Serving with Cultural Intelligence


By Gayla Cooper Congdon 


Amor Ministries began taking groups on short-term mission trips in the summer of 1981. That first summer, four churches with about 100 students traveled to serve in Tijuana, Mexico. Since then, more than 250,000 students and adults have gone on short-term mission trips to six locations in Mexico, and most recently, in South Africa.

Last year, I heard about a book making waves in the short-term mission world. David Livermore’s Serving With Eyes Wide Open upset quite a few people because of his critique of short-term missions. When I learned about it, I just had to read what all the fuss was about. (I wondered if I should be concerned too.)

“This book rocked your world,” a friend said when I told him about the book. Actually, it did more than that. It confirmed that Amor’s 29-year model of ministry is exactly what Livermore recommends for effectiveness.

In spite of his assessment, I don’t think Livermore was disapproving of short-term missions. Rather, his goal was to educate us so that we might impact the kingdom through these trips. To do so, however, we must “serve with our eyes open to global and cultural realities so we can become more effective cross-cultural ministers.”


The first time my husband, Scott, and I went to Mexico, we went for different reasons. Scott joined a college group in Tijuana that went shopping and stopped by an orphanage to help out. I, on the other hand, visited an orphanage in Tijuana for the weekend and played with the children.

We both believed we were on short-term mission trips but in reality, we weren’t—at least not according to Livermore’s definition—and certainly not from what we have learned throughout our 29 years of experience.

Yet the result of those encounters deeply shaped our belief that Mexico was where God wanted us to serve. After being profoundly impacted by the people of the country, we knew we had to take others on short-term trips to share this same experience, but in such a way that would serve the church.

Last July, a Washington Post reporter wrote a piece titled “Churches Retool Mission Trips: Work Abroad Criticized for High Cost and Lack of Value.”1 The article’s writer talks about a particular church that went to Mexico to build homes and refurbish churches.

Interestingly, a pastor was quoted saying teens could do just as much good working nearby. The article also cited a pastor of global engagement who said his church is repositioning its mission trips “to get away from the vacation-with-a-purpose mentality.”

I couldn’t agree more with both these opinions! You can do just as much good working close to home as you can far away. But that isn’t the point of serving with eyes wide open, as Livermore suggests. You can still do a disservice to the ministry you are serving, whether nearby or overseas, when you don’t see the cultural realities of those you are helping.



I am offended when our mission trip is referred to as a “vacation with a purpose.” When you participate on an Amor mission trip, you are a missionary—going on the mission field to do mission work. Those who supported your trip would hardly appreciate the idea that you are going on a vacation—even one with a purpose!

I felt so strongly about what Livermore had written that I invited him to meet with the Amor team this past October. I did so because I believed the work of Amor could withstand the scrutiny of David Livermore and organizations like the Alliance for Excellence in Short-term Missions. My self-assurance was rooted in our relationship with the church in Mexico.

Amor’s philosophy of ministry—almost since our inception—is that the ministry doesn’t work in a new community until we’ve established a pastor’s board, also known as the ministry planning board in Mexico. We now even have one in Johannesburg, South Africa, for our work there.

I am glad to share that my confidence was not misplaced. After spending several days helping us assess our cultural intelligence, Livermore observed that Amor Ministries has a “complete obsession with the local church.” His conclusion is correct.

Our mission is to serve the church in whatever country God has called us to be in. And our commitment to that church cannot be compromised. Ours is a ministry that serves the local church first. When the focus is on the church instead of the participant, the ministry of the church is not compromised.

That’s why our pastors were on the design team that developed the plans for the homes we build. It’s also why the design concept will never change without our pastors’ approval. If we make a suggestion, we make certain they see the value in it. And more than that, it is the reason our pastors are directly involved in the family selection process.



Typically, a pastor will visit a family as many as six times before the application is approved. And once a home is completed, they are there again to ensure that the family sees the house as a gift from the local church.

This is also, in large part, the reason we don’t pass out food and clothing in the neighborhoods we serve. All donated goods go directly to the pastors to deliver to those in need so that the house, food, clothing, backpacks, and Bibles become a gift from the church. At the end of the day, it’s the local pastor who bears the responsibility of shepherding a family. Everything we do reinforces that belief.

One of our pastors likes to share a story of one such family he checked on regularly. Eventually, that family came to accept Christ and attend his church, even serving as leaders. He called on that family regularly during seven long years—that is the faithfulness of the church.

In that same Washington Post article, Roger Peterson, chairman of the Alliance for Excellence in Short-term Missions, says, “If the trips are only about ourselves, then we are doing nothing more than using another culture . . . to get some benefit at their expense.”

I mention this because I want to remind our readers that it is not about us. You can’t put a dollar value on the transformation that takes place in someone’s life when he goes on a short-term trip. Simply said, you come back changed. We know this firsthand because the majority of our team members were once mission trip participants themselves who now serve as full-time missionaries with Amor as a result of that experience.

Now, all that said, can we do a better job of preparing our participants for their mission work with our ministry? Absolutely—and we are committed to doing that. We seek never to compromise the ministry of the church by what we do alongside them. Our heartfelt desire is to raise up a new generation of missionaries who will fulfill God’s Great Commission of Matthew 28:19, 20.

We can do that only if we “serve with eyes wide open.”


1Jacqueline L. Salmon, “Churches Retool Mission Trips: Work Abroad Criticized for High Cost and Lack of Value,” Washington Post, 5 July 2008.




Gayla Cooper Congdon is founder and chief spiritual officer of Amor Ministries.




Before You Begin a Short-Term Trip

To help you serve with cultural intelligence, here are a few suggestions for your short-term trip:

1. Make sure the missionary or ministry you are working with has a strong connection to the local church.

2. Make certain you are involved in a project that will reinforce the ministry of the local church.

3. Coordinate a time to serve that is best for the missionary, rather than what is convenient for you.

4. Take care to train before you go and debrief when you return. There are many resources available to help you. I suggest starting with David Livermore’s book.

Most of all, vaya con Dios!


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