July 6, 2011


I think a lot of the objection to short-term missions that has been raised as of late has a lot to do with the American notion of efficiency. It seems a lot of arguments are built on the idea that “we could do MORE with that money if we’d stop spending it on plane tickets / fundraising items / souvenirs / tourism and just give it to the people, THEN they could rebuild their society.”

I disagree.

Short-term missions do have issues and need to be handled carefully, to be sure. The dangers of “poverty-tourism” where one weeps over the people for a month after returning home and then resuming the life one left are legitimate and fairly well-documented; one can return on an artificial high and feel one has done one’s “duty” for “those people over there” without ever truly grasping the truth that we are just as poor, we are just as broken as they. We create for ourselves a false dichotomy where we put ourselves above those in poverty and are the “benefactors” who go over there to impart on them our wisdom and our ways, to give our money away and feel good about having done something. We forget that to be a true partnership, to truly honor them as human beings created in the image of God, the interaction goes both ways; we need to be willing to learn from them, to recognize that they too have a great deal to contribute to the Kingdom of Heaven if only we were willing to accept their sacrifice and their talents and their experiences. Poverty tourism insults a local culture by making a hierarchy where none exists, putting the tourist as better than the local. And yes, this is a danger that needs to be avoided.

But it can be avoided. Short-term missions work best when they are partnered with long-term missions, with missionaries who have lived in the area a long time and have spent the time building relationships with the locals and can continue those relationships once the team has left. It takes training for the short-term teams to understand a bit of local culture before they arrive (let’s avoid those cultural taboos if we can; don’t bring beef to India!). It takes an attitude of humility on the part of the team to understand that they aren’t the bigger picture here, that God’s been at work a long time before they arrive and will continue to work a long time after they leave. It takes the posture of disciples who are willing to sit at the feet of the long-term missionaries and the locals and learn from them, even as they participate in the mission work they came to do.

And yet many lament the inefficiency of the short-term team. So much capital and time are invested in going over to another place to do this work, so many resources that could be used to build more wells, more community centers, feed more children, clothe more orphans, buy medicine for more wounded and elderly. It’s a touching thought, and while I applaud the sentiment, there are other things in this world than efficiency.

I heard a story once about a missionary in sub-Saharan Africa describing the way we do church here in the West to one of the locals. At some point, he mentioned a heated debate that had begun over the organ in one church, whether to replace/restore it with $100k or be efficient and buy the cheaper electronic version. The local - who himself lived in poverty - looked at the missionary and said something to the effect of “if it takes $100k for an organ so people can meet Jesus, then spend the money! You can’t put a price on meeting Jesus.”

Humbling, for sure.

But it makes an important point: money is just money. We can’t make more of it than it is, because if we do that, we turn it into an idol and give it false power. If we truly believe that God is Lord over all, if everything is His and He can do with it as He pleases, then it’s a false modesty that says we should give all the money spent in short-term missions to the locals because we think that means it’ll be better spent; it’s easy to say because it’s never going to happen, which makes the one saying it feel superior without having to really change anything. And that perpetuates the false dichotomy we mentioned earlier, it still puts us above them, only we leave smelling more righteous, even if it’s only self-righteous.

And that annoys me.

More to the point, however, arguments about efficiency completely ignore the other benefits to short-term missions: relationships and inspiration.

In Haiti a year ago, the locals we worked with were so happy to have us there. [Side note: That was one of my takeaways, how they could live with joy in the midst of such pain, and it has given me better perspective as I’ve moved jobs and gone through a lot of transition in the last year.] The purpose of our trip was to work with a team of Haitians to help them rebuild their church, which was to double as a community center. The relationships forged with Joselin and others there were valuable for us and for them; we learned about each others’ cultures, laughed together, prayed together, played together, and worshipped together. Before we left, the Haitians thanked us because they were so glad to know that the church beyond their borders cared for Haiti, and they wanted us to know that they too were praying for the church in America. That relationship, between Haitian and American churches, requires that investment of people, which requires money. It’s valuable! Think of how easy it is to quit when you feel that nobody supports your efforts, when you are simply ignored.

There is motivation in relationship; Joselin in particular wanted to rebuild his country and this time do it right (Haiti crumbled, in large part, because there is an existing culture of short-changing building materials), and he drew strength from the relationship, knowing that even if his local brothers and sisters wanted to take shortcuts, others like us supported his desire to rebuild properly and were willing to work side-by-side with him to get it finished. And we in return were inspired as a team, drawing strength from his strength. I’d return in a heartbeat, given the opportunity.

To (ironically) pull a page from economics, it always takes investment to generate return. If it takes $2500 a person to send a team to Haiti and help the Haitians know that the rest of the world still cares about them, then DO IT! We can send all the money in the world to somebody but that doesn’t necessarily show them that we love them; it takes the investment of time, the labor of sacrifice to show someone that you love them. If it’s a week building alongside Haitians, do it. If it’s four days in an orphanage in India, do it. If it’s a VBS in South Africa, do it. Be aware of the dangers, check your motivations, but don’t be afraid of inefficiency; it’s worth the sacrifice of efficiency to build the relationship.

No comments: