3 Practices to Help (and Not Hurt) the People We Seek to Serve
By Josh Rouse
Scenario 1: A short-term team paints three buildings on a nongovernmental organization’s campus and hosts a VBS for more than 200 so-called “street kids.” They go home proud of what they were able to achieve.
The problem (aside from “street kids” being a derogatory term)? They don’t realize those same buildings had already been painted by other short-term teams twice that summer, and those same kids had attended more than a dozen similar VBS programs in the last two months.
Either the host organization doesn’t feel empowered to decline teams they don’t really need, or, worse still, they profit from short-term teams. This shifts their motivation from meeting the physical and spiritual needs of their community to bringing in more and more short-term teams in order to pay the bills.
Scenario 2: A short-term team fills their suitcases with supplies to donate to their host organization upon arrival. They spend the week building a structure of some kind (a school, a church, a home). They finish their project and go home, thrilled with their accomplishments.
The problem? All the supplies they brought were available in-country. Instead of purchasing them upon arrival and benefitting the local economy, they flooded the small community with free foreign goods, driving the need for those products down and potentially putting some local shops out of business. The team never considered the unemployment rate in the country either, which is predominately a manual labor force.
It turns out local workers could have built the building better and cheaper than the short-term team, and the money would have gone straight into the pockets of nationals to help feed and clothe their families.
Scenario 3: In the face of so much poverty, a short-term team wants to feel like they’ve made a real difference in some way. They meet an English-speaking man who mentions some things he doesn’t have money for, so they decide to give him $100 (U.S.). One team member donates his watch to a 10-year-old boy with whom he played soccer all week. Another team member goes to the market, buys new shoes, and delivers them to a local family’s home.
The problem? The host organization has identified more than 80 families in that community whose needs far exceed that of the man who was given $100. (He simply had the means to communicate his needs to English-speakers.) Also, the day the team went home, a group of older boys beat up the 10-year-old, stole his watch, sold it, and split the money among themselves. Finally, the community begins to show hostility to the family with the news shoes. All the neighbors who witnessed the exchange are battling feelings of jealousy and resentment.
Scenario 4: A short-term medical team travels abroad. Upon arrival, they’re excited and energized to see the line of people already waiting for their mobile clinic. They operate on more than 75 patients in just one week.
The problem? When the team leaves, they take all of their medical knowledge and expertise with them. The community is left without medical care for the remaining 51 weeks of the year. Also, some of their patients die from post-op complications because no one was there to provide ongoing care.
Sadly, I’ve witnessed each of these situations firsthand, instilling in me (like so many others) a cynical view of short-term missions. And with around 2 million Americans paying billions of dollars to participate in short-term trips each year, how can we be sure we’re part of the solution and not the problem? After all, statistics regarding short-term missions seem to suggest there is little to no long-term impact on the community or the short-term travelers (in terms of spirituality, financial giving to missions, prayer for missions, likelihood to become career missionaries, etc.).
So, are there steps we can take to make certain we are, in fact, helping the communities we claim to care for and not harming them, or should we simply consider discontinuing short-term missions? I, for one, still maintain hope the American church (and the developed world, in general) has something to offer the rest of the world. With all the resources we have at our disposal, I have to believe we have the ability to meet some of the physical and spiritual needs around the world, even on a short-term basis.
That being said, we must drastically change our approach to short-term missions to ensure we aren’t doing more harm than good. Here are three practices anyone with a stake in short-term missions can take:
Preparation begins with doing your homework. I recommend that team leaders and/or missions pastors prepare in four areas. First, do your research to choose a reputable host organization—one with good financial practices whose programs are predominantly led by nationals. Try to steer clear of organizations that profit from short-term teams.
Second, require teams to attend multiple meetings prior to traveling. And don’t forget to hold a debrief meeting upon returning home to make sure travelers process their trip in a healthy way and channel their post-trip enthusiasm properly.
Third, be sure travelers commit to learning at least the basics of the language. Will you become fluent in those few months leading up to your trip? Probably not. Will you show respect to those you encounter abroad by demonstrating even a rudimentary understanding of their language? Absolutely. Think of the safety implications too—imagine you find yourself separated from your team or in an emergency situation without an interpreter present. Wouldn’t you like to be able to communicate to some degree?
Fourth, encourage all short-term travelers to spend time researching the country’s culture, customs, and history. This information can drastically change a traveler’s experience abroad and help prevent unintentionally offending nationals. Moreover, it can give travelers a deeper understanding of a country’s issues, hopefully contextualizing the work the team is doing there.
Use Social Media Responsibly
When it comes to short-term missions, nothing frustrates me more than social media faux pas . . . for example, posts that patronize a group of people or contain ethnocentric undertones. As Abbie Thiebaut of Experience Mission writes:
You know the ones I’m talking about—dramatic before and after photos of construction projects, selfies with children in tattered clothes, and intimate glimpses into broken situations around the world. Unfortunately, these posts often send the wrong message about the heart behind the trip. Surely there was more depth to the experience than what these posts seem to convey!
