responsible short term missions starts with humble leadership

any youth worker who has taken a group on a short-term missions trip has seen the way it has impacted the lives of teenagers. that’s why so many youth workers make these sorts of missions trips a key aspect of their programming. we want to be sensitive to cultural issues, and we don’t want to hurt the communities where we serve. but we tend to be pragmatists, and we get stoked about seeing our teenagers have their developmental narcissism poked, and seeing their worldview shaped.

i remember, with some embarrassment and regret, some of my earliest missions trips. i’m sure we did some good. and i’m sure there was some sort of impact on the lives of the junior highers i took. but, really, way too much of the trip was about us. i remember building tiny little homes (the sort that a group of junior highers was capable of building); and i remember being asked why we were building something so small. while i don’t think i could admit it at the time, i’m pretty sure our reasoning was more about what we could do (and how we could do it all on our own). there wasn’t any partnership, really, with the vision of a local church or even the family who would receive “our gift.” i remember mexico border town missions where we “led children to faith in jesus” who had certainly made the same “decision” every week during the summer, for each group of visiting gringos, who were obviously pleased (and deeply gratified) by the children’s learned responses.

but it doesn’t have to be that way.

i loved adam mclane’s post (adam is with me here in haiti) yesterday on this very subject. read his post When Helping Helps (it’s really good).

marko with youth workers

and i think i’ve learned this lesson. but it was great to see humble leadership in place today here in haiti. we’re with jim noreen, the haiti operations director for Praying Pelican Missions. they have 170 americans in haiti this week from a whole bunch of churches. they’re working on multiple sites, in multiple forms of ministry. today we’ll be joining a group who’s arriving from mississippi, and will be mostly with them for the next few days. but these first two days, we drove around with jim and visited all the other groups.

and here’s the math equation i saw working…

a visionary and humble local pastor + a missions organization committed to long term relationships of serving the local church’s agenda + a youth worker who’s committed to coming under the leadership of the local indigenous church leadership = great short term missions.

if any one of those first three components are missing or compromised, things go wrong very quickly. the teenagers themselves might not see the skew. they might still return home all charged up, full of great memories and stretched hearts. but the impact doesn’t really have a kingdom scent to it. and, the long term results will just be flat (in the lives of all involved).

the first two components are very much about choosing to work with the right missions organization. but the last one: well, that’s on us. today i had the privilege of meeting and hanging out with a handful of youth workers who “got it.” they set the tone for their groups in word and deed. it’s one thing to organize a trip. it’s another thing to constantly provide a model in word and deed of honoring and following (ooh, that’s a big one!) the local church leadership. our little american autonomous selves sometimes find it hard to put ourselves under someone else’s authority, particularly when we have a culture (including our church culture) that tells us that people with more stuff are of more value.

but that’s when things get really good, when we voluntarily set aside our preferences and assumptions and valuations, and place ourselves under the vision and leadership of local leadership. yeah: then this short term missions stuff can be a BIG WIN for the kingdom, and for everyone involved.


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7 thoughts on “responsible short term missions starts with humble leadership”

  1. I’ve walked this fine line so many times over the years. I just shut down our summer mission because I couldn’t find a way to get us under a local church’s covering. It was a very hard thing to do.

  2. Scott I applaud that decision of shutting down something that does not hit the mark. Continue research since there are ways to do meaningful church affiliated missions so keep looking. (and this post might help you if other people respond)

  3. Just commenting on scott & jim’s idea of shutting down short term mission because of a lack of partnership with local churches… YES… I agree…
    However this does not have to shut down the whole program, just re-target to another area where this relationship can take place…. I always encourage people who want to taste missions, but dont know where to start to look at the list of missionaries your church already supports, and connect with them…. ask them what they would like a short term team to do, and target a team for that task…. HUGE boost to your church’s missionaries that not only do you support them and pray for them, but you’ve visited their setting, and understand it better….

    By the way, I’ve been a missionary in africa since 1994…. and have experienced this first hand….

  4. GREAT idea Tom, thank you for enlightening us! We get so stuck in our culture, your insight is refreshing! I know we each want to support our missionaries in any way possible, and this is the perfect bridge. Teaching our kids, and encouraging our missionaries already in place, while helping to further the kingdom work. Thank you!

  5. Tom yes I agree there are alternatives. (and yes I’ve been on missions to Africa short term). I think one priority is having a local partner so that the work or exposure that’s done for the participants is meaningful longer term then just a quick “do a bible study pass out food bye bye”.

    I’ve worked with CRI in Dondo Mozambique and they work with the nationals who drive the process. That way it IS connected to meaningful work and local aid.

    Keep looking brother, there’s plenty to do… it just takes research.

  6. We have been rethinking short term missions. We are going to try world impact in LA. We love that we can partner with church plants. I am hoping that students will be able to encourage and support a few church planters in LA. Missions trips have to be connected with the local church.

    Thanks for the post. It’s a great reminder.

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