Short-Term Missions that is Missions

I hear a lot of stories (sometimes comedies, sometimes horror stories) regarding short-term missions (STM). I nod and smile, or shake my head and scowl. But I am happy to say that I can’t really relate to these stories. My experience with short-term missionaries has generally been quite positive. But my own experience with STM is quite different from the normal. The normal STM team is more like:

  • A group of 5 to 10 to 15 or more.
  • STMers have little to no skills that are specifically matched up to the needs of the local missionary.
  • Often the STM team activity is driven by the needs of the team, rather than the needs of the local host.
  • (Because of this) It is common that the work done by the STM team is more “make work,” that provides a sense of accomplishment for the team, and putting a strain on the local hosts, rather than helping the long-term programs of the long-term missionary.

These traits commonly lead to the assumption that Short-term missions is really for the benefit of the STMers rather than the local missionaries or local hosts.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. One way around it is the method used by the Mormons. Short-term missions is longer (commonly 2 years) with prior preparation. Still, from what I see here in the Philipines at least, it still looks to be highly inefficient— succeeding more from sheer numbers and back-home optimism.

But is there the possibility of a short-term missions that makes sense on its own that doesn’t involve multiple years of work?

I feel like several of our experiences with short-term missions has a better record than that.

First.  The Short-term mission teams are small. The largest team we ever had was 4. Most are 1 or 2. Consider the numbers. Suppose it takes $3000 per person to do a short-term mission, and suppose the team is made up of two people. The cost then would be $6000. The cost of a team of ten would be approximately $30,000. That is quite a difference— five times as much. But will the larger team be five times as useful? Probably not.

Second.  The teammember(s) have unique skills that the missionary needs. It might be technical skills, it may be academic skills, or special certifications. Franky, most skills that people bring already exist in the field.

Third. The skills that STMers bring are ones that are specifically needed for the long-term ministry programs in the field.

Fourth. The primary goal of the team is to increase the capacity of missionaries or local hosts. The goal is the transfer of skills and resources to the field. The goal is not to maintain dependency.

Fifth.  The STM team is driven based on the need in the field. This is implied by the above principles, but still worthy of note.

Sixth.  It is the responsibility of the missionary in the field to ensure that they (or designated individuals) gain from the STM trip. Far too often, groups come and go and nothing is changed because those in the field did not intentionally seek to gain long-term benefit from the trip, and do not seek to properly integrate it with the longer-term strategy.

Note:  I am NOT saying that all STM should be done this way. There is a place for “Encounter Missions.” There is a place for reminding ourselves that the church is multi-national and that we have brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world. There is a place for doing things that are not at all cost effective.

But there are times when STM makes sense from the standpoint of long-term mission work in the field.

Imagine a World With Limits

Picture two artists tasked to create works of art.

mending the hurts
“Mending the Hurts” by Rebekah Munson 2011.  Charcoal and Colored Pencils

Artist A is given limitations. He is told that it must be a painting on a 1 meter by 1 meter canvas. He is also given time constraints– perhaps 4 weeks. Further he may be given subject constraints— perhaps the one who commissioned it is a wealthy person who wants the painting to express hope in overcoming cancer.

Artist B is given essentially no limitations. There are no guidance as to the size, or even type of art. There are no time constraints— take as long as is needed.  And there are no subject constraints— just make the artwork “awesome!”

Who is likely to create the better piece of art? Most likely it will be Artist A. That is because most of us tend not to do well with no constraints. Most of us lack the discipline to keep working as hard when no one is holding a clock to ensure that we are making progress as agreed upon. Most of us would struggle to be creative when there are no limitations in media. For example, consider the massive creativity involved to apply paint to a limited size 2-dimension surface to show great vistas of outdoor scenery, or abstract imaginings? This requires a great deal of creativity.

Essentially, creativity is the act of overcoming the limitations of media or time. How does one create a moving 2-D image on a screen, with sound) that tells a story of huge battles in outer space? Or record a chariot race in a hippodrome in a setting that had disappeared 2 millennia before the film was produced? How can words on paper or sounds in a radio play draw one into the story so effectively, that years later one cannot recall whether one read it, heard it, or watched it as a movie.

