Fixing our short-term mission trip mess

Fixing our short-term mission trip mess November 28, 2016

By Ryan Clark

I dated a few different women during my mostly happy years of high school and college. While I felt all my feelings sincerely and strongly at the time, I’m aware that during some of those relationships, I knew at some point that the relationship was going nowhere and I knowingly didn’t end it when I knew it was time. Many of us have had the feeling of being “strung along.”  I stayed in relationships beyond my feelings of connection because I needed her and she needed me. [Insert your own psychoanalysis here]

I don’t think I ever used anyone in these relationships, at least not in the malicious sense.  It is hard, however, not to feel used after hearing the answer to this classic break-up reaction:  How long have you felt this way?  When the reality is that it’s been “a while,” it is hard not to feel cheapened. [Whatever “a while” is in a broken-hearted 20 year-old’s mind.]

Relationships are relationships. And whether we’re working up the courage to speak to the classmate sitting behind us in history class or exchanging emails with a missionary in Slovakia, among all the things we’re trying to accomplish, we’re also working toward meeting one of our basic needs: the need to belong.

It was probably this need for belonging that led me to sign up for my first short-term mission trip (STM).  All the cool kids were doing it.

As it ends up; I had a series of personal life-changing epiphanies while serving on short-term mission trips in college. A couple of these trips were (I have since discovered) fairly paternalistic, and by current analysis, quite possibly did more harm than good.

I credit these epiphanies with helping me become a more a compassionate, church-going, selfless (somewhat), globally minded, devout and generous man.  There are important and valid arguments against this.

We need to belong to groups and we need to belong to people. I mean this in the healthy attachment sense and not the needy dependency sense.

We all need intimate relationships. They keep us tethered in reality. These relationships keep us accountable in communities. There’s nothing wrong with getting this need and others met. How we go about getting this need met, the need for belonging, with neighbors near and far demonstrate if we are putting forth our authentic self in mutual care or just using the other. Genuine relationships take time. You have to be able to imagine what things might be like years down the road or else you’re not going to put the necessary work into the relationship.

Thoughtful, compassionate and loving Christians would never consciously seek to use those in cross-cultural communities in which we serve during short-term missions.

But the truth of the previous sentence illustrates the issue at hand. If the predominant thought in our mind as we prepare for missional engagement is serving others, then we run the risk of violating the basic tenets of what makes relationships meaningful, that is their mutuality. If the relationship isn’t mutual it’s not fostering health and growth and all that good relationship stuff.  If all the good relationship stuff isn’t happening, then that means someone in the relationship is being used.

“Oh, no, no, no, sir.” You say, “My love for others is the agape kind of love. It is Spirit inspired altruism.” Well my friend, you may have a Spirit-led-love-of-others that inspires you to service but none of us are so altruistic that we can escape the inevitable consequence of being rewarded for our actions. The historical record is riddled with examples (the well documented Tribbiani and Bufay debate is a good one). No good deed goes unrewarded and in reality, none of us can escape the expectation of this reward.

If my analysis has merit, then there is actual hope for fixing our short-term mission mess.

Here’s the bottom line:

  1. Stop your one night stands. Unless you are doing disaster response, only engage in short-term missions where a long-term relationship is expected and planned for.
  2. Be transparent in your motivations, desires, and expectations in the relationship and receive the same from your ministry partners. Don’t make your partners organize a sports camp because your team is mostly soccer players. Find out what your partners are already great at and spend time doing that (See what I did there?).
  3. Invest as much into the relationship as you are expecting to receive. Or in other words, invest as much cash locally as you spend going.  Do this responsibly.
  4. Make a plan for mutual transformation. Don’t take God. Find God. Don’t take lesson plans. Find your lessons there.
  5. Plan for your own conversion. You can be converted accidentally, but why not go ahead and plan for it by using a preparation resource that focuses on your development. You experience a conversion when you find solidarity in another culture.
  6. Conduct your experience in a way that if you leave having never taken a single photo to remember your time, your regret will be comforted that you’ll be seeing your friends again sometime soon.
  7. The ministry and relationships in which we minister afar must be mirrored in communities near. This is probably a given. But here it is again just in case.

I went on those trips in college to do what the cool kids were doing, not to be in relationship with local folks.

It makes sense, then, that I don’t have relationships with many of the ministries where I’ve served on short-term missions from in my college days or when I was a student minister. I guess you could say I just stopped calling.

Twenty years ago, I didn’t know I was supposed to keep their numbers. I’m hopeful, however, because the conversations and resources from the past 10 years around short-term missions have served as an important intervention in our global relationships.

I don’t think it’s time to end short-term missions if we are seeking true friendships. I genuinely believe that we need each other. Western Christians need to belong to the global church and as members of the Body we need to discover how live into relationships with each other. I believe we’re all better citizens of kingdoms seen and unseen when our sense of belonging is rooted in our global cloud of witnesses.

Ryan Clark is Church Engagement Manager for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  He and his family previously served in the Philippines at the Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary in Baguio City as CBF field personnel. He is the editor of Pivot, a leadership development resource to train and equip individuals and congregations to think critically about short-term mission engagement. Ryan has a Master of Divinity from Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology and a Doctor of Ministry in the area of gospel and culture from Columbia Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Cindy, have two children, two dogs, three chickens and live in Decatur, Georgia.

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