Full Disclosure: I may not be on the mission field today if it weren’t for my experiences with STM
Paul’s words may not have been said as a treatise for short-term missions (STM), but I believe within a wider context we can apply the significance of his declarations. As I said before, STM has a branding problem. We are too inwardly focused as STM goers. The opportunity to go and serve is often framed in a very selfish way. In some way going on a STM trip is guaranteed to change your life and help you grow in your faith while serving in a developing country. Instead of framing STM trips about the experience of a lifetime and the projects to be done we somehow need to focus on what would be best (not harmful) for the people we are going to serve. And what is best in most cases is not another built house or dug latrine but for our presence to bring hope and encouragement.
The solution of inward-focused STM trips requires church leaders and missionaries to think of best practices for the people they are going to serve. Here are three easily remembered areas and what you can do to guide your STM team.
Many church groups start weekly planning sessions about three months before they travel. This is a great practice! But what you do in those planning sessions may help change your hearts and attitudes about STM. A first suggestion is to begin praying for those you are going to meet, including the missionaries. They are undertaking a big logistic hurdle in order to help serve your team. As well, see if you can get names of church members in order to pray for each family specifically. Pray also for your team, your spiritual lives, and how God is using this opportunity to show and teach you something about his mission in the world.
Next, find someone who knows about the culture you are planning to visit and have them lead discussion times leading up to your trip. Remember you are guests into this culture. You have not earned the right to question what is done or how things may be done. In addition, continue to learn more about the people and culture by doing your own personal study and research. It always amazes me how happy it makes people that you know a little about their country and culture. Language will likely be the biggest barrier while on your trip. It is definitely worth the investment to begin learning greetings, short phrases, and specific key words. Hire a language teacher to help your team practice and use free or paid services on the internet to help increase your language-learning.
A final option that deserves much attention is reading and discussing a book together. One of the popular and great reads is When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself. The authors, Corbett and Fikkert, outline a great strategy of how to work with the poor as well as what to do and not to do on STM trips. As a team, meeting together to pray, learning about the culture, and the language will greatly enhance your investment as a learner on the field.
Instead of a service trip that includes projects based on the people’s felt needs, why not focus on what people have. Traveling to a new culture that has a very different way of living is an awesome opportunity to experience life anew. They have their own communities, family traditions, favorite meals, etc. Learn from them and ask questions about how they view their world and beliefs about God. Experience life with someone who sees life much differently than you do.
There is value in only learning instead of doing. Our interns in Arequipa usually spend a weekend out in a developing community with a lady from our house churches. They shadow her life for a few days. They help her plan the meals, go to the market, ride public transportation, get to know her neighbors, and find out about her life and family. It’s definitely not an easy weekend but almost every intern tells us that the time spent is the most eye-opening experience into the life of many Arequipeños. There is surely value in experiencing the life of someone who has a different worldview, culture, and life experiences that are not like any of ours. As church leaders and missionaries, let’s help change the trend in STM trips from a focus on self-improvement to a focus on the people and communities that we are going to serve.
A second emphasis should be upon the lives and work of the missionaries. Allow them to guide you through their daily routines as well as how they came to understand more about their new culture. Go be a blessing to the missionaries. Bring them gifts and take them out to eat. Spoil their kids. Make an investment into the lives of the missionaries who are sacrificing greatly to serve in a new and sometimes difficult context. If they have felt physical needs seek to serve them by supplying their needs. These actions will be a blessing to your sponsored missionaries and will strengthen their resolve to continue serving.
A final emphasis is a general inclination to learn. Seek out church members to initiate a conversation. Get to know their families, what kind of work they do, and where their kids go to school. Learn the names of people and put faces with those you have already been praying for. The investment in learning-based STM trips may not be seen physically with projects finished but you will leave the field knowing who the missionaries are, who they are serving, and a little about the culture and language that speaks to the heart of those present.
Now that you’re back, it will be easy to return to the norm, but there’s still work to be done. Usually teams have a party after a few weeks to exchange stories and pictures, and while this is great fun there should be time to process what you experienced on the field. As a team it may be difficult to continue meeting, so I recommend the team debriefing in smaller groups. Take time to pray with your teammates for the missionaries, the church, and the opportunity to learn. In addition, now that you have returned to your culture and you speak the language fluently, it’s time to see where God may be leading you to serve your community. Take initiative to be learners as well as seek to serve where help is needed.
STMs provide a tremendous opportunity to witness the beauty and depth of the Kingdom of God. Like Paul, let’s look to invest in people over projects and witness the blessing of Kingdom living.