At the outset, I will say that this article is not about the woes of short-term missions. That topic has been treated exhaustively by me and others.
A little background:
I am a missionary in the Andes Mountains Cloud Forest Region of Ecuador. In our initial years here, we fell, rather quickly, into the mode of hosting short-term mission teams. After all, that is what missionaries are ’supposed to do’ right? It was good, but it did make it harder for us to get our footing in the local cultures and develop more than surface relationships with those we were supposed to be serving. We became primarily facilitators of other people’s mission goals rather than taking the time to find our place in and amongst the diverse people groups here. Since all of those visiting teams ‘demanded’ follow-up of THEIR work, it never truly let us flourish in ours. It was okay, many lives were touched, there was genuine transformation, and a lot of people heard the good news. After a few years, we discovered, but barely admitted to ourselves, that this cycle was actually disruptive to the rhythm of our mission life and calling.
One of the saving graces in hosting short-term mission teams, for me at least, was the opportunity to question, shift, and encourage my fellow harvest workers to put aside their paradigms for a while and embrace the idea that there is more than one way to do this thing we call mission, and that creativity was not only allowed within it, but should be encouraged and fostered while ‘on it.’
As agenda driven as most short-term teams are, we found it hard to get them out of ‘extreme ministry mode,’ and settle into the people without pressure. The combination of translators, gifts, breaking routines, music, painting buildings, providing medical care, drilling water wells, feeding people, and many other activities certainly peaked curiosity and opened doors to the communication of the gospel, but in the end there was always a ‘decision’ to be made, a prayer to be prayed, a card to sign, or some other notch-istic action that ‘closed the deal.’
Decisions were short lived and commitments to following Christ lasted on the average of about 3 weeks to 3 months. Something had to change. We weren’t making disciples. Even with the full force of resource rich churches from the United states, the gospel we were preaching had a shelf-life.
Now, the notion of planting a church, ‘pastoring’ it, raising up leaders, and sending out indigenous people from the same is distasteful to me. That archetype may have proved effective in in times past and in certain places, but it can no longer be assumed to be so.
I just wanted to participate in Jesus’ plan to make disciple making people’s (Matthew 28:19,20), and have them figure out the best ways to gather in and move out on their own in a way that made sense or was relevant to them. I wanted others to know, better yet, to taste and experience God’s Kingdom now in this life as well as in eternity. So after much spiritual angst, we began to change our approach to EVERYTHING.
Before continuing, I’m not suggesting that these issues or challenges are limited to North American short-term missions, because I’ve seen and experienced the same from teams coming from Japan, Germany, Australia, England, and other South American countries.
We started taking a look at the gospel we were preaching and found it lacking. If the gospel is the power of God unto salvation for those that believe (Romans 1:16), and if it is God’s power tool to carry unbelievers to faith and believers to ever increasing faith (Romans 1:17), then we should see powerful results in the preaching of it. Our gospel was not powerfully resulting in others coming to know and receive Jesus. (John 1:12,13). Getting others to ‘accept Jesus into their hearts’ was easy, but it is not the goal of biblical evangelism nor founded on scripture. It’s easy to get others to make a religious choice between heaven and hell when the gospel of our religion limits the options to places instead of a person. The person of Jesus
We were faced with the reality that either of two things were possible:
1. The receiver’s hearts had not been prepped by the Spirit,
2. Our gospel was incorrect, incomplete, and inconsistent with our lives.
While we were aggressively seeking alternative ways to breach communities with the good news of the Kingdom, we were still hosting mission teams and conflicts would arise because we weren’t doing things the way they were used to or even expecting. It’s sad to admit, but we were putting on shows and creating disingenuous ambience so that religious activity addicts (not all) could get their rocks off. We had become pimps of shallow mission work.
I know… let that sink in for a moment. It wasn’t easy to write either.
Fast forward about 6 years. After losing supporters for our unorthodox ways, after heated discussions, after character assassinations, after judgemental questioning and dismissive attitudes, after betrayal by those closest to us, after death threats, after robberies, after mud-slides, and after many more trials that don’t come with short-term jaunts, we settled in to where we are now.
One of my dreams, or better yet, passions, has always been to develop local leaders via slow persistent discipleship to participate in and carry on mission work here in Ecuador with other Ecuadorians. We’ve been pretty good at that in the last 5 years. There has been ‘success,’ if you can call it that, resulting in over a dozen generations of disciples being made, a full-orbed gospel going out to numerous communities that have never heard it, and yes, even some scattered, more traditional, church plants.
Still though, I have always looked and yearned for that perfect short-term mission experience. It was never going to happen because my perception of it was too idealistic and I was coming at it with the proverbial chip on my shoulder. But, I do believe that short-term practice can be optimized, or should I say honed, to bring about the best of possible outcomes. Over the past few years we have had some of those. Teams have come without agendas other than to lean into God and people, and to listen to the Spirit’s direction in going, doing, and saying what He wills. When that happens it’s beautiful.
