This entry is part [part not set] of 5 in the series Short-Term Missions

Ok, if you’ve been reading the last few posts (if you haven’t you should skip down and read the last 2), it may seem that I’m super down on short-term mission trips. And in some ways, I am. I am super down on short term trips that cost a lot of money and produce no long term benefit for the career missionaries or the native churches, and I am super super down on short term trips that actually hinder the long term ministry of national churches. But I am not down on all types of STM trips; in fact, there’s a good chance I’ll embark on a few more in the future. I just want them to be done right. I want to be a blessing on the global church and not a hindrance—which can often happen when you venture overseas for 10 days.

In any case, here’s something I learned from some seasoned missionaries who told me of a positive type of short-term trip.

I actually emailed two of the top dogs doing theological education in Africa, both of whom have been doing ministry in Africa for 20-30 years in many different countries. I asked them what they would recommend I do if I had the opportunity to spend 4-8 weeks in Africa. You know what they said?

They said: don’t teach. I know you’re a teacher, you even have a PhD, and it looks like you’re doing a fine job in America, but if you come to Africa, don’t teach during your first trip. Before you teach Africa, first be a student of Africa. Sure, hundreds of schools and institutes would love to have you come teach. You’re educated. You’re white. You’re the very symbol of wealth, wisdom, and upward mobility. But frankly, you don’t know the culture, and you have a better chance at doing more harm than good if you go in and dump all your knowledge—and perhaps a wad of cash—with no awareness of the complexities of the culture. But what you could do that would be hugely beneficial for both you and them is to learn. Find an African bishop, priest, or pastor, and follow him around. Be his shadow when he’s visiting a mother dying of AIDS at the hospital, or at a refuge camp where displaced Christians are wrestling with forgiveness. Go with him to the slums, to the cities, to the villages, and to the homes of congregants living in grinding poverty. Follow him. Ask questions. Take notes. Stare into the eyes of the man who lost his daughter to the militia seeking young soldiers. Don’t teach. Don’t counsel. Just learn. Drink deeply from the rich wells of African wisdom. And if you do this for a couple of months, you will be in a much better place to teach in Africa—if your heart beats hard enough to bring you back.

We Americans have a hard time learning from the people of other countries. Yet until we do so, our cross-cultural ministry will be greatly hindered. Last year a Christian leader from Portugal visited our school and met with Joshua, Spencer, and I over lunch. We asked him: “So, what can we as Americans do to be better prepared to do ministry in Portugal.” Do you know what he said? “I’ve been a Christian leader in Portugal for 30 years and have met many American Christians, and I’ve never been asked that question before.”

Never? He’s never been asked that question?

A Christian leader. For 30 years. And he’s never been asked by an American how we can better serve the church in Portugal.

He’s been told on many occasions what ministry should look like in Portugal, but he’s never been asked.

We’ve got to do better than that. And I think we can do better. I think that the American church can strategically help the global church if we seek to learn from them. Even short-term trips can be effective if we learn from the global church what effectiveness would even look like.

In the next few posts, I’ll look at a few more drawbacks of STM and then a few of the positives. Stay tuned…

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  1. I really appreciate this post and your study of STMs. As Americans we have a lot to learn from the global church. It was humbling when I got to Asia and was asked which Asian Christian authors I have read lately. I had read 2-3 concerning Buddhism and Christianity but mostly I have read Piper and the other big names from America when thinking about theology and Christian living. We are blessed to have amazing Biblical resources in America but the cultural barriers are gigantic! We must be learners first like you said. I may have learned in America to share how Jesus can offer eternal life but when sharing that with my Buddhist friend, they may hear that Jesus offers eternal suffering because in a Buddhist world view life equals suffering. They want to escape the eternal cycle of life not be given it! Now I have a book from a ex-Buddhist in Thailand. His book is about the Thai Christian’s understanding of suffering and how the Cross ends suffering. It is the same wonderful truth but it is so much more understandable for the Thais through their understanding.

    I will add that I have really appreciated short-termers that have come for 5 to 10 months to home school children for missionary families, as well as short term teams that came at Christmas time. In Thailand we have amazing opportunities to do Christmas programs in the schools. Sometimes we have the opportunity to share the Christmas story with thousands of Thai kids but don’t have the people to do it all. The team sometimes adds energy and excitement when the long term missionaries are feeling overwhelmed or just worn-out from things like children’s programs.

    Thanks again!