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Crucial Conversation: Are short-term missions hurting more than helping?


by Dr. Sharon Pittman
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The missionary work of yester-year died with our grandparents. Their historic work was significant in seeding a global Adventist church, but as times have changed, we have rightly needed to evolve new strategies for this generation’s end-time outreach! Let’s talk a bit more about this evolution and its outcome. 

Several dynamics have greatly influenced the missionary model of today. One of the most significant is the outstanding capacity building that previous generations of missionaries did with indigenous church leadership. Increasing the capacity and leadership skills of local people has led to the return home of most traditional missionary families to their country of origin. With this return, the numbers of old-timey “missionaries” telling old-fashioned stories has decreased and correspondingly, the church members in the West appear to have fiscally forgotten those in need “across the oceans!” The outcome has been a radical decrease in congregational commitment of funding for formal interdivision employee (IDE) hiring for Global missionaries and many fewer opportunities for those with a passion for mission to serve in paid positions. 

While I am not a church historian by any means, several trends seem to have emerged from this rapidly changing global context of missions. First, as mentioned, the church has less hired interdivision employees; second, more self-supporting global mission projects have partnered with indigenous workers to serve as Jesus modeled; and third, congregations are increasingly making trips aboard to “help” during short-term one to two week mission trips. 

The focus of the brief discussion in this article outlines some of the challenges and opportunities congregations interested in serving Jesus via global missions must address before they outline their strategies for partnering with local communities in transformational and restorative difference-making (or during short-term mission trips). Some key values need to be identified to ensure that our motivation for serving communities is in line with Christ’s mission while on earth. Among these items for reflection are:  Mutual brokenness, serving locally first, holistic model, appreciative approaches, strategic partnership and results orientation. Each congregation collectively and each member individually engaging in mission activities will benefit from prayerfully considering their Biblical readiness for serving Jesus aboard using the items for reflection described above.

Mutual Brokenness

Often our attitude toward our call to mission is to see ourselves as being global healers. In our cultural context, we often use a medical model of helping that is grounded in the notion of fixing what is broken or healing the sick. We typically plan our mission trips to try to solve problems and/or to “save” those who are “lost!” But before the Lord can use us as his ambassadors we must grapple with our brokenness; setting aside our ego and personal aggrandizement in humble mutual submission for those we seek to serve.  

Serving Locally

In addition to laying any notion of our superiority at the cross in full brokenness, we really must be prepared to live dedicated self-less lives of service as Seventh-day Adventists!  Isiah 58:7 admonishes us to not forget the needy members of our own family.  Congregations and members who create a life model that is dedicated to service will engage in year-round service and outreach within partnerships in their own communities. So globetrotting for short-term missions ventures is really beyond our readiness if we don’t demonstrate a commitment to our neighbors. We need to make sure these community members see us more than on community service day once each year! Congregations need to build an active ongoing local community partnership program before they mobilize for service abroad.  They must become spiritually accountable for self-less service to their local community before exploring horizons beyond borders to touch lives for Jesus.

Holistic Model of Service

Jesus’ model of community empowerment is holistic. To evangelize without addressing holistic community issues is Biblically irresponsible. We need to bring clean water while sharing the Living Water! We need to share sustainable gardening resources while sharing the Living Bread! We need to provide physical and social healing while sharing the Eternal Healer! We have historically baptized some of the world’s most vulnerable populations and then left them without the basic tools they need to build their own capacity for sustainable development.  Jesus’ model is to love, heal and feed first, and to preach second. Our responsibility is to build relationships first by sharing God’s love in action. Next we must bring others to the point of making a decision for membership within the transformational family of God and His church!

Appreciative Approaches

I will often hear mission traveler’s share that they are going or have gone to help “those “poor” villagers.” We view poverty in terms of “us vs. them” when in truth, we are the impoverished… not them! We are materially rich and in need of nothing (Revelation 3:17) but we need to become as blessed as those who are “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). Jesus’ model of viewing people was, what today in development lingo we call, a strengths perspective or appreciative approach. We can look at our partners in ministry as rich in resilience, surviving on very little yet willing to share any of their abundance whether in spirit or material belongings, or we can only notice their material “poverty!” I would like to suggest that the first act of sharing God’s love is to identify, with appreciation, their strengths and capacities. That instead of fixing what we see as broken, we seek to build on a community’s resiliency, supporting them toward transformation and a sustainable future. 

Strategic Long-term Partnerships

Our work as ambassadors of Jesus is to be done “with” communities not “for” communities! We aren’t to serve communities, but rather partner with them to determine their own solutions to the challenges they face. How often do we plan what mission work we will do “for” them? Did they have a voice in deciding what we build or what we would do while there?  Do we build a school for them or with them? Do we run clinics for them or with them? Do we provide evangelistic outreach for them or with them? I often suggest to mission groups that I am mentoring that the first visit should just focus on shared visioning and relationship building. The first visit should focus on having lots of spiritual and social fellowship. First visits should include much “mango tree” time where we listen, sing, laugh, cry and share. Before you leave from this first partnership building trip you should talk about their dreams, their goals and plan for a 5 to 10 year sisterhood partnership where the objective is not to have a travel experience, but to truly make a long-term difference in their lives and community. 

Results Orientation

Not too many mission groups build their programs around results and accountability when partnering around capacity building. We need to become intentional and strategic in the approaches we use in building God’s ambassador partnerships. If, after careful listening and looking with appreciative “eyes” for communities to set their own goals for transformation, we can then make plans that can be evaluated with results that can be documented and celebrated. We want more than pictures to share from our trips, we want lives and communities that are measurably improved. 

Crucial Conversations Continued in the Summer 2016 TEAMS Forum

Nothing that we do in short-term mission work is simple, but each year churches are getting better and more strategic in activities and approaches. At Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, TN we are eager to support congregations in their capacity-building to serve communities for Jesus. We are doing this with a new graduate degree in Global Community Development that offers online and community-based instruction and want to engage in crucial conversations among those called to community and short-term missions for an extended weekend of dialog and fellowship July 14-17, 2016. This event will be an Adventist forum connecting, educating, and equipping short-term and ongoing mission team ambassadors for transformational holistic mission and service that will impact individuals, families, and communities through the power of the Gospel Commission.  The Forum’s objectives are to:

  1. Promote integration of sustainable community-based development with gospel outreach
  2. Network agencies and churches together for collaboration and sharing
  3. Provide interdisciplinary skills training and curriculum resources for transformational mission and service.

If you have been active in short-term missions and would like to share your best practices with other like-minded mission ambassadors you can send a short 2 page proposal to:  mgcd@southern.edu.  On Friday, July 15, 2016, we will share best practices in engineering and infrastructure, agriculture and food security, enterprise and sustainability, emergency response, human rights and social justice, health and wellness, urban ministries, and/or leadership and logistics. You will have 60 minutes to present and then time for questions and discussion. Be sure to tell us the Forum track outlined above that your mission project presentation best fits in.  We need to receive these requests by May 15, 2016.  Also, if you are an Adventist ministry that supports short-term mission efforts and you would like to have an exhibition table you can email us at mgcd@southern.edu and we can share more information.

Finally, if you’d just like to join the crucial end-time church conversation and network with other mission ambassadors for Jesus you can register for the conference at: www.FaceBook.com/mgcdsouthern. Working together we can enhance our partnerships and shared efforts in making a sustainable differences for God’s Kingdom! 

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