Missions Reflections: Why We Go (by Joel Rainey)

by Guest Blogger on July 1, 2014 · 37 comments

Joel Rainey is the Director of Missions at Mid-Maryland Baptist Association, an adjunct professor at Capital Bible Seminary and blogs at Themelios (Twitter - @joelrainey). 

As spring and summer approach, mission teams from churches all over America begin gearing up for a busy season. Anyone who frequents airports for either business or pleasure has no doubt seen oceans of identical T-shirts wandering the concourses between connections, and those wearing those T-shirts expect no less than a “great missions experience.” Summer has barely begun, and our Association has already had teams on the ground in several different parts of the globe, with our most recent effort just concluding last week, as our disaster relief team continued its work in Long Island, New York.  But why do they really go?

In a few days, I will post my annual summer reading list, give the blogosphere a rather long rest and depart for an Asian country myself.  I’ll log quite a few miles between now and the end of summer, and like most who plan for trips like this, my small team expects a “great experience.” But several years ago I ran into an article by Dave Livermore that I think should be read by anyone who aspires to go abroad.

Livermore is the Director of the Global Learning Center at Grand Rapids Seminary, where he also teaches Intercultural Studies. He is also the author of Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence. In that work, he stresses the importance of cultural sensitivity when doing missions, and Mark Oestreicher of Youth Specialties gives the book plenty of praise, stating that mission efforts by American evangelical churches, while all well-intentioned, have not always been thoughtful. “[M]any of us have been concerned over the years that we’ve created a monster, doing more damage than ministry.”

I share Oestreicher’s assessment. Livermore cites research he generated from 250 national pastors who minister in 21 different countries, and each of them, while very appreciative of the efforts of American churches, also clearly delineated 10 things they literally “hated” about American mission projects. Whether your efforts this summer take you to Africa, the Middle East, Europe, South America, or Asia, the following may sting a bit. Nevertheless, if we are truly going to serve….to be “on mission,” we need to listen to these guys:

10 Things I Hate About American Mission Projects. (From 250 National Pastors):

1. You act as if the American church is the true trendsetter for how we should all do church.

2. You’re so concerned over the evil spirits ruling our land when so much evil breeds in your own backyard.

3. You live so far above the average standard of living and you behave as if you’re still in North America.

4. You conclude that you’re communicating effectively because we’re paying attention when we’re actually just intrigued by watching your foreign behavior.

5. You underestimate the effectiveness of our local church leaders.

6. You talk to us about your churches back home in such demeaning ways.

7. You too quickly get into the action without thinking through the implications on our churches long after you go home.

8. You’re obsessed with picture-taking and videos during our evangelistic programs. It’s really quite embarrassing for us.

9. You call us ‘backward’ for having little regard for your music, no palates for your green salads, no IQs for your advanced technology, and the list goes on.

10. We are not naive and backward. Instead, we are your brothers and sisters in Christ.

Hurts, doesn’t it?

Yet this is the way so many of our brothers and sisters in other lands view American Christians. Such things may help to explain why the nation with the greatest amount of material wealth, professional training, and mobilized volunteers accomplishes so little in the world.

The solution to this is, of course, to do a bit of a “gut check” before embarking on a trip of this nature. Take a moment to consider that those who worship Christ in other lands are not our “little” brothers and sisters. In fact, in many ways large portions of them could teach us a thing or two about what it means to follow Jesus. Bob Roberts expresses this same sentiment when he writes “Frankly, we have more need of them than they have of us. . . . .how arrogant we are to think that we must rush our missionaries over to closed parts of the world to tell them how to ‘do church.’ God, save them from us, and let them help us become more of who they are!”

So before you get on that plane this summer, ask yourself a hard question: “Why am I doing this?” Is this so you can travel to the other side of the world and play the part of the autonomous knower? If so, consider exchanging that ticket to Asia for one to the Caribbean to lay on a beach.   Both you and those you would insult might frankly be better served. But if your heart is that of a servant, who understands that the Kingdom of God is bigger than the west, who longs to learn from those to whom you minister as much or more than you will teach, then you probably understand, and will subsequently experience, what it really means to be “on mission.”

This summer, I’ll pray to just that end for you, and as I embark for overseas destinations in just a few weeks, I hope you will do the same for me.