So, how do we best represent short-term missions on social media? For starters, simply be mindful of how you characterize things. Instead of focusing on the poverty, the food you didn’t like, the cold showers you endured, or how dirty everything was, try to find the good everywhere you go. Developing countries already have enough PR problems. They need more people to notice the beauty of the land, the resilience and kindness of the people, and the splendor of everyday life in someone else’s shoes.
Try not to emphasize the impoverishment of nationals or exaggerate your contributions to them. This can often be interpreted as a savior complex—Western people going in to “fix” the problems of struggling nations or people of color without understanding their history, needs, or the region’s current state of affairs.
Team leaders and/or missions pastors, instead of using terms like “mission trip” or “missions,” which can often carry a tone of condescension, encourage your team to use terms like “short-term trip” and “global outreach.” Even a slight change in terminology can help teach your team a better, more respectful way to refer to your trip.
Serve with Humility
Humility is paramount to the success of a short-term trip. One’s willingness to learn from others, to be flexible regarding delays and scheduling changes, to be patient with the language barrier—all communicate (much louder than even your words can) one’s level of respect for the nationals and the host organization. Humbly defer to them on the best practices for giving gifts and let them set the agenda while you’re there.
In the book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert put it this
Stay away from the “go-help-and-save-them” message and use a “go as a learner” message. We need no more STM [short-term mission] brochure covers with sad, dirty faces of children and the words “Will you die to self and go and serve?” Such a message places too much focus on the sacrifice the STM team is making to change people’s lives—a level of change that is simply not realistic in two weeks—and on how helpless the poor people are without the team’s help.
I believe we should humbly ask ourselves the question, “Do I want to legitimately meet a need, or do I just want to make myself feel good?” If every short-term traveler did so, I’m convinced it would instantly transform our approach to short-term missions, causing us to reevaluate everything we do abroad. We would replace our easy yet unhealthy practices with much more difficult ones that focus on meeting a community’s long-term needs.
We might purchase locally sourced supplies in-country instead of bringing our own. We might begin to focus on sustainable development—teaching and training nationals to better themselves and their communities instead of patting ourselves on the back for seeing hundreds of patients. We might even stop visiting orphanages with our teams since statistics indicate it’s harmful to the long-term development of children. We might consider employing nationals to do projects better and cheaper than our short-term teams ever could.
Recently, I came across an excellent example of this. A well-known, long-term missionary wrote a blog in which she described her organization’s approach to short-term teams. Though it was a delicate, difficult conversation, they managed to convey their position with grace, even persuading a short-term team to stay home and, instead, hire local labor.
After all, if we truly believe in the concept of the church as the body of Christ (Romans 12:4-8; 1 Corinthians 12), why would we perpetuate the idea that everyone who is serious about their faith needs to be part of a short-term trip? This is a dangerous notion, in my opinion; in fact, I would argue the mission field is filled with people who should have stayed home!
Let me be clear: It is not my intent to shame or slander short-term travelers, churches, or organizations. I simply hope we all begin to take short-term missions seriously and strive to be good stewards of the resources, skills, and time with which we’ve been blessed. Our approach to short-term missions is broken, and the church’s reputation is at stake because of it. If we don’t begin to take steps to improve our methodology, I fear the world will see the church as irrelevant, incapable, or indifferent when it comes to global needs.
So, the least we can do is this: Commit to adequately preparing short-term teams, be mindful of how we discuss global outreach (in-person and on social media), and humbly serve where and when we’re needed.
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“Short Term Missions: Are They Worth the Cost?” Calvin College; https://calvin.edu/offices-services/service-learning-center/resources/publications/files/readings/vanengen-short_term.pdf.
“A Teenager’s Guide to God,” This American Life, Episode 147, December 17, 1999; www.thisamericanlife.org/147/a-teenagers-guide-to-god.
“Does Global Service Help or Hurt?” by Tracy Kuperus and Roland Hoksbergen, Spark, December 1, 2016; https://calvin.edu/publication/spark/2016/12/01/does-global-service-help-or-hurt.
“Are Short-Term Missions Good Stewardship?” a conversation between Robert Priest and Kurt Ver Beek, Christianity Today, July 5, 2005; www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/julyweb-only/22.0.html.
“Rules for Engagement: How to Use Social Media on Your Mission Trip,” by Abbie Thiebaut, Experience Mission, https://experiencemission.org/blog/blogdetail.asp?recordkey=722DCB08-8D47-4530-B10D-35BC1F68AF96.
Josh Rouse serves as global outreach pastor at Northeast Christian Church, Louisville, Kentucky (www.necchurch.org).