This is the first of several posts that we will be doing to explore Mission, Missions, and Short Term Mission Trips together.
by Dr. Steven Rasmussen
For decades I have enjoyed going, sending, leading and hosting short-term missionaries. I have encouraged people to “just do it.” So have others. Short-term missions (STM) has exploded around the world. Just in the USA, 2 million short-term missionaries go outside the border each year using 1/3 of all missions giving (Priest 2009 personal communication). The average time on the field is now 8 days (ii).1 Recent research tells us the results and how to do it right. Let me highlight a few things that I have learned from research and my own experience:
Get Real: Be Realistic about short-term’s results. As goers, we love it. We feel we have been transformed by the experience. However, quantitative research measures little positive change in spiritual growth, giving, going long-term, cultural sensitivity, etc. From 1992-2005, the number of American long-term, overseas missionaries has grown slightly, while Canadian missionaries have decreased by 33% (3, 21). The money spent on STM does not come back. No comparative study shows any significant increase in giving by those who go or their churches.2 What happens on the trip is it. Why do studies show little lasting impact on receivers or short-term missionaries? Excitement is easy, lasting change is hard. After a resolution or a revival meeting, we usually return to reality. However there is hope.
Re-learn: Everything you think you know really does not work in this very different culture. You will probably have to learn how to learn from another culture even to notice this. Then you will have to work to learn the uniqueness of this specific culture.
Despite years in Tanzania, I did not realize that in every death most people assumed a witch had caused it. It was not until I began a disciplined program of listening and research that I learned. I asked my good friend, pastor, and neighbor how I could miss for eight years what was obvious to everyone else. He said, “You never asked.” This is also your chance to see yourself, your walk with God and your home culture in a totally new way. Don’t waste it. Spend most of your time looking, listening and learning. Your help will only be helpful if most of your effort is to hear. So try this:
– Stop (not so much activity, have a long cup of tea), Look (keep your eyes open, write down what you see, ask an insider about it), Listen (don’t tell them what you know, ask what they know, wait for them to speak), Act (only after you have done all of this relearning and listening).
Respect – do not consider them poor children who need you. Consider them wise elders who you need. Respect and act on what they tell you. Empower the people there to make the decisions and follow them (227-231). Don’t take advantage of their time or hospitality, reward them for their work as you would an American who was serving you. We assume a little thank-you tip is enough since after all they have benefited so much from our presence. Realize how important honor is in many cultures and give it. Also accept it graciously, but with a grain of salt. You may not be the greatest thing that has happened in this place in 100 years even if they say that. Tell them how great they are.
Show pictures and give reports that increase peoples respect for those you met rather than for you. Show pictures of their significant ministry, not your significant ministry, their great leaders, not just their needy children; their accomplishments, not just their needs; their amazing adaptation to their situation (ingenious inventions), not just their lack compared to your standards (primitive toilets). Don’t judge by GNP. Judge by GKP-God’s Kingdom Productivity. (Howell 2009)
Relationship: Focus primarily people, not projects. Build relationships for the long haul. Don’t just be friendly, be a friend. Reciprocity – What can you do for them and what can they do for you? At present we tend to have a “paternalism” – we give them money and they give us significance. Make it even more than a partnership, make it koinonia.
A study by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) found that expertise in the task one was assigned was only the fourth most important thing in being effective on an overseas assignment. “Far and away, the most powerful factor in overseas effectiveness was the ability to initiate and sustain interpersonal relationships with local people” (Elmer 2006, 96).3 I have frequently observed that especially in East Africa, everything depends upon relationship. Achieving the task will only bring success if good relationships are built and maintained.
Re-invest: It is not enough to go back and be grateful for all that you have. Use what you learned and the relationships that you built to invest back into the kingdom. I encourage groups that come to me that they should spend good time in learning before the trip. On the trip they should do mostly learning and relationship building. When they return, they should focus on doing ministry with what they have learned – at least as much time and effort as they did before the trip. If they spent 6 months, 5 meetings and three fund raisers before the trip, why not do the same afterward? Minister to those you met or to local immigrants from that country. Inspire others to invest in what you saw, not just to go see for themselves.
Is it too high a standard to say that if money is raised for the personal expenses of a short-termer in the name of “mission,” the returnee should raise the same amount for the long-term work? How else can we ensure that short-term mission adds rather than subtracts from long-term mission. But isn’t it mostly relatives and friends who fund and pray for short-termers, not churches? Maybe so, but most long-term missionaries are dependent on relatives and friends as well as churches for funds and prayer. How can the church that sends short-termers create benefit for the kingdom from what they learned – Not just benefit to this church, but outflowing benefit to the kingdom outside the church?
Relationships and expectations are key to this reinvesting. Research says people often achieve much more if they make public, specific, demanding goals, and then have others hold them accountable to and encourage them toward those goals.4
We need to do more than hope that long-term benefit will result from short-term missions. We need to do more than redefine the benefit.5 Research results are in. We need to respond and readjust to get better long-term results. Don’t just do it. Do it right.
Of course, what matters is God’s mission not our mission so one last set of R’s:
– Repent of self-focus (my comfort, significance, fulfillment) and refocus on loving God and others
– Release, relinquish, relax – let God and your hosts be in control
– Rejoice as you notice God
One last tip on how to begin:
What do you think? What questions does this research and these conclusions and suggestions raise for you and for your church? We’ll continue exploring thoughts on Mission, Missions, and Short Term Mission Trips in the coming weeks.
Dr. Steve Rasmussen and his wife Jan have been serving God in Tanzania and Kenya since 1996 founding TEAM (Training East African Ministers). In that capacity Steve has helped to develop Lake Victoria Christian College in Mwanza, Tanzania with several other branches located throughout the country and now teaches Cross-Cultural Ministry and Missions at Africa International University in Nairobi, Kenya.
From Elmer, Duane. 2002. Cross-Cultural Connections: Stepping Out and Fitting In Around the World. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic. p. 72
1 [Unless a year is listed all references in the article are from the recent quality research of 22 experienced experts contained in the best book yet on STM: Effective Engagement in Short-Term Missions: Doing It Right edited by Robert Priest 2008].
2 Two examples: Hosts in Honduras appreciated the relationships with, changes in, and houses built by short-termers after Hurricane Mitch. But they appreciated those built by local partner organizations just as much. However given that it took $30,000 to build a small house with short-termers and $2000 with a local partnership organization using local labor, locals said they would rather have more houses. [Unfortunately, this is one of the very few studies on how recipients are slightly impacted.] Was the difference made up by increased giving after the excited short-termers went home? 60% said they increased their mission giving to this organization, but they actually increased their giving from $31 to $33 per year. The churches that sent teams increased 1% (478-480). An 11 year partnership sent 1398 short-termers from Kentucky to Kenya and Brazil. An explosion of excitement for missions was reported in Kentucky. Missions giving increased 0.7% annually. Since as much as $450,000/year was spent by these churches to subsidize trip costs, giving to long-term missions was naturally reduced (486).
3 “Positive, realistic predeparture expectations” the third most important key to success (Elmer 2006, 96). Which fits with our first point about being realistic. Skill at doing the job assigned was actually only the fourth most important (97).
4 In the Honduras case, the short-termers did little of what they hoped to because they had no goals, accountability or on-going relationship. However, much positive change occurred through accountable goals and long-term relationships between the Honduran Christian development organizations and the new home owners (492-495).
5 Too often we draw the bulls eye around where the arrow landed: If we don’t know if people are being discipled, we say the benefit is encouraging long-term missionaries. When more long-termers are not sent, we say blessing and gratitude are enough and no more can be expected from this generation.