{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

1 William Thornton July 1, 2014 at 8:56 am

I appreciate the list but wish I could see some progress in this area. I made it a practice that when I was working overseas with some of our personnel serving overseas to coax out of them their volunteer horror stories. They had an endless supply. Even worse were some of the stories about the behavior of our own trustees and leaders overseas. Couple of comments:

“2. You’re so concerned over the evil spirits ruling our land when so much evil breeds in your own backyard.”

The blame here goes to our overseas missions personnel who, when they are back here in our churches, talk about their demon/evil spirits stories. What volunteer wouldn’t be sensitized to this when they land overseas for a couple of weeks?

“3. You live so far above the average standard of living and you behave as if you’re still in North America.”

It took me some time to adjust here and it embarrasses me to recall some of my early overseas trips.

I’m not sure of the solution here. Churches and pastors feel a need to have a “brag list” of overseas experiences. I sometimes wonder if we do more harm than good.

Interesting article.

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2 Christiane July 1, 2014 at 12:39 pm

“2 And He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to perform healing. 3 And He said to them,
“Take nothing for your journey, neither a staff, nor a bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not even have two tunics apiece. ”

(from the Holy Gospel of St. Luke, Chapter 9)

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3 Todd Benkert July 1, 2014 at 8:59 am

Great article, Joel. These are some important reminders for those serving on short term missions. If I were to summarize your post, I would remind those who go that they go to serve and must serve with humility.

Thanks for this helpful word. I will be tagging some of my church members (including my daughter) as they prepare for their own trips.

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4 Bill Mac July 1, 2014 at 9:11 am

I’ve been on only one of these trips, to Mexico, and I really came away with mixed feelings. What we (Americans) took away was pretty positive, but I wonder what we left behind? It cost us a great deal of money to get everyone from New York to Mexico for a week (about $2-3K per person) for us to do basically what they could have easily done themselves. We preached and held some classes. There were a number of good and Godly Mexican pastors on hand but instead we preached and taught, all requiring translators. We were welcomed with open arms and we had a great time of fellowship and came away with some great stories, but as far as Kingdom work is concerned, I wonder if we had just sent them 15 thousand dollars, how much more could have been done?

We didn’t do any building, but I know lots of groups do that. But seriously, why spend 3 grand to go and build something that you could hire local labor for, for a fraction of the cost?

I spoke with our DOM (who was on the trip) at the time and said if we ever come back, we must come to do something that isn’t or can’t be done by the local Christians. I don’t know what that is.

I spoke with a minister from Barbados at the OCC Connect conference last year and he told me horror stories about short term groups coming to do “missions” and basically acting like spoiled tourists. He needed manual labor, they were above that. I suspect that the only need met by a lot of short term mission trips is the “need” for the members of the group to feel like they are doing something.

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5 Adam Blosser July 1, 2014 at 9:38 am

Bill,

I don’t think we should underestimate the value of the effect that such trips can have on the believers who go. I know personally that I have a tendency to think and act as if my little corner of the world is all there is. I need to be reminded that God is God of the nations. One of the ways this happens for me is getting on a plane to go to a another country so I can rub shoulders with fellow believers with whom the only thing we have in common is Christ. That is certainly not the only reason for going and not even the most important, but it should not be undervalued.

With all of that being said, I very much appreciate the spirit of Joel’s post. My “missions experience” should never come at the expense of those I am going to serve. If my impact on the place I go is negative, I should stay home.

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6 Joel July 1, 2014 at 10:43 am

Good observation Bill. I would only add that “sending them 15 thousand dollars,” as well-intentioned and generous as that would have been, may also have done more harm than good. Our overall approach with our churches has been to never, ever do anything on the field that indigenous leadership can’t eventually do all by themselves, and reproduce in others. Mexico in particular is plagued with the good intentions of American Christians, and is most clearly seen in the general assumption of our Mexican brothers and sisters that they can’t plant a church without us, because planting a church always involves erecting a building. I wrote on precisely this subject many years ago. http://joelrainey.blogspot.com/2007/08/indigenous-church-planting-lessons-from.html

That said, you ask some very thoughtful and appropriate questions. We need to be up front with anyone participating in a short-term trip. Done right, they can embolden the efforts of career personnel, as well as become the catalyst that releases the laity to integrate their Great Commission call with their professional work wherever they are, including overseas work. But in many places, this requires “thinning the herd.” Teams may be smaller as a result, but they will be MUCH more effective.