I am presently reading “The Golden Bough” by James G. Frazer. The edition I am reading is almost 800 pages long. It is a LONG book… a compendium of minutiae. On a certain level I appreciate the bits of cultural trivia that are brought together to explain culturally the somewhat obscure ritual of the Arician Grove. While I may appreciate the book, I must also believe that the book would have been stronger as a creative construct if it was about 1/3 the length. There is far too much of — Group G has this practice… and Group H has a pretty similar practice… and so does Groups I, J, and K, although contrasting somewhat with Groups L and M. The book would certainly be easier to appreciate if it was shorter. Perhaps Fraser would have said, or did say, that it needed to be that long to cover the topic fully. I have heard some preachers make the argument that they have to preach for ______ minutes because they have to say what God told them to say. But it is quite likely that they would tell what God told them to say better and more effectively if they recognized that they were limited in time and in the attention span of the recipients. Preachers would most likely be better at preaching if churches put limits on their oratory.

Now suppose, surprise surprise, that Artist B produces a better work than Artist A. Is that possible? Certainly. There is no guarantee. But Artist A is LIKELY to do better because we thrive with REASONABLE limits.  An artist who gets paid minimally for making 2 minute caricatures of people at a carnival may have too many limiters to grow beyond a certain limit. But at the same time, the limitations of that situation may still motivate the artist to hunger (literally and figuratively) for bigger things    Too great of limitations MAY crush the creative spirit, but it can also act as a fire the drives growth.

But suppose that Artist B (without limitations) does do a better job than Artist A (with limitations) at that time.  What if the situation repeats itself? Who will improve the most? Almost certainly Artist A. Pushing against the limitations of media, subject, and time, exercises the creative “muscles.” Artist A is likely to grow as an artist through the discipline provided. It is likely that A will overtake B, all else being equal.

Sometimes there seems to be exceptions to this. The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona, designed by Anton Gaudi, seems like an exception– an extravagant piece of art with very little constraints. Almost a century later, the building still is not complete. The Taj Mahal, and the frescoes on the Sistine Chapel seem to point to greatness coming from no limitations. But my argument is that creativity grows through constraints. The artist grows through limitations… and in this culture of limitations and discipline, growth occurs. That creative growth and discipline provides the environment for an artist to shine if many of the limitations are removed. (I would still argue that time constraints are still needed… the Sagrada Familia’s century of build is hard to justify as a design project.)

Ministry is creative as well. And in a similar manner we need limitations.

It is good to have time and money limitations. I have seen ministry projects where money and time were not key constraints. The results were wasteful and sloppy. It is also good to have people who provide limitations through guidance and accountability. We simply do better with those things.

But suppose you are one of those unfortunate people in ministry that does not have a lot of accountability or constraints… what can you do? Well, you can create constraints.

  • If asked to speak/preach somewhere, ask for the topic. If they say to speak on whatever you would prefer, seek preferences or find out what are the concerns. It is comfortable, and lazy, to fall back into one’s own favorite topics.
  • If others don’t place limits on you, such as for preaching, set them for yourself. Maybe aim for a 20 minute or 30 minute sermon. While there are some cultures that appreciate longer sermons (especially where oratory is more of a performance art, rather than an act of prophetic ministry), most groups lose attention soon past 30 minutes. Don’t fall in love with your voice so much that you think the longer you speak the more effective you are.
  • If you head an organization, place people over you. Billy Graham established a board over him who guided him and even determined his pay. In the mission field, missionaries sometimes are in a position where no one (at least no one within a few thousand miles) has oversight. If you have none, find some.
  • Develop accountability partners. Today, some pastors serve in churches where there is no one they are accountable to. The same is true of missionaries— especially now that we are in an era where some missionaries are self-sent.
  • Tighten the limitations. If one has 10,000 dollars to accomplish something, establish a budget of $7,000. That not only gives you $3,000 for emergency, but it also pushes you to find creative solutions.
Of course, every time one gives advice, one risks someone (strangely) taking the advice too much to heart. I have known medical missions here in the Philippines that are very wasteful… depending on foreign medicines and foreign professionals, to say nothing are burning money wherever they go. Yet there are other ones that cut TOO many corners. They use expired medicines or doctors samples, and use underqualified medical professionals. Creativity is driven by oversight that sets limitations, but also maintains quality control.

I hope you will look for opportunities to be limited in your ministry!


