It’s encouraging to see the number of churches in my home country that are getting directly involved in projects overseas. For them, it’s not enough to fund a missionary and send them to do the dirty work. Churches now want to visit the missions they support and get their hands dirty and see first hand what’s happening on the mission field. This is a great step. It has some weaknesses however. First, short-term missions can be a mixed bag. You might go to Cambodia and have a fantastic time, get involved in an orphanage, make some friends and take lots of pictures. But the net result of your visit can be negative. Short-term missions often seek short-term results. And they aren’t financially efficient. Expending thousands of dollars to send people with no cross-cultural training or language skills to a foreign country and then expecting them to do something positive is naive and wasteful. One solution to this is long-term commitments to a specific project or mission. In this model, short-termers are less mini-missionaries and more ambassadors and accountability partners. I’ve written on my blog before about local church to local church partnerships that are making a long-term difference.
There is a risk of mission-tourism. And then there’s always the expense of sending a group of outsiders that might be better spent on projects on the field.
A group of eighteen students raised $25,000 to fly to Honduras for spring break. They painted an orphanage, cleaned the playground, and played with the children. Everyone had a great time, and the children loved the extra attention. One student commented: "My trip to Honduras was such a blessing! It was amazing the way the staff cared for those children. I really grew as a Christian there." The Honduran orphanage's yearly budget is $45,000. That covers the staff's salaries, building maintenance, and food and clothes for the children. One staff member there confided, "The amount that group raised for their week here is more than half our working budget. We could have done so much with that money." From: Short Term Missions: Are They Worth The Cost? by Jo Ann Van Engen (pdf)
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve participated in many short-term missions as a short-termer, a guide/interpreter and even a host. But my larger concern is not financial. The second weakness I see in churches adopting overseas projects is the lack of reciprocity. In every case I’ve ever seen, Western visitors come with the perspective that they have something to give and that the locals should be grateful recipients of their largesse. But the longer I live in Africa, the more I’m convinced that we are the ones who should come begging. Africans have much to teach us about life based on spirituality rather than materialism and the richness of a society centered on relationships rather than the individual. Finally, Christians I meet in Africa are much clearer-headed about the nature of the Gospel and they lack the cynicism and confusion that paralyze many Western believers.
I’d love to see every short-term mission be an exchange program. Seek God’s direction for where you should minister. Then approach that place in search of an entrance into that culture, but not just so you can save some souls or give away some mosquito nets. Find that person or persons who can visit your church or community of faith and share their gifts. In most cases they will not have money to share. But you and I as members of the Kingdom of God know that our treasures are in heaven. And in that regard, our brothers and sisters in the developing world are far richer than we could ever dream. Much of current missions is a lop-sided game of table tennis. We set the rules. We’ve got the equipment. And then we start hitting balls on their side of the net without ever expecting them to send anything back our way. It’s all Ping and no Pong. And it’s not much fun to play.
I’ve often wished I could bring my Mozambican friends to the US and let them just live there for a while. Then I’d like to listen in when they return to Mozambique and tell their friends what they saw. I’m not talking about bringing back a “converted native” as a trophy or a “Return On Investment” but rather an ambassador from another geographical part of the same Kingdom. They could serve us through the God-given wisdom and insight of someone from another culture. I sat at a meeting of African Christian leaders in which they were discussing development projects in Mozambique. A university professor addressed the group and said, “When there’s a wedding, no one comes empty-handed. We as Mozambicans need to recognize that just because we don’t have money, doesn’t mean we don’t have something to bring to the party.” And he’s right. They have insider-knowledge, extensive relationships, and long-term devotion to the spread of the Gospel in their region. No missionary, short-term or long-term will ever be as efficient as an insider with the resources and motivation to tackle a development task.
On Friday, a young couple from the Bible college here in Mozambique stopped by our house for a chat. I was impressed by the simplicity and sincerity of their faith. My exegetical skills are better. I’ve got a better grasp on Biblical theology. But this young couple is closer to Jesus than I am. Artur writes songs based on Scripture. His wife sings harmony. They left everything to come to college including his guitar. On Saturday we got to jam and hear some of his songs. He and his wife sang Scripture songs in Sena, Chewa, Portuguese, Shona and his native tongue, Lolo. He taught me his songs. I taught him a few new chords. And we had a terrific time. I get to hang out a lot with musicians like Artur and Eliza as well as pastors who have shepherded their flock in the crucible of war and poverty. Wouldn’t it be amazing if they could visit the US and share some of their music and message?
The Western church and the church of the developing South could make beautiful music together. But first we need to get together, get in tune and acknowledge the gifts that God has given each of us in the glorious global church of the 21st century.