In the last 10 years, our Association has deployed hundreds of volunteers to share the Gospel, train indigenous leadership, plant churches, and engage societal domains worldwide to give people a glimpse of God’s Kingdom. In 10 years, we have had two efforts that didn’t go well because of the kinds of issues you reference. I’d like to think its because we have been very blunt up front about the expectations, and as a result we have been able to recruit the best. So, keep asking those critical questions, and encourage your DOM to ask them as well as he is developing strategy for mission efforts!

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7 Tarheel July 1, 2014 at 9:51 am

Joel,

Can I just say – I love your posts, dude. This one is no exception.

I needed this today. Thank you. I’ve linked your article to our church missions coordinators and our full missions team.

Thanks!

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8 David Rogers July 1, 2014 at 10:37 am

Joel,

Thank you for posting this. It is one of the big issues of our day.

I am very concerned, as well, for the amount of resources and energy being diverted from long-term missions into short-term missions. Yet, this is a band-wagon the IMB itself jumped on to a number of years ago, and is, to some degree, responsible for it themselves.

Not that long-term missionaries are immune to the types of concern voiced by the 250 national pastors, either. But at least, long-termers are there long enough to have to deal with and work through these types of issues. Some end up doing so with some degree of success. Others, not so much. Also, many long-termers have latched on to the short-term missions craze, and have virtually made hosting short-term teams the focus of their ministry.

In the end, though, I still am not opposed to short-term trips in and of themselves. Here is a link to another interesting article that provides some good insight into both the pitfalls and possibilities of short-term missions:

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/june-web-only/sinister-tips-for-mission-trips.html?start=1

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9 Todd Benkert July 1, 2014 at 11:41 am

David, I wrote about the relationship between teams and field missionaries several years ago here: http://bemywitnesses.blogspot.com/2007/08/advice-for-next-years-mission-trip.html?m=1

I believe that with good communication and planning on both ends, and a humble serving spirit on the part of those who go, STMs can be a positive thing. In my own practice, I am only going on trips that are requested by the persons on the field (indigenous leader and/or field missionary), meets a real need, and does not create dependency or promote paternalism.

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10 Jim Pemberton July 1, 2014 at 10:38 am

Where there are Christians already in the area where you go, you need to work through them. They aren’t your support team; you are theirs. They may help you manage getting there before you get there, but you need to recognize that God has them where he wants them and they will be around when you are gone. When you “encourage” local believers that entails the following:

1) It helps motivate them to continue to spread the gospel when you aren’t there.
2) They learn from what you do well that they don’t.
3) They see that you learn from what they do well that you don’t. Therefore, you must pay attention, learn what they do well, and implement it when you get home.
4) It gives you and them a greater vision for what God is doing around the world.

There are strategies that involve not working with local believers like when you go to an open country to take the gospel to people who are visiting from a closed country. Those kinds of missions are outside the box, but they beg the related questions: What is your goal? Is your goal biblical? And does your strategy work to accomplish that goal? Therefore, steward well your going. Don’t just go blindly without a goal.

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11 Joel July 1, 2014 at 10:46 am

“Where there are Christians already in the area where you go, you need to work through them. They aren’t your support team; you are theirs.”

Jim, that’s the best statement in this thread, including anything I’ve said in my post!

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12 Jim Pemberton July 1, 2014 at 3:12 pm

Thanks, Dr. Rainey. I’ve been a place or few on short-term missions and my wife and kids have spent summers with our partners in Venezuela. One thing that I have learned is that we have much to learn from our brothers and sisters overseas. I’ll give Venezuela as an example. The church we work with there requires all their staff members and church leaders to actively disciple people. That means that they need to be out canvassing neighborhoods where there are no churches so that they can share the gospel and build up cell groups of disciples.

So I learn this: they are far better at evangelism and discipleship than we are and I can learn that lesson from them.

Our strategy is to help them make inroads in neighborhoods that are difficult. We show up, open up some ball games, balloon animals, face painting, music, etc., and the kids come from all over the neighborhood to play with the Americans. They also bring a parent or two. The church members are then able to talk to the parents of the kids and build the relationships they are looking for to share the gospel with them and disciple them as they come to faith. We might go around with them later in the evening to meet some of the people in their homes or to have an evangelistic event in that neighborhood, but the ministry is run by the local church and we are there to help and to increase initial interest. Come to see the white people – stay because the gospel is just that good, God is just that great, and you have neighbors that love you enough to stick with you.

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13 Todd Benkert July 1, 2014 at 11:43 am

Well said, Jim.