Business as Missions

I was reading an article on  I must Image result for BAMadmit that the reason for me reading it was because they referenced an article I wrote years ago. I have never really written on Business as Missions. However, I wrote on the use of merchant traders on the Silk Road, who were used by Nestorian mission teams in the funding of missions, and the spreading of the Christian faith across Asia in the first millenium. This early implementation of (intentional) use of business for missions has inspired some to see this as an important inroad to “Creative Access Countries.” But the article also goes on to suggest that there are other benefits to “BAM” than simply a platform.

I don’t plan to rehash the Lausanne article. You can read the article HERE

Additionally, if you want to read my article on Nestorian Missions, you can read it THERE.

But I would like to hit on a couple of minor things.

FIRST.  What is “Wealth”? The article came as the result of a gathering  The Role of Wealth Creation for Holistic Transformation. The “wealth creation” language would appeal to business, and Christians associated with business. It also can appeal to those who embrace Prosperity Gospel.  However, the article clarifies what it means by wealth.

First, we must define wealth creation and wealth creators. Creating wealth today is often seen as some people getting obscenely rich while others remaining desperately poor. Is wealth creation just about making money, investing in the stock market, for instance, and passively watching your money grow? Maybe, but our definition of wealth creation is broader than one person or one family earning money. Creating wealth typically begins with the family, transmitting values of work and creativeness that result in unique and salable products or services. Human ingenuity and creativeness, as well as natural resources, create wealth. But wealth is more than having a surplus of money. True wealth is the ability to fully embrace our Creator’s world complete with relationships, helping others to create wealth and having a sustainable and scalable wealth creation model. Deuteronomy 8:18 reminds us that it is our God who gives us the capacity to create wealth. God intends material blessing for us, but we must remember him in the midst of all our creating.

-From “Wealth Creators’ Contribution to Holistic Transformation” Section 1 in the webarticle referenced above at

I don’t have a problem with the definition, except that I personally prefer terms that are not so easy read as “MONEY.” It would be nice if there was an English word that embraced this concept better. Wealth and Prosperity sound too much like they relate to MONEY and STUFF. On the other hand, well-being, flourishing, and shalom, seem a bit too far to the other extreme— kind of abstract. Christians struggle with abstract constructs, but they also struggle with terms that sound like they mean something different than they are being defined as. I hate the theological expression “Total Depravity of Man.” not because it doesn’t have some theological, but because it seems to say something very different.

As far as “wealth,” I am not sure the answer. But Christians need to be educated what wealth is and is not as far as a theologically, Biblically responsible understanding is concerned.

Second, I found a quote on missions in Albania interesting:

Many Albanians embraced the gospel, but the work of the missionaries did not include business. The West typically supported new pastors and the church was vulnerable to social changes. In 1997 during a period of extreme civil unrest bordering on civil war, all the Christian organizations except Catholic Relief Society left Albania. The only other NGO that was continuing to work in the country was the Albanian Education Development Project of Soros. That gap left people feeling abandoned by the church and the West. There were a few local pastors, but they had no income. The church that is dependent upon foreign money is a weak church both for its own structure and also for its ability to affect its community for Christ.

It has often been a concern as to what to do when things get difficult. Do missionaries stay with the people… or run away. This is not an easy question to answer. While it may sound correct to demonstrate God’s love by maintaining a ministry of presence during times of trouble, it may prove unconscionable for a mission organization to tell its workers to stay in a place of great danger.

But this section pointed out a second concern. Much of the help was either spiritualistic without addressing social concerns (Bible production, discipling, preaching, churchplanting) or relief work. The problem was that much of that work was ill-prepared for the missionaries’ absence.

They come from an amazing number of countries; Australia, Belgium, Canada, New Zealand, Switzerland, Brazil, South Africa, Finland, Greece, Norway, Sweden, England, the United States, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Holland and Mexico. Besides evangelism and church-planting they engage in medical work, orphanages, publications, Bible translation, literature distribution, student work, agricultural counseling, school repairs and relief work. This is all so very incredible!

In the case of Albania, work was not done to ensure the Christians there were self-governing, self-propogating, and self-sufficient. Missionaries must always be assumed to be temporary. As such, one of the most important roles of a missionary is to prepare for their absence, and the absence of whatever support they give.

