Those Wordless Bracelets Might Not Be Saying What You Think They’re Saying

You’ve got plans to hold a VBS this summer in a cross-cultural or overseas context, and you’re feeling the challenges: How do you communicate effectively with kids who don’t speak English? How do you come up with activities that you can fit into a suitcase? Maybe you’ve got a limited budget or time constraints. Yet you have a sincere desire for your team to share Jesus during your trip. 

So maybe you are considering the classic go-to activity for sharing the gospel with kids from a different culture or language: the simple wordless bracelet.

You can order 12 kits for $5.99. They’re fun, they’re cute, and kids love them. Plus, the children now have a tangible reminder of the gospel, right there on their wrists, no language skills required. Perfect.

Maybe not so perfect. Sometimes cross-cultural communication is a lot more complicated than just a language barrier. This classic VBS activity might not be communicating what you think. 

Before you put wordless bracelets into your cross-cultural VBS curriculum, take a moment to consider the following thoughts.

  1. Many cultures in Asia, Africa, and South America have strong beliefs in the spirit world. In order to protect their children against evil spirits, they will often tie an amulet around their wrists. This will be a cloth, twine, or leather cord and may include a few beads. 

So when a group of religious foreigners arrive in their country and put on a children’s program and start tying bracelets around the kids’ wrists that have spiritual meaning…..

Unfortunately, you may have just given those kids a new amulet. 

  1. Languages divide up colors differently. For example, in English, we have a word for red and a word for pink (not light red!). But we say light blue and dark blue. Other languages might use the same word for blue/green or red/orange. And when a person doesn’t have a word for different colors, he might not see them as different. This is fascinating stuff – and something we need to be aware of.
  1. Other cultures assign different meanings to colors than we do. We may see green as representing growth. But in Indonesia, it’s associated with exorcism. In China, it can be associated with infidelity, and in South America it’s connected with death. White is correlated with purity in Western cultures, but in some Asian cultures, it’s a symbol of death. The children in your host culture may not understand the gospel story the way you intend to tell it if they are not making the same color associations. 
  1. Contemplate for a moment the implications of a missions team with lighter skin visiting a group of people with darker skin and telling them that black means sin and white means holiness.  
  1. The gospel presentation that goes along with wordless bracelets is grounded in a guilt/innocence paradigm, which may not be the best way for the message to make sense to the people you are trying to reach. If you are unfamiliar with what I am talking about here, check out this excellent 7 minute video on guilt/innocence, honor/shame, and fear/power worldviews. 

I realize that this list might make you feel a little uncertain about not just wordless bracelets but your entire VBS program. Because if something as simple as a colorful craft might be communicating something different than what you intended, then what does that mean about all of your other activities? So if you are feeling that tension, great! That’s a good place to be. That’s where learning and growth start.

So what should you do?

Start with some research. In the time you have available, your team needs to learn all they can about the history, customs, worldviews, and religion of the people you will be visiting. Hofstede Insights is a great resource for this. Remember–don’t assume that what works in your own country will automatically translate to another culture. 

Most importantly, before you set any plans in stone, run your entire program–teaching, activities, games, songs–past your missionary or local contact. Make it very clear that you want feedback and are open to change. Even better—if there is any way that a local person can do the teaching instead of someone on your team, make that happen! The best way for you to impact a community is to train others to do the program alongside you and then later—without you. 

For more reading about short-term missions, check out these links:

Have you considered how Your Short-Term Trip Should Be About You (And That’s Not a Bad Thing)? Perhaps what God wants to do in you during this trip is more important than the service project you are taking overseas. 

This one has a similar idea: 3 Quick Ways to Improve a Short-Term Missions Trip. How can you reframe your trip for maximum impact in your life and the team’s recipients? 

Also, Sarita Hartz’s What to Do About Short-Term Missions provides a comprehensive list of ways to prevent your team from causing more harm than help overseas. And Short-Term Missions: Is the Price Tag Worth It? offers some thought-provoking insights on ensuring we are stewarding our resources well. 

If you are an overseas worker who is hosting a team this year, then this one is for you: How to Host the Best-Ever Short-Term Team

Also, this excellent video series Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions by the Chalmers Institute is extremely valuable for any church or organization that wants to prioritize short-term missions. 