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14 D. L. Payton July 1, 2014 at 12:33 pm

Jim
Just adding my voice to well said

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15 Dave Miller July 1, 2014 at 10:42 am

Referencing Bart’s post from yesterday – this is the kind of blogging that builds up, instructs and encourages!

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16 Clark July 1, 2014 at 2:28 pm

Dave did you ghost write this? Cause its really good!

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17 Dave Miller July 1, 2014 at 3:38 pm

Are you looking to borrow money or something?

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18 Richmond Goolsby July 1, 2014 at 11:11 am

Excellent post!

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19 Nate July 1, 2014 at 11:17 am

Joel,

Do you, or anyone else, have a Top Ten list from local leaders about what they would have liked to see from the short-term volunteers? I’m not saying the local pastors aren’t correct in their assessments, but I’m not sure volunteers have a clear understanding of how they could assimilate during their time more effectively.

As an example, I served in Prison Ministry for many years, and we were given a list of non-negotiable things that we could not bring in, could not say, or could not do. That might be helpful for these volunteers. If you violated these, you were not allowed to come back.

For example, items 4, 7, and 8 could be easily communicated to the volunteers before they land. Quite frankly, some of them are items that I’m not sure how the locals know (6 and 9, for example), unless they have access to video presentations of the churches once they have returned. If those items are being voiced by the volunteers, then shame on them. Again, these things could be easily and readily communicated to the volunteers.

Cross-cultural interaction is difficult on many fronts. If, as David Rogers stated, we are reducing our giving for full-time missionaries simply for short-term volunteers to “experience” the mission field, then that should be communicated through the IMB or the State Conventions so that churches might re-think their stratigie’s.

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20 Dave Miller July 1, 2014 at 11:17 am

This comment in not to bash megachurches, but to illustrate some of the principles here.

Being in Iowa, we get a lot of mission teams coming in. In 2002, we were building our building in Cedar Rapids and had about 6 or 7 teams come in from Tennessee and Arkansas throughout the summer. Almost every one of them was a delight.

Most came up with the attitude, “how can we help you?” They were great.

One team stood out, though. A megachurch from not far from Knoxville. The attitude they communicated was “here is how we are going to help you.”

Basically, they violated almost every one of the guidelines from Joel’s article. The pastor came and actually insulted small churches.

Get this – to the pastor of a smaller church in Iowa, where almost all churches are tiny, he said, “There are two kinds of churches. Large churches that are doing God’s work and small churches that are doing nothing.” I couldn’t believe it. Fortunately, he said that only to me.

My point is that I have seen in Iowa the validity of the principles that Joel shares in the context of overseas trips.

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21 Nate July 1, 2014 at 11:39 am

How does that quote go? “You can’t fix stupid.” :-)

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22 Tarheel July 1, 2014 at 11:51 am

I agree Mr. Miller, these ailments plague stateside short term mission trips as well.

“How may we help you” is the right attitude for the mission team to have for sure.

However, even that attitude absent actually building/having relationships where both the missionary/pastor is willing to actually tell you what they need, and the mission team is *actually* ready to do that is a different animal.

Like Joel said, proper attitude and godly reason for going on the trip in the first place is paramount to having a truly beneficial (all the way around) mission experience.

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23 D. L. Payton July 1, 2014 at 1:46 pm

Dave
We have experienced the same type of thing in Montana. However, I want to quickly say that most are as you said a real delight. It would be another post but there are some important principles that the host church needs o employ to have a good experience. I have found that some groups come prepared to do a good job but the host church does not know how to handle the group to achieve maximum efficiency.

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24 Todd Benkert July 1, 2014 at 12:03 pm

William Carey Library also has a good book on STM available here: URL:http://missionbooks.org/products/detail/effective-engagement-in-short-term-missions-ems-16

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25 andy July 1, 2014 at 1:20 pm

Regarding doing things that the locals can’t do themselves…i thought I’d share what our church has done over the last 7 years in Haiti…about one trip per year, to the same group of villages:
-solar panels to power some buildings
-dentist doing tooth work
-Theology training for pastors
-Study bibles for pastors in their language
-medical clinic by a doctor
-organized and paid for a new church building after the earthquake, built with local labor.
-water purifying bucket systems for households,
-preached at their churches for a sunday
-Instant photographs of families for people to keep.
-shoes
-roof repairs and replacements

Now some of these were more able to be done by locals than others, but we really do think and hope we are leaving the place better than we found it, with encouraged pastors, clean water, and a place to meet.