…Then There are Days I am Glad I Don’t Know How to Raise Support (Part 2)

So why are there days I am glad that I don’t know how to raise support?

Number 1. This is the main reason. I learned that God is faithful. Sure, that sounds like a saccharine-like aphorism. I can hardly say that God promises to have money fall from heaven to fund people who are too stubborn or lazy to build partnerships with supporters. I can, however, say that we were able live on less, and have less regular support than I thought.

Image result for bucket full of holes money

I just can’t think that people who practice high-pressure sales tactics truly see their God as one who supplies their needs. I teach missions, and I find still find it humorous that running around to churches, family, friends, and “deep pockets” is labeled “Faith Missions” because its participants are allegedly “living by faith.” It is certainly not wrong, it may even be good… but there is nothing about faith in it.

I am not here preaching a Corrie Ten Boom dogma against support-raising. One year she felt that God was telling her not to actively raise support. That is fine. But then she started going around and moralizing and absolutizing that decision— that no Christian minister should do support-raising. I don’t see that. If I truly feel that God called me to close my business on Sunday, that hardly means that God has told all Christian businessmen to close theirs on Sunday as well. There simply should be no connection.

Number 2. It helps our relationships. It is hard to have healthy relationships with potential partners when it is known that every meeting is a request for money. I have dealt with people who were professionally needy. They had mastered the ability to appear pitiable. I don’t see that as a godly strategy, and we often felt the need to “duck” these individuals when possible.

Early on, I recall visiting a church we had left back in the US. The senior pastor (who had some problems) was gone and the associate pastor (one we had greater respect for) was now leading a church recovering from crippling financial problems and community shame. The pastor was very much on edge during our visit, but tried to be friendly. It became clear to me (and I still think I got this pretty much correct) that he was waiting uncomfortably for us to go into our support spiel. I knew the church had no money and that there were political issues why we could not be financially supported as well. Looking back I wish I had said something to the effect:

“We are not here to raise money. But your church had an important role in our spiritual and ministerial development. So we justed wanted to come by and talk with you for awhile. Would that be okay?”

I think that would have removed some of the edge.

That being said, I have been known to go too far. I have had people ask how they can help us financially, and I would say, “It’s okay… we are doing fine.” A friend of mine, overhearing me on one occasion spoke to me later and said, “If God lays on someone’s heart the desire to help you… don’t tell them you don’t need or welcome their help.” Guilty as charged. There is a balance. Still… when money is not the “elephant in the room that everyone is pretending not to see,” other forms of partnership and encouragement can be explored more positively in many cases.

Number Three. It helps creativity. The classic uninspired solution to a problem is “Throw money at it.” But when one’s money is dear, and yet one’s calling is still broad, one must find more creative ways to solve things. We have a counseling center in the Philippines. That center takes up about 40 square meters of office space. We don’t have to pay any rental. This was worked out by the generosity of another organization… one that does not support us with money, but with free use of resources. We also help them through a formal partnership.

That being said, free stuff is not always valued. We do charge for some trainings so that people will value the trainings. It also allows some of our volunteers to get tangible help with their generosity of skill and time. But our volunteers commonly want to help the people who need help the most. Most of our primary target cannot pay for services, so offering them for free, funded by trainings that are paid for by people who can pay.

Creativity takes time. From my engineering days, we were told in the triad of QUICK, CHEAP, and GOOD, we could design for any two. In Christian ministry… good is a must. So then one can choose for it to be quick… but that costs more money. Or it can be cheap… but it takes time. If one is spending less time on funding, one has more time to be creative. The alternative is a bit of a spiral.

I need money, so I spend time to raise money

I now have money, but I don’t have time

Because I don’t have time, I have to compensate by spending more money.

Because I have to spend more money, I need to use more time to raise money.

I hope you can see the pattern.

Number Four. It supports mutuality. I still say that mutuality is one of the clearest Christian virtues that Christians commonly ignore. The Bible is rather ambivalent on unilateral relationships, but quite strongly supports mutual relationships, especially in the church. Avoiding the patron-benefactor (or master-slave) relationship allows us to often have a more mutual relationship where we help another when the other needs help, and the other helps us when we need help.

Independence is not really a Christian virtue, and neither is Dependence. More Christian is Interdependence. We rely on each other as all of us rely on God.

