spray the world with an array of different short term trips, it will be tough to maintain an ongoing, long-term relationship with the people you’re trying to partner with. The effectiveness of your ministry will be as deep as your relationship to that ministry.

9. How is your trip going to help or hinder the long-term ministry?

As repeated in the previous blogs, we need to ask a thousand questions about the long-term effectiveness of our short-term trip. For instance:

What are the long-term benefits of putting on an evangelistic crusade? Are people coming to hear the gospel, or coming to hear a bunch of Americans who are putting on a free show? Are the positive responses from such a crusade the result of the Holy Spirit, or are they the result of cultural politeness? That is, in many cultures, when a guest says “come forward,” it would be disrespectful not to do what they say.

What are the long-term benefits (or potential harm) that your construction project will have? Have you been asked to come and build? If so, why? Do they not have anyone who could do the work? Or do they not have the money to pay local workers? If so, maybe you could help fund the work so that local workers could be blessed with desperately needed jobs.

Do they want you to come and teach? Why? Why you? How will you translate your knowledge into the native culture? What do you know about how to think theologically about AIDS, the aftermath of genocide, interchurch tribal conflict, polygamy, and the Caste system? What do you know about honor/shame cultures? Or cultures steeped in power/fear? Did you know that you’re probably living in a culture driven by guilt/innocence and that this causes you to see things differently than many other cultures?

And so on and so forth.

There are many other principles I could give, but hopefully these will get you started. Again, short-term missions can be a real benefit on the long-term ministry we’re seeking to serve, as long as we go into such trips well-prepared.

Over the next week or so, I'll try to post a few post about the ministry we're partnering with in Nepal. Stay tuned!