When recruiting people for the Water for Life mission in Haiti, I often say, “This is your chance to change the world.” It’s a bold statement, and some will disagree. Short-term missions has more than a few critics.
They do have a point or two in their favor. These intensive, whirlwind experiences are supposed to produce a positive result, but even some proponents admit they can be disastrous.
It’s not as easy as it sounds.
Experienced missionaries (do we still use that term?) tell horror stories of teams gone amok. These forays can—
Bolster American arrogance,
Entrench the dependency of developing countries on Western aid,
Substitute self-satisfaction for genuine spiritual growth, and
Reinforce stereotypes on both sides of the water.
An airplane ride plus a few hammer swings doesn’t guarantee that the world will change for the better. Even so, this is worth doing.
Veteran team leaders such as David A. Livermore, who has written extensively about short-term missions and their impact, believe these brief cross-cultural opportunities are a benefit to the church and the world. (His helpful book Serving with Eyes Wide Open is a must-read for anyone undertaking a short-term trip.)
I agree. I wish every Christian could experience a short-term mission and every pastor could lead one. It will change your world, I promise. Setting expectations is critical. It is important to recognize the things that won’t change inside a month. Understanding what you can’t do is critical to your success.
An emerging nation will not shed centuries of corruption and poverty as the result of one construction project. A week is not nearly enough time to produce that result. A century might be too short a term.
People will not come to Jesus in droves. In fact, you may not see a single conversion. Nearly every nation has been evangelized for decades, and some “mission fields” have more churches per square mile than we do. God will already be there, and the church will already be working.
The American values of hard work and efficiency won’t catch on like wildfire once you show people how to succeed. Every country has its own culture, and people generally like how they do things. You won’t change how they feel about time, power structures, and the value of work or money.
Here’s what will change, and quickly.
You will become a more tolerant, open-minded person. You will see the thousand little choices North Americans make about food, hygiene, transportation, clothing, work habits, and power relationships believing not only that they are the right approach but that everyone does it that way.
You’ll learn things you can’t learn elsewhere. You will be open to new ideas and deeply grateful the little things you now take for granted. Like flushing your toilet paper.
You will become aware of your flaws and eager to change. Those blind spots your family has tried to show you? You’ll have no trouble seeing them as you ride two hours in the back of a pickup truck or eat rice and beans for the 13th meal in a row.
Some people go a lifetime without acquiring patience and humility. You’ll pick them up in a week.
You will learn alternative ways to do everything. I mean everything.
You will trust God more than you do right now. Most of the things that reduce risk for you will never make it off the airplane. You and God will spend some quality, unplugged time together, and you’ll love it.
You’ll be richer, and so will the people you serve. Real wealth is not measured in money but in friends. You will make new ones, which alone is worth the price of the trip.
A few hundred people will have reliable access to clean water. They won’t get sick as often. More of their children will survive infancy. They’ll have more time to spend on other things, like earning a living. Their quality of life will increase just that little bit. And they’ll thank you sincerely.
All of this adds up to a colossal change in you, your world, and their world. And yes, that’s entirely worth taking the time, spending the money, and making the trip.
(PS: If you’re looking for an non-governmental organization (NGO) partner for your ministry, try Poured Out. You’ll love working with them.)
Rev. Lawrence W. Wilson serves as pastor at Fall Creek Wesleyan Church in Fishers, Ind. Follow his blog. Photo used with permission by World Hope International.