Number Five. It allows me not to focus on my cynicism. Most of the best fund-raisers are not the best missionaries. This truth could make me bitter and cynical. I can be cynical of people in ministry who seem to have mixed motivations in ministry. I can also be cyncial of supporters or supporting churches who often have no greater discernment or strategy in their support than falling victim to the tricks of good salesmanship.

The above paragraph may sound cynical… and I suppose I am. But it does not dominate my thinking. That is because we are not competing with each other. I am not trying to get what they are going after. The main challenge I have is to discern which people will partner with us mutually, and which one’s seek to join more parasitically.

And yes, even THAT previous paragraph still sounds a bit cynical. I apologize. I understand that cyncism is not really a Christian virtue… but neither is gullibility. Grace is given but Trust is earned. I am happy to have met many fine people in ministry in whom it is an honor to work with. I hope you have found the same. I have found others that I have concerns about… but I generally have found that I don’t need to stress about them. I simply need to maintain healthy boundaries.

I had a great aunt who was beseiged with letters from political and religious groups seeking her money. She did not have much money. She was a widow and going senile. She was on many political and religious “sucker lists.” After she died, my dad and I spent a long afternoon shoveling (yes, shoveling) hills of letters in her back room from various organizations. It really helped me develop cynicism for many religious groups, and pretty much ALL political groups. <For those of you who think that it is the OTHER political party that does bad things, all I can say is WAKE UP!!! Whatever differences there may be in political platform do not lead to corresponding differences in character or ethical behavior.>

We don’t have much money now… so we help a bit when we can… and when we can’t we don’t. But often, when we can’t, we actually can— perhaps with time, or resources, that don’t include money. Our limited resources tends to keep away the more mercenary fund-raisers. That also helps me limit my proclivity for overt cynicism.

I think that sums up everything. At times I wish that I was better at fund-raising. But overall, God has been good, and I am glad to not be particularly skilled in this area.

If you are in ministry, I pray that you won’t become TOO good in this area either.

…Then There are Days I am Glad I Don’t Know How to Raise Support (Part 1)

My wife and I have been involved in missions for over 14 years. In the early years we did not know much of anyting about raising support. We never went out on deputation. Our home church provided over 80% of our support. We did okay. I taught missions and sometimes spoke of raising support. I liked to note that in raising support it is not that important to focus on need… because everyone has needs. I made the argument that the three most important things are demonstrating:

  • TrustworthinessImage result for philippine money
  • Competence
  • Vision

Then close to four years ago we were notified that we were about to have our support from our home church cut off. Most all of the church leadership thought we knew what was going on in the church… but of the two people whose primary job was to keep us updated, one had left the church, and the other was in the process of being overwhelmed by personal problems and so had stopped updating us or answering our questions.

At this time I began to understand the problem we had. We were rapidly transitioning from 100% support to less than 20%. I did not really know how to raise support— and even less doing so from a distance. At that same time tax law changed in the US (or at least how existing tax law was being interpreted) so it was even harder to get support as an independent missionary. We did not have the resources to estabish a 501c3 organization in the country. (Americans tend to think that tax-deductibility of religious giving is a God-given right— no idea where they got that thought.)

I looked into other options, including going back to the US to teach or pastor— meager options indeed. Strangely, we discovered that we could continue. Another church began to support us, as well as a few others on a regular or occasional basis. We found that we were able to get by. Our cost of living was higher than our support, and our residual funds began to decline, but much more slowly than we expected. In the end, we think that we are able to persevere.

But this chapter had gotten me thinking more about support raising. I paid more attention to those who succeed in this aspect of ministry and those who don’t. I got some information from a person we know who was (he has stepped out of professional ministry) part of a Christian organization that took support-raising of its membership very seriously.  This organization had its members raise support in the same place where they are doing ministry (there are conveniences to this, I can see).