Your Short-Term Trip Should Be About You (and that’s not a bad thing)

 

It’s kind of a short-term mission trip mantra: “This trip shouldn’t be about you. It’s about the people you are serving.”

I’m here to flip that on its head: This trip isn’t mostly about the people you are serving. It actually should be primarily about you.

And that’s not a bad thing. Stick with me here; don’t write me off yet. 

Let’s start with the second part: this trip is not about the people you are serving. 

There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to come right out with it: if this trip were really about the people on the other side, then you would just take the $20,000 your team raised and send it to the missionaries or local pastors instead. 

They could support the local economy by buying the supplies you are bringing. They could hire locals to build the house or paint the church – people who are likely desperate for work. They could pay for an expert to train the church members to run the VBS themselves (in the local language) and supplement the income of those church members who need to take time off of work to serve. And with the extra, they could support a local pastor. Or top up the deficit in their ministry account.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that your service is a waste of time. Certainly, God can use you to touch lives. But my point is this: it is unlikely that a team who doesn’t know the language or culture will be able to make a measurable impact in a foreign country in seven to ten days. Often, there are already people living in the country who could do the exact same ministry themselves if necessary. (I know there are exceptions, but that’s not what I’m talking about today.) 

In spite of all this, I’m still a fan of short-term missions. This is not an anti-missions-trip article. Those are out there. This is not one of them. 

So why do I still encourage these trips? Because I believe God can use them to transform lives. Not necessarily the lives of the people you are serving. But your life? Yes! 

Because your short-term trip is actually about you. 

Now, I need to clarify a couple of things here. You’ve all heard the horror stories of teams who complain, criticize, demand – the ones who make the trip about themselves in the nastiest of ways. We personally witnessed a team who thought it would be funny to make a bet as to who could go the most days without showering. (It was only funny to them.) 

Your short-term missions trip isn’t camp or a vacation. You shouldn’t expect room service, predictable schedules, or familiar food. Expect to be uncomfortable. It’s not about your agenda. It’s not about your needs. 

Most of us know this. Duh. Let’s move on. Most of us say, “That’s not me. I’m going to serve.”

That’s great, but there’s still a problem here. Sometimes, our attitude of serving can actually breed a different type of self-centeredness: the kind that feels really good and important with all the wonderful things we are doing. This kind of service puts me up here on this pedestal and the people I’m serving down there in the dust. They need me. They want me. They are so blessed by me. 

This kind of serving can even masquerade as humility. It can say, “I need to do this for these people because they can’t possibly do it themselves. I wouldn’t want to ask them to help me, because this service is my gift to them.” Which is sort of a roundabout way of positioning myself as the hero of the story. Short-term missions trips, unfortunately, are really good at this. 

As you can imagine, this kind of service usually does more harm than good (both for the servers and the recipients). So how do we avoid it? 

Well, let’s reframe your trip. 

Let’s make this trip less about you serving the local people and more about how God can use it to change you. Why would missionaries invite you to come if they know they don’t really need you for this ministry?

Because what they do need is your partnership. They need your encouragement, your fellowship, your questions, your interest in their host country. They need your financial support. They need you to go back home and champion their ministry to your church. 

That last part is key. Maybe you thought you were interested in their ministry before, but once you see it for yourself, your perspective will be blasted wide open. It should be, if you let it. 

Whether or not this happens is entirely dependent on your focus. Is this trip about you feeling good about yourself for serving? Or is it about humbly walking into a cross-cultural situation as a learner, with your hands and your heart open wide to how God wants to transform you? 

Barna’s* study on short-term missions says this:

“As brothers and sisters in Christ, we are called to listen to each other, valuing and learning from the wisdom and experiences that God has given to each of us. Believers in the slums of Kenya understand God’s provision and sustaining presence in ways that many more affluent Christians do not. African-American brothers and sisters in Birmingham, Alabama, have much to teach Caucasian believers about suffering and forgiveness. But if short-term trips are built around ‘doing,’ accomplishing particular tasks and projects, they cannot create the time or safe space necessary for this type of listening and learning.”

So walk into a short-term trip with an open mind and an open heart, and ask yourself the following questions.

Will you allow God to use this trip to change the way you see those who live in poverty? 
To challenge how sacrificially you give? 
To reenergize how you pray? 
To remodel how you spend your time? 
To transform your priorities back home? 
And finally, might God be calling you to fulfill the Great Commission overseas? If not, could He be calling you to personally advocate for these missionaries or their ministry? 

