I am a missionary in the Andes Mountains Cloud Forest Region of Ecuador. I have been on the field for over 10 years. As some of you may know, Ecuador has suffered a barrage of earthquakes recently where hundreds have been killed, thousands injured, and many more displaced. The aid response has been incredible. Many volunteers from within Ecuador and without have gone to serve in earthquaked affected areas. Early on in the earthquake relief efforts, there were quite a few problems caused by ‘unskilled’ volunteers. By ‘unskilled,’ I mean inexperienced in dealing with the situation at hand. Some folks were passing out at the sight of horrific scenes, psychologically overwhelmed, and inadvertently drawing critical resources from those who needed it most. This compounded the problem. Would it have been better for some of them not to have come? Assuredly.
In a recent article titled; “7 Reasons Why Your Two Week Trip To Haiti Doesn’t Matter: Calling Bull on “Service Trips”, which should be read by anyone considering short-term missions, the author speaks to several shortfalls of short-term missions. I am sure you have seen some of these critiques before. A couple of examples:
The primary beneficiaries of short-term missions, if we’re honest, are the ones going on the trips as opposed to the ones they go to ‘serve.’
It’s an egregious waste of money.
While these can be debated, it is the topic of skilled and unskilled ‘workers’ that I’d like to address in this article. This can get a little dicey because when we’re talking about mission work, ‘skill’ can be highly speculative. If we’re talking about those who have developed abilities to communicate with others trans-culturally, and specifically to communicate the good news of the Gospel then ‘skill’ is paramount. This sort of skill goes beyond learning 4 minute gospel presentations or flipping through a cube and having a script recounted by a translator. Building projects and the like, certainly require those who are adept in that field. Medical missions etc. etc.
Unfortunately, ‘skilled’ can also mean that those who are good at ‘doing church’ go to foreign lands and help others to do church better too. Personally speaking, I don’t think this is mission work. These sorts of project oriented missions are often artificially created needs to give folks something to do when there’s nothing to do. Or, to avoid the real work of planting the gospel (not churches), and making disciples of Jesus.
At the same time, I’d like to acknowledge that ‘skill’ for mission work can not be learned in a classroom, a conference, or any other non-participatory environment. Mission skill is acquired on mission. So while some ‘skilled’ missionaries would prefer that the unskilled stayed home, they also must acknowledge that these sorts of opportunities are the training ground for future missionaries.
The article mentioned above stresses sustainability, long lasting impact, and measurable effects, but praises medical assistance above spiritual. Certainly, there are those situations, a lot of them, where medical assistance is of immediate need and should be prioritized above the spiritual, but medical mission has it’s problems too. I have seen it up close. Medical mission or other sustainable ‘worthy’ endeavors don’t automatically get carte blanche priority over the spiritual. The gospel changes lives. It changes communities and impacts all spheres of life. Just because it might be less measurable doesn’t make it less valuable.
A ‘skilled’ short-term missionary, to me, is one who is disposed to listen, love, and lead others one step closer to Christ as is appropriate. It is not one who has mastered a short manipulative shtick and gets people to ‘make decisions to accept Christ into their hearts.’ A ‘skilled’ short-term missionary is one who has the ability to be ‘quick on their feet’ in diverse situations, disposed to grace, knowledgeable of the Truth (Christ), and unfocused on their own glory.
A ‘skilled’ short-term missionary, or long-term one for that matter, is one who:
1. Is unconcerned with giving up his or her ‘rights’ in benefiting others.
2. Does not get discouraged or upset when privilege, status, or reputation wanes.
3. Resists the temptation to have the answer for everything on any subject.
4. Does not play the role of the wealthy provider or Western savior.
5. Will cheerfully adjust, change, or drop their planned program(s) to meet the local needs and fit into the local context.
6. Has done their homework, has checked who’s working in the area they want to go, consulted with them regardless of denominational attachments, and will consult and support local leaders and believers once there.
7. Will seek to live and work in a way that reflects Christ living in them.
‘Skilled’ mission workers, whether short or long-term will not draw from resources dedicated to the ones they purport to serve. A few questions;
- What do you think are the characteristics of a ‘skilled’ mission worker?
- Should unskilled mission workers just stay home?
- Has your church’s mission budget been skillfully crafted so that the bulk of its resources go to serving others instead of sustaining itself?