This organization would give its ministers a list of contacts. The contacts were not the only ones they were supposed to contact, but were certainly supposed to start there. They were given support goals, both overall support and weekly goals, of both monthly support and one-time gifts. Each minister was supposed to list everyone he (or she) contacted by email or phone, list which ones he was able to establish face-to-face appointments with, list the ones he was able to personally challenge to support, and what type and amount of financial support he received. Every week this report had to be turned in by each minister, the spreadsheets updated and new sheets with updated goals and contacts given out. Curiously, this particular group received considerable out-of-area support that went to the organization to support the individual ministers. Perhaps the support-raising process was to train members how to do that part of the work. Still the sheer number of hours needed weekly to do this, when it seemed as if it wasn’t all that necessary, makes me wonder whether the support-raising may have had a deleterious effect on their primary ministry work.

I have noted a number of independent missionaries who were especially dedicated to support-raising. On a positive side, they tended to have MASSIVE networking skills. I am still amazed at how some people we work with from very different denominations and ministry types were well familiar with certain missionaries and even were supporting them, or encouraged to do so. Negatively, often these same missionaries did less organizing of missions  than linking themselves to the mission work that others were doing. This is quite understandable. The hours needed for networking and support-raising can certainly conflict with the time needed in the visioning, planning, implementating, and evaluating of primary mission tasks. While it may be true that in a team success is shared, but in support-raising it is quite tempting to take a small role and give the impression of being indispensible.

I have also seen missionary websites that appear to be little more than an electronic  commercial for supporting their ministry. They seem to have taken their website design from some of the more notorious Christian TV personalities. I am thinking of one site in particular of a missionary over here whose website is especially intense in this. I only slightly know the person, so I can’t judge. I am concerned that some people I respect have especially deep concerns regarding their actions, as well as their lack of actions. Frankly, I have no clue whether these issues have merit. But one does have to wonder when money shifts from being a necessary part of mission ministry, and when it becomes an obsession.

I will continue this thought in part 2 and get to the reasons I am glad that I am not good at support-raising.

If you wish, you may continue onto PART TWO.



Tertullian, Love Feast, and Social Ministry

Excerpt from Tertullian’s 39th Apology

The tried men of our elders preside over us, obtaining that honor not by purchase, but by established character. There is no buying and selling of any sort in the things of God. Though we have our treasure-chest, it is not made up of purchase-money, as of a religion that has its price. On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are, as it were, piety’s deposit fund. For they are not taken thence and spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God’s Church, they become the nurslings of their confession.

Much of the context of this quote is on the Love


Feast. At the time, the Love Feast (think perhaps “Sacramental Potluck”) was a normal part of Christian worship and some were charging Christians with being wild drunken folk. Tertullian is making the point that the love feast was shared, charitable, chaste, self-controlled and started as well as ended with a prayer. But further, moneys gathered within the church were done to help those in need. The love feast was an act of worship, but it was also an act of charity since the sharing was equal, not based on what one had to give.

The Love Feast was referred to by Paul, by the Didache (by implication), Ignatius of Antioch, Tertullian, and others.

Raised a Baptist, we have a lot of potluck dinners. And many other churches have similar things. Sadly though, we tend to do them with a bit of a chuckle— a bit of pride and embarrassment. But perhaps, we can see it (or make it):

  • An Act of Worship
  • An Act of Charity
  • An Act of Brotherhood

But I hope it would be all three. It has a sacramental role in terms of worship of God. It is an act of giving to and caring for the needy. It is an act to remind ourselves of our spiritual unity in Christ.


Picture Picture!! 6 Cautionary Tales

On mission, or on short-term mission trips, what is the ethics of picture-taking? At its best, it serves as a capturing of key memories of God’s work and important relationships in the field. It also may inspire others , drawing people into the experience through pictures.

On the other hand, pictures can be:

Balloon animals and a smile
Balloon animals and a smile

  • Exploitive/Self-serving
  • Humiliating/denigrating to the recipients of ministry
  • Disruptive
  • Deceptive/Manipulative

The dangers, however,  do not necessarily outweigh the benefits. When I was in the Navy, I was told, “If you didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen.” This was emphasized to instill in us the importance of writing events down. However, the effect was at best mixed, as some decided that an embarrassing problem “did not happen” if one does not log it in. In missions, to some extent, if there is no picture, it did not happen. And more to the point, if the picture is not put up on social media, it did not happen. Some ministry must be done in secrecy, but some should be shared to inspire others.

As an example, for my wife and I, we have a counseling and chaplain training center. It is unethical to photograph counseling sessions. It is also unethical to photograph chaplains meeting patients in the hospital or inmates in jail. There are a lot of things we do that can be shared via pictures, but a major part of our work cannot be shared. But that is as it should be. (Some groups violate such ethics… but that is for a different post).

