My first short-term missions (STM) trip took place in 1989. Our team flew to Brussels (my first time ever on a plane) and then somehow (I have no recollection) got to Namur, Belgium. There are a lot of things that still stand out from our time there (including the old Belgian guy who spoke no English, but put a chain around my neck and asked people to take pictures), but if you asked “what did your team accomplish in Belgium?” I don’t think I could come up with anything.
That trip and one to Cebu City in the Philippines two years later both had a huge impact on me and Liz. Especially about how we view mission and ministry. But we never returned to either place and I don’t think we had any lasting impact on either city, or any of the people we met (although some of the guys from the Philippines wrote to ask Liz if the guy she was hanging out with was her husband, or just her brother).
The trip to Cebu City would be my last short-term trip until 2007 when I went with my daughter Hannah on a youth missions trip to Santa Domingo, Dominican Republic. Although I’d been to the DR a couple of times by that point with a few church leaders, this was the first time I’d been there for an STM trip.
In a lot of ways, it was much like trips I’d been on before. And much of it was positive. But there was one activity on that trip which impacted me more than any trip I’d been on previously.
In the neighbourhood we were working in, there was this one street…actually more of an alleyway, but full of entrances to flats. The street however, was filled with…well, it smelled like raw sewage. Trash, mud, and a few dead animals were buried in this debris. I could not imagine having to watch my kids trudge through that every day.
And someone got the idea “we should take a day and clean this up for the people who live here!” So they got shovels, and rakes, and bins and spent a day cleaning out this street. (That’s how I know about the dead animals…a cat was the largest as far as I remember.)
Afterwards, there was a lot of excitement and celebration. People were sharing their stories of the crazy things they found in the swamp, but everyone was excited about how they had been able to change this street.
Someone shared that they’d even discovered the cause. As they cleared out the muck, they noticed that the grate, which the alley way drained into was clogged. They would have needed professional equipment to clean it out…so it was left as they found it.
That didn’t seem to diminish the celebration.
It wouldn’t have taken too much thought to recognise that it would be a short time before the street was back to its prior state, and it hit me yet again at that moment that so much of what gets done on a STM is more about the people on the team feeling like they accomplished something than it is about impacting the people in the host neighbourhood.
Now please understand, this isn’t one of those, “short-term missions trips are bad” rants. In fact we are excited to be hosting our first team from the States in a just a few weeks. And as I’ve said, the early trips Liz and I were on played a major role in shaping what we’ve done and how we’ve thought about ministry the past 25 years.
So I want teams to come, and I do want each member of the team to have their lives, and their faith impacted in a positive way. I was sharing some of my thoughts with a friend recently and he asked, “well, what do you hope for when a team comes to work with you?”
Here are the three things I want to see (specifically among team members):
1) Ambassadors. Part of my hope for teams that come in is that they would learn about who we are and what we are trying to do in our city. There’s only so much you can communicate in a newsletter. But as we’ve been able to walk people around our community and share what God has put on our hearts, we’ve seen people get excited. Our hope is that people who come as part of a team get a glimpse of what God wants to do in our city and go home and share that with others.
2) Relationship and Understanding. I’ve written on this blog numerous times how important it was for Liz and I to not try to plant a church within the first few years of being here. We needed to become part of the neighbourhood. We needed to get to know people. To understand more of the culture. Really to learn to interact with people like people and not as potential recruits for some thing we were trying to start. I want teams to see their time here as the starting of a relationship rather than a short time to accomplish a lot of stuff.
3) Stuff to take home. I want people who join us for STMs to learn that this isn’t that hard and it’s transferrable. When I took my first short term trip, I was a mime. (Not a very good one, but a mime.) I have never mimed since. In fact, the idea that I’d put on some mime make-up, and walk downtown so I could talk to people about Jesus, has never crossed my mind (well, until i just wrote it down) I’m still not doing it. I want people who see what we do think, “I could do this where I live.” …because they can.
A good book if you are interested in exploring this a bit more is, Cross-Cultural Servanthood, by Duane Elmer.
So what do you think? Any thoughts on your experiences with short-term missions?
Also published on Medium.