Struggles with Short-Term Missions


A lot of Short-term Mission teams come from “The West” to the Philippines. And quite a few STM teams leave the Philippines to serve in other parts of the world as well.

And they can do genuine good. When they come in as genuine partners of local ministries, when they come in with welcome skills (especially) and resources, when there is a humbleness of spirit, such teams are great. The best teams, from what I have seen, are small… less than 10. Some of the best ones are just 2 or 3 people– there for transfer of specific needed skills. STM can also be a reminder that the church is not merely local, it is universal– it is not merely united, it is diversified.

But then there are other STM teams. They are a different story. There are many sub-stories in this, but I would focus on five groups. These groups are somewhat related and overlapping.

  1.  Churchy Vacationers. People who join STM often have jobs or school, and so are investing their limited vacations in the trip. But even though it is vacation time, it is still not vacation. Some focus on sight-seeing and creature comforts. Others are shutterbugs taking pictures of (exploiting) people who are struggling. It is tempting, and in many parts of the world, the rules of hospitality can make this attitude seem okay for STMers. At the other end of the spectrum, rarely, one can see the opposite where a STM trip was set up to work, work, work, and leave. However, a properly designed STM trip is more like work, work, fun, work.  Mixing a bit of fun with the work will also help make the work more fun.
  2. Cultural Critics. Some come as (very poorly trained) cultural anthropologists. They bring their ethnocentric views of their home with them, and can’t help but note how the food is not as good in their ministry location as it is at home– How the people are so “primitive”– How their houses are so crude, their clothes so odd, and their work so unorganized. Of course, a good cultural anthropologist would not come in and critique compared to one’s own culture. And in STM, one is not generally in a location long enough to critique competently anyway. Even if one is competent, it is commonly wise to keep one’s mouth shut anyway. None of us really enjoy outsiders coming in a disrespecting our country or culture.
  3. Unwitting Burdeners. Some STMers come in and want to help. But too many people helping too much can prove a very big burden on the locals. A team of 15, for example need to be fed, housed, and driven around. Even if the team comes with finances to cover the costs of their stay, the visit can still be a logistical nightmare, and a drain to time, and energy. When we have had short-term mission teams come, I have talked to my church here first, and let them know that it is likely that the STMers will gain more from the experience than the church. Is that okay? That understanding up front really can help. I have seen short-term mission trips where the host got the impression that the STM trip would be a financial and ministerial boon for them. It may or may not be true, but it is certainly not a healthy attitude regardless.
  4. Visionary Dominators. Sometimes, STM teams come in with a clear vision of what they want to do and what they don’t want to do. In many cases, the local hosts are seen more as means to accomplish their vision, rather than partners in ministry. Since locals are experts of what is needed, typically, the vision should come more from them. Often locals have a greater sense of what needs to be done, but are not able to bring that across to the STM mobilizers who are dictating what will be done.

Often STM is touted as a great boon for missions, or even a substitute for a long-term mission presence. Such views are far too rosy. A more realistic view is needed. On the other hand, some see STM as a problem, or at best a good way to inspire the members of the STM team to greater missions awareness. That may be true, but short-term missions can be far more than that.

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