In missions, one must know when to photograph, and when (and where) not to photograph. One also needs to understand the story one tells in the composition of images.

Here are a few stories of pictures from least problematic to most problematic.

 1.  Trivial.  We were having a going-away celebration for a ministry partner who was leaving the Philippines to serve God in a distant country. At this celebration an acquaintance of mine asked to borrow my camera to take some pictures. Sure… why not.  Later, when I got the camera back, I had very few usable images. More than half were close-up selfies of the herself alone, or with her boyfriend.  This is trivial, because (a) there were still other pictures taken by others that adequately covered the event, (b) the pictures were not shared on social media, and (c) I know how to use the delete button on my camera.

But it does bring up the issue of motive. Some photograph on mission because they love to look at themselves, not on what God is doing. The pictures may simply be about themselves, or it may be more general but centers on themselves. This may happen once in awhile…but making the pictures always about oneself should not be the addiction. Frankly, however, it is an addiction that we all fall into at times. (I admit that our blogsite has an AWFUL lot of photos of our family, often in ministry situations. I may have to reflect on this.)

Note: I describe this issue as trivial because in my story, the photos were not put on social media. However, too many selfies put up on social media in missions can become more than trivial.  A very funny blog that looks at this phenomena of unhealthy selfies (with unhealthy motives) on mission, go to Barbie Savior or the associated Instagram Page (or the article in Huffington Post.

2.  Less Trvial.  Years ago, my wife and I worked with a team of others doing medical missions throughout the Philippines. It was fun, tiring, and sometime beneficial (and probably sometimes not). Often my wife or I would serve as the team leader. But not always. A friend of ours led about half of them. Early on, one time, our partner who was serving as team leader, said to me, “Bob, come over here and help with the dental work.” They were doing tooth extractions. He wanted me to hold the head of the patient while the dentist was working to extract the tooth. I suppose there is nothing wrong with that. However, after one patient and a couple of photos taken, I was done. Our friend just wanted to take a photo of me helping the dentist in a way that I never do. I also have a photo or two from a medical mission of me sharing the gospel with patients, although due to language inadequacies I very rarely shared the gospel at medical missions.

This is less trivial since there is open deception here. On medical missions, I would often organize the team, order supplies, work out transportation, coordinate with the local host and the like. On site, I would help get things organized, periodically check the stations, collect registration forms, take a few pictures, and make balloon animals. These pictures taken gave a very deceptive picture of what I do.

This can be harmless… but not always. Some “missionaries” have embraced the role of patron– giving money to local workers to do the actual ministry. They then have photo ops to give the suggestion to their supporters that they are, in fact, the ones doing ministry. In a related case, I have heard of missionaries taking pictures of people raising hands, for whatever reason, and then sending off those photos explicitly or implicitly suggesting that the photos show people responding to the gospel message of the missionary. This type of deception is getting more serious.

3.  Moderate Problem.  I have known missionaries who take so many photos of events that it makes local people nervous. I have heard of this particularly with missionaries from a specific country (since it is not my country, I won’t mention which one). Missionaries take so many many pictures that people wondered what was being done with the pictures.

If you are like me, you have seen some missions websites that appear to be primarily fund-raising sites… and they are filled with pictures that are supposed to pull on the heartstrings of those visiting the site. Whether this is good or bad is debatable (some go too far, in my opinion while others provide a genuine service in helping people be inspired and connect with needs).

The TOO MUCH photo thing varies. I had a friend who was a semiprofessional photographer who would join us on medical missions at times. He took LOTS of pictures. On one trip, he took over 700 photos. However, I never heard anyone complain about him. Perhaps it was because he was a fellow Filipino, so ministry recipients did not think that the photos would be used for inappropriate purposes (a good assumption in this particular case, but potentially a bad assumption in others). Or maybe as a semiprofessional photographer, he was good at getting permission and setting people at ease. Not sure in this case.