To be honest, we feel like we are running out of things to do in this particular place, and so our future there is unsure, but it seems to be something that is very well received, in that they keep wanting us to come back.

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26 Les Prouty July 1, 2014 at 2:14 pm

Love this post. I take 6-8 groups to Haiti each year and regularly am asked if we are really doing any good and if it wouldn’t be better to just send the money. Couple things before I share a link about it. 1. Scores of people who have gone on our trips have been deeply spiritually impacted. 2. We’ve had at least 3 people from the US become Christians after going.

3. Our overriding motto is taken from Toxic Charity (a book I highly recommend): “Above all else, do no harm.”

That all said, here is something I posted a while back about sending the money rather than going. http://haitiorphanproject.org/blog/why-go-to-haiti-why-not-just-send-the-money/

I have one more link I’ll post next from the missionary on the field perspective and from a Haitian leader’s perspective.

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27 Les Prouty July 1, 2014 at 2:15 pm
28 Clark July 1, 2014 at 2:32 pm

This is a great post largely (but not only) because of the quotes from indigenous pastors. I have been so impressed with the few pastors in other countries that I have had the opportunity to work with. I hope that I always go with the kind of humility this post suggests we have.

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29 D. L. Payton July 1, 2014 at 2:42 pm

Thank you Joel for the post. i would pray that this starts a trend of seeking to develop a God given expertise in the area of short term missions. It appears that this activity is here to stay. Given that it is essential that we do it right. Post like this helps us think thru the process and learn to do it well. There is a lot of Kingdom growth on the horizon as we develop and continually refine our process. However, as has been pointed out there is harm that can be done if we do not develop the skills necessary.

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30 Steve Young July 1, 2014 at 3:43 pm

A healthy understanding of the theology of the local church is important. Here in Montana we had a group from Tennessee help us in VBS. They were actually here serving another body, but some came to us. They came the first night (yes, invited) and said “Here we are, tell us what to do.” I pointed them to my VBS director and indicated she was in charge. They did a great job, were very respectful of our leaders, and blended seamlessly with our group.
Steve in Montana

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31 D. L. Payton July 1, 2014 at 4:55 pm

Steve
While there are exceptions, would you agree that what you have described is almost always the case in Montana? We have had two great partners in Florida and Tenn.

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32 Steve Young July 1, 2014 at 6:16 pm

Yes D.L. that is my experience. I have also led a number of trips and I always tell the local leader “they” are our bosses for the week. Sometimes we have had to change plans in mid-stream, but that is okay. If a team cannot be under authority, they should not go. I know there are exceptions, but most want to be used for the Kingdom and do so humbly.

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33 D. L. Payton July 1, 2014 at 9:27 pm

Steve
I think you hit the “bottom line” issue regarding who is in control. I have no way to support what i am about to say,but i suspect even the exceptions may be due to a lack of training rather than a bad motive or agenda. The reason this might be true is that I have observed that with each trip it gets better as the learning process continues. I think we are on to something in terms of short term missions. It is worthy of our study and efforts to continue to perfect it for the Glory of our Lord.

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34 Bob Browning July 1, 2014 at 5:09 pm

I just had to stop by to say that the picture at the top has always creeped me out. Just saying…

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35 dr. james willingham July 1, 2014 at 8:41 pm

Thought it might help to know that the first missionary of Southern Baptists to China, Matthew T. Yates, adopted Chinese Dress, manners, customs, etc. He must have made a good impression on them, because a few years back they had a memorial service in China in memory of him. They wrote to the Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church of Apex, NC, from which Yates had come to see if they wanted to have a representative there. Of course, being a small church, the church passed up on the opportunity. I think it would have been advisable to have a representative there.

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36 Volfan007 July 2, 2014 at 10:05 am

My local association goes on a mission trip to Honduras, every year. We always work with this one church in Choluteca. And, we have an ongoing relationship with them, we have been working with them for 14 or 15 years. This church has started about 25 churches in that region of Honduras, and our mission teams have helped them build the churches they’ve started. Our association has grown to love these people very much, and they love us.
But, I always get the feeling that they could build them faster and better than what we can do in a week….if they could just afford to buy the materials. The last couple of years, our ladies are going and doing VBS. Of course, every teacher has to have an interpreter….soooooo….do they really need us to come and do this work?

David

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