Backtrack about 8 months… A young Ecuadorian man reaches out to me after hearing about the good things that are happening in the region. He comes for a visit and we talk. He tells me that he is part of another BIG church in another city here in Ecuador. He tells me that while the denomination of this church was formed and birthed in mission, it has NEVER done any local mission. I decided to take him to a community that knew hardly anything of church, bibles, Jesus, or Christianity, and show him his own people in their day to day lives. We visited several families, the local school, and some community leaders. We asked for permission to come back to share a Message from God. That simple, no pretense, no ulterior motives, not the slightest bit of acceptable ecclesiastical deception.
He left encouraged and motivated to bring back a team from that church. A team of university students that have never done this kind of mission work outside the walls of their own church. He decided that the ministry of mission must not be contained, and that being in Christ necessitates going in His name and liberating missions from its ecclesiastical enclaves. He began to train his team. Selling this mission work to his church proved to be difficult because, like most established churches, the bulk of their resources is directed towards the sustaining of their own facilities and programs. But, they did catch his vision. The church as a whole, along with this young man, pushed forward towards becoming ‘missional.’
Securing finances, clothing, food, shoes, people, and proper attitudes didn’t come easy, but it did come. During the process I was slightly dreading this upcoming mission ministry because I thought that they too were already tainted by rigid paradigms and rippling traditions from retro eras. I was growing weary of this constant struggle to move people from this inadequate impulse to do things as they always have been done. I was tired of fighting against the gravity of standardized and assumed missionary movements.
They show up here in the region, all wearing cleverly designed matching T-shirts. I’ll be honest, thought “God help me.” “Here we go again,” I thought, while trying to decide if I was going to play along for the sake of being polite.
There was a transportation glitch. We were supposed to have a single bus to head out to the community we were going to work in. That didn’t happen. Instead, and at the last minute, we piled into 5 vehicles with much discomfort. I felt like if someone hiccuped, I would be ejected onto some lonely Ecuadorian road. My attitude was poor, I was tired, and my heart just wasn’t in it.
We finally made to our destination. I literally jumped out of the car and walked away from the team. “Get your head in the game” I repeated to myself… “Maybe it will be different” I thought… “Maybe this will truly be one of those mission experiences which sets the tone for these young people for the rest of their lives.” Maybe…
So, I shook it off and went directly to the local elementary school and spoke with the director there reminding her of the permission she granted to us to come in and play games with the kids, share the gospel, etc. She trusted me because I had built up a relationship with her and others in the previous months. I had even brought a couple of short-term mission teams there from the states to ‘plow up the ground.’
Within 5 minutes this team was on it. There was no need for translators, there was no waiting period for acceptance, there was no wondering about trust, there were no cultural barriers to communication, and there was no ‘mustered’ politeness to receive people from another country. The kids at the school and the Ecuadorians from the other city immediately melded.
I was shocked. I was shocked to see how well they had been prepared. I was shocked to see 0 (Zero) transition time from encounter to action. And, I don’t mean prepared to deliver their shtick. They were prepared to follow the rhythm and flow of the Spirit, they were perceptive and discerning, they were physically, emotionally, and spiritually ‘geared up’ to be sensitive to the needs of the moment, and they were putting all of that into instant action. Yes, there were songs and sing alongs, there was dancing and games, there were lollipops and trinkets, and there were, of course, those matching T-shirts. But, beyond that this team was different.
As I walked around to the different groups and listened to the team speaking with the kids and dealing with real issues in very real ways I smiled. Then, as I continued, I cried. This was it! This is what I had dreamt about. This was the impact that I have longed to see for a very long time. After visiting with the kids at the school, we went house to house visiting with the parents of the children. There were no tracts or clever methodologies, just genuine interest in hearing about their lives, loves, and challenges. Counsel was offered, questions were asked, and real conversations were had in un-fabricated and un-contrived contexts.
Day 1 -Complete success.
Days 2 and 3 followed suit. Day 2 involved a lot of paying attention to the urgent needs of the community and interacting with the children at the school one more time followed by more time in the community going house to house. Each day had it’s gospel theme and was built on the previous.
Day 3 – Celebration!
We were fortunate to have encountered THE ENTIRE community in a community work project. Over 250 people in all. The community received us, we spent more time with the kids, we talked to all of their moms and we conversed with all of the men in the community. The team bandaged up wounds, poured cold water on those exposed to too much heat, shoed children, fed people, wept with those who wept, counseled those in need of counseling, and loved them all while talking about Jesus and Kingdom when It was natural do so. I found myself weeping a lot during these days and being on the receiving end of insight and encouragement.
The resource to impact ratio was incredible. What they spent in preparation, securing the things for physical relief and social action, as well as solid missiological ‘training,’ paled in comparison to a mission team coming from another country. In fact, the whole thing, 29 people from another city here in Ecuador, 3 days of accommodations, transportation, foodstuffs, clothing, shoes, snacks, books, and much more cost less than what several of the most popular short-term mission sending agencies charge to send 1 person for 5-7 days here from the United States. Think about that for a moment, 29 to 1!
In mission circles, and especially short-term mission circled, we’re always talking about maximum effectiveness and impact. (The biggest bang for the buck) This was that. This was more than achieving an objective, this was the realization of a dream.
This was mission in 5…4…3…2
Just one question today; What do you take away from this?