4.  More Serious Problem. We did a medical mission in the city, ministering primarily to children that work in the public market. We had medical services and dental services. We also did circumcisions. In the Philippines, circumcision is not mandatory, but expected at around 10-13 years old for boys (female circumcision is, thankfully, not practiced here). As such it is a bit of a rite of passage. Early on, we even got in trouble where one or two boys came in to get circumcision without permission from the parent. The desire to reach a new step in manhood overcame their trepidation of the procedure. At this event, we had several tables put together and we had 7 or 8 boys being circumcised simultaneously, with a line of other boys waiting their turn. As this was going on… some other missionaries were taking lots and lots of pictures… even holding the camera  up over the table to get birds-eye view of the proceedings.

Despite the impression one might get from perusing the Internet, MOST people don’t really want their genitals photographed and distributed via social media. It is disrespectful. Despite this, although the mission I just mentioned was the worse, case, I regularly had to filter out photos taken by others of medical mission trips in which pictures were taken of patients who were over-exposed.

Frankly, in this day and age, making such pictures available to the public could possibly constitute child pornography.

A few years back we were working with a group that was doing recovery work in a landslide zone after a major typhoon (Typhoon Pepeng). We were doing crisis care for the response workers. The workers were able to give us some photos of the recovery. One of the pictures included workers digging up a tribal weave blanket that had been covered by a mountain of dirt. That picture seemed appropriate and poignant in what they were doing. There was another picture and at first it took me a bit to figure out what I was seeing. It was a picture of workers digging up a human being that had died in the landslide. One leg had been freed from the dirt when the picture was taken. I did not share that picture. To me to share it would be dishonoring to the dead and his family, as well as exploitive.

5.  Serious Problem. A fellow missionary here was doing a mission outreach in a remote location and so took some ladies and youth from the home church to help in the outreach. Along the way, the missionary decided to stop to take a break, and while on break decided to take a few photos for “local color.” They were stopped by some rice paddies, so the missionary asked some of the ladies and youth to go into the paddy and look as if they are working there. Nothing really wrong with working in the paddies, but these individuals lived in the city, and worked various jobs in the city. Anyway, after everyone got back, concerns were expressed by the ladies about the photos done. Although none of the photos were deeply troubling in and of themselves, the view was that the missionary wanted them to look poor and messy because it “made a better missions photo.”

Earlier I spoke of deception, denigration, and exploitation. In the end, however, the judges are the locals being photographed. If they feel denigrated, then they are denigrated. That should never be the goal. Some people get worried about white middle income kids going to other countries to do STM with people of other nationalities and races. There is the fear that there is denigration going on. Sometimes there is, but not always. Often, everyone loves the opportunity for a photo op, and the thought that they would be on the Web is exciting. The judge of denigration or exploitation is generally the local people… not those who are dealing with personal issues of post-imperialist white guilt. A Nigerian missionary doing mission work among the urban poor in Moldova is just as at risk of exploiting as a White American in Tanzania (and just as likely to be doing good as well).

6.  Big Problem With Great Solution.  One day, many years ago, when we lived in the US, my 7 year old son came out of the living room and found his mom and said to her, “I don’t want to be brown.” His mom, my wife, is Filipina, so would generally be thought of as “brown.” My son and two daughters would be described as Mestizo or Mestiza (racially mixed). My wife asked him what this was about. He had been watching some commercials for agencies that were raising money to help starving children in other countries. Almost invariably, the commercials involved well-known white Americans who visiting places full of undernourished poor “brown” children. My son, was pretty sure from those commercials that he certainly did not want to be brown. For our son and daughters, we eventually moved to the Philippines, and they saw that those commercials gave a very one-sided view of the world.

Happily in more recent years, many of these organizations changed things. After, beyond the seeming racism and paternalism, the images showed the problem as too great for a single person to do anything about. So they changed. More recent commercials would often be more like this:

A young girl, wearing a nice clean, simple dress, hair taken care of, carrying school books with a big smile on her face greets the viewer. The narrator says, “This is Concessa, she comes from a poor family in a village where there are so few opportunities to better herself. But because she has a sponsor, just 3 dollars a day, Concessa is healthy, happy, has access to healthy food, safe water, and a good education. Because someone cared, Concessa has a bright future.”

This commercial does not denigrate. It shows that there is hope. Some, of course, could argue that it is still paternalistic. I can’t argue with that. However, pretty much any act of kindness can be viewed as paternalistic. It is a concern, but should never be used to justify selfishness.