The Bane (and Blessing) of Short-Term Missions

Following up with my post about Missionaries vs Mission-Trippers, I don’t want you to think that I am against short-term mission trips. I have been on 3 overseas mission trips, and they were each beneficial. But to preach the ills of short-term missions is common on the blogosphere.

I could point at folks like Darren Carlson, who explained Why You Should Consider Cancelling Your Short-Term Mission Trips. But I also fall into this camp of mission-trip naysayers, being wary of all forms of Toxic Charity and International Aid.

Carlson’s article was (in my opinion) mostly misunderstood and misinterpreted. However, others have been much harsher, and maybe for good reason.

Pippa Biddle (with a name like that, how could you not listen to her?) strongly suggests that if you don’t have the necessary skills to contribute well on a short-term trip, you should not go. And I agree with her, to an extent.

In professing a desire to help, we often end up doing more harm to and causing more work for others.

My First Feeble Attempt to Serve

My first mission trip was to Nicaragua, in March 2003. Like with Biddle’s experience, I saw that much of our work (laying concrete blocks to build a Sunday school room at a local church) had to be undone (secretly) by the local skilled workers. It was very humbling and distressing for us.

And if you would have interviewed me to assess my skills, I would not have been qualified to go on the trip. It was a combination contraction-medical trip. And there I was, with . . .

. . . the handyman skills of a leech,

. . . the medical skills limited to my biochemistry degree and years of football-related injuries,

. . . the language skills of coasting through Spanish by memorizing just enough to get by with an “A” (which was pretty simple in my small town high school).

By Biddle’s measures, I should not have gone on the trip.

But I’m glad I did, and the past 11 years have been shaped by that opportunity.

I Was Changed

Any damage I could have done on that trip was stopped mitigated by some great leadership on our team. I think that was crucial. Grace Church and their local partner (Alcides Fuentes) understood the vision and need better than I ever could.

But more important (to me) than that damage control was the impact that this trip had on me, and on what God has done through me in the time since.

Unlike many others who have gone on short-term mission trips, I didn’t return to the US in confusion and passion and with a desire to sell everything and change the world. I returned home at 11 PM on Sunday night, spent time talking with my wife, went to bed, and got up Monday morning to go back to my job as a chemist.

Ah. . . Life as a chemist was so simple.

But God did mark me on the trip. My eyes were opened to real suffering that so many people endure. My eyes were opened to my focus on living a comfortable life. My eyes were opened to people who worship and trust in God for every physical, social, and spiritual need.

God used that opportunity to change me and shape me into His useful vessel. I am confident that God used that mission trip to shape me for other ministry opportunities which He had for me, including becoming a pastor (something I was positive would never happen) in 2007, and moving to Allendale in 2011.

Hear me correctly: If there was no Nicaragua in 2003 (for me), there would be no Allendale in 2011-2014 (for my family).

My Kids Were Changed

If there was no Allendale for our family, we would have missed out on the most incredible experience for my family. People always asked how our kids were doing, and I’m thankful. And in case you missed this post, let me tell you that our kids were changed for the better for living in Allendale. Even today, so many of our conversations about following God, loving others, and being blessed centers around our experiences of living there.

As Kristen Welch wrote in I Think We May Be Missing Something Very Important:

“In an effort to make family a priority and give our kids what we didn’t have, we’ve become a child-focused culture. In many ways, we’ve lost our purpose. The sense of entitlement our kids exhibit is fueled by a parenting model that is obsessed with giving our children what they want and by making our kids the center of our lives.”

Yes, our kids had (and have) their struggles, but they are all the better for Our Season in Allendale. Yours would be, too.

Final Words

In a discussion about Biddle’s article last year, a friend of mine (a fellow mission-tripper) shared his insight:

“I agree with what the point of her message was. But, there is way more to be gained by people going than not. Connecting relationally makes the world smaller. It gets you out of your little world and you can see people from other cultures more like yourself. . . .

Had she not gone, she wouldn’t have learned how much she was “in the way.” Also, other cultures can see you as an individual so that when they hear of the US, they don’t think Hollywood, they think of an individual.

Sure, we could sit back and send money, and that’s valuable, but it doesn’t change our perspective on “why” unless we have a first-hand experience. That wall that had to be rebuilt wasn’t wasted time. It was used to teach her. And she now has a heart for those people which makes her more invested (in a wiser way, of course).

Her point was: Consider whether or not you should go based on your skills. I think the point should be: Consider how you should go and what the purpose is.”

(Thank you, unnamed friend, for allowing me to use your words without your permission.)

I’m trying something new . . .

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