One of the more interesting areas of missions growth in recent years is the influx of volunteers to assist in the international missions efforts. Volunteers have always been around, but the rise of the mega-church has precipitated a parallel increase in the number of people heading to the field on their own dimes.
The phrase “mixed blessing” comes to mind. On one hand, volunteers bring new skill sets and boundless enthusiasm for the task and can help break established missionaries out of a long-view rut. On the other, volunteers sometimes bring their agendas, ethnocentrism, and ignorance along for the ride; the missionary seems to spend more time fixing mistakes than accomplishing anything.
So, for your pleasure, here is a selection of points volunteers need to consider before heading to the field:
Missions vs. Ministry: Ministry is about loving people. Missions is about loving people so that His kingdom might expand into the hearts and minds of people. Mission teams usually need to be about missions, not ministry. There are a good many things that fall under ministry that are not necessarily missional. For example: puppet shows, some building projects, VBS programs. VBS and puppet shows are great, but you can’t start a church with 5 year olds. In order to understand the strategic decisions missionaries make, you need to learn the difference between ministry and missions. You need to realize that most of a missionary’s work is missions, not just ministry.
When in Rome, eat as the Romans eat. Eat what you are given, when you are given it. If the food is from a national, understand you are eating at least as well as they eat, if not better. Don’t ask “Is this safe?” If it doesn’t kill the national, then I think you’ll be fine. This means consider not going if you are diabetic. This means give up on your schedule-driven eating patterns and just eat when the food arrives. True story: Volunteer adamantly states that he cannot function without a hot breakfast, making his announcement in a country where breakfast is a roll with a hunk of cheese. Good luck with that.
Flexibility. Please, don’t make the process more stressful for the missionary by challenging every local standard. Accept that the locals will have a different sense of politeness, a unique view of time, an odd sense of logic, and more. Accept that this is the case without consistently saying, “Why this? Why can’t we that? That’s silly. Are you sure? I’ve never heard of a culture like that.” Plans will change without notice. Things will not work out like you expect. You duty is to live with it, gladly, and do the work you came to do.
Just accept it: Don’t critique the choices that the missionaries make: food, shopping, clothing, schooling, driving, how they spend their money, how they educate their children. They are making choices in places that are physically and conceptually so far removed from the North American environment that many times US residents cannot possibly understand the decision-making process. Trust your missionaries to be godly people and don’t worry too much about how they do personal things.
Don’t be high maintenance. Consider not going if you are diabetic or hypoglycemic. Consider not going if you are an extremely picky eater. Consider staying home if you must have air conditioning. Vegans, vegetarians, and gluten-free eaters should weigh their needs carefully. Dieters should eat normally while on the team. Asking for exceptions to everything just adds stress to the missionaries who are concerned for the volunteer’s well-being.
Minister to the missionary. This could mean bringing in needed items for the missionary or his family. It could mean saying, “Tell us what financial needs you have either personally or vocationally.” With IMB workers, you have to ask them. IMB folks can’t ask for money. Think about sending a volunteer whose sole job is to take care of missionary kids so both the missionary husband and missionary wife can participate in the work. Too often they do not get to work as a team simply due to the lack of childcare. Remember that you are there to make the work proceed better. If you can accomplish that in a short-term sense by doing the work, fine. If you can accomplish it in a long-term fashion by freeing up the missionaries, do that, too.
Practice your testimony. Learn to give a basic story of your coming to Christ in about 3-4 minutes. Know your story. Tell it in a straight-forward fashion. True Story: Volunteers board their flight for home while national Christians ask the missionary, “Have those people ever shared their faith before? They couldn’t even stammer out the basics of their salvation!”
Make an attempt to learn the basic of communication with nationals, whether through gestures common to the people or through some basics words, but do it without constantly asking the missionary, “What’s the word for….?” Show an interest in the local culture that goes beyond simply a one-time visit. That sets you up for…
Partner: Unless you possess a special set of skills that is needed in a variety of locations, find a missionary, a strategy, and a people group with whom you can partner for a few years. Too many volunteers move from place to place, tasting/working for a week before moving on to the next location. If you are working as a volunteer missionary, take a page from the full-time missionary’s handbook: focus on a people and a place. Return there over and over.
Think: Show a willingness to use creativity and the wealth of resources we have in the United States in order to present high quality work and projects. That means don’t fill your suitcases with Sunday School craft ideas that went out in 1967. Don’t bring the same old colored beads on a leather strap that everyone else brings. Don’t show up with things you couldn’t use in your church and expect locals to accept them.
Volunteers are great, and they can contribute wonderfully to the work. There just needs to be a few tweaks in the approach.
Thanks for your work and your support.