Yes, one goal of your trip is to serve. By all means, go in with an attitude of dying to yourself and your comfort. Look for ways to love others well, and trust that God can use you to build His kingdom. But you must remember that the success of the long-term impact is entirely connected to your transformed life. 

If you walk away from this trip and go back to your life and nothing changes, then this trip will be a waste. If you are not open to God transforming you, then don’t go – send the money instead. Because this trip is mainly about what God wants to do in you. Will you let Him? 

 

* “A Field Guide to Better Short-Term Missions Trips,” a Barna Group Research Study

I highly recommend the Chalmers Center excellent book/video series “Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions” (the videos are free online!)

Thank you for hosting my niece (again)

Dear ALOS family, I wrote the following letter five years ago (?!). At that time my nieces were ages 9 to 16, now they are, 14 to 21. Those younger sisters who were just watching the oldest? This summer all four of them participated in three different trips. I see how that first trip five years ago is still rippling out. I can’t show you exactly how your investment in teens will play out. But as an aunt watching, I can tell you God is using your investment in ways you can’t imagine. I want to write a follow-up letter to this one. But for some context, let’s start here. Again, I say, “Thank you for hosing my niece and nieces! I’m thinking of you and praying for you . . . and grateful for your investment in what you might find annoying!” With blessing, Amy

Dear Missionary who hosts summer teams,

I write this letter to you with egg on my face. Many moons ago I spent a summer in China teaching English for six weeks to English teachers from around Anhui Province. Because it was “long enough to form meaningful relationships,” I maintained an interiorly superior attitude that many one- or two-week summer trips were a waste of time.

At least for us on the field. After I quit my job, packed two suitcases, and moved to China, I was now one of you. My belief that week-long trips were meaningful and useful for those who went on them, but not us, only solidified. I wasn’t like “them,” I really got to know the culture. I didn’t just swoop in and out. I “made a real difference” (even now I roll my eyes at myself. Pride is so ugly). I’d join in the discussion about whether short trips were worth all the time, money, and effort that went into them. Was any real difference being made?

Oh knowing everything can be such a burden, can’t it?

Those questions? They are good questions. They should be asked. We should wrestle with them. But what God has shown me this summer is that the boundary lines of my understanding are significantly smaller than I believe them to be.

Put another way? I think I know more than I do.

And maybe you do too.

If you host summer teams, this is a huge thank you card to you. If I could hire a sky writer? I would. I would fly over you and write, “Thank you! You have no idea what a difference you have made.” Well, maybe all I would actually write in the sky is “Thank You!” But what I mean is, “You have no idea what a difference you have made.”

I have nieces that range in age from 9 to 16. The older ones are starting to go on summer trips. Their church begins the process with trips in town, and then the next summer trips within the US, and then international trips.

I have watched how their church takes months to prepare the participants. How they are intentional about serving instead of having “cool experiences.” How they are joining in the Great Commission.

This was our first summer as a family to have a girl go on an international trip. (Side note, if it has not happened in your family yet, it is a little weird when you are suddenly not the one going on that trip. When you are not the one sharing stories and prayer requests.)

I know, because I’ve been in your shoes, how much work it is to prepare for a team to come in. Even a team who is doing work you desperately need done. There are moments you wonder if it is worth it. There are moments you are sure it is not.

What you might not see, what I had not seen before, was all of the preparation. The preparation of supplies for parties and clubs. The preparation of their hearts. The cultural information they are learning. The ways that those who are coming to you truly want to serve. They want to help you with your calling. They want to work.

What I also had never seen before is that, especially for teen and college kids, you are not just getting one person, you are getting a herd of people. You only saw my niece, but her parents, aunts, grandma, friends, and especially her three younger sisters are now invested in your ministry.

She came home changed.

She knows your name, dear missionary. She has shared the stories you told. Our family now agonizes that children in your village have permanent brain damage because Tylenol isn’t available when they get a fever. The children that she spent a week feeding, playing with, and singing to? We know their names. A place on the globe, the place that is dear to you, is now dear to us.

I understand that this letter is still rather focused on the difference this trip made for her. It is rather “sent one” focused.

I guess what I am trying to say, is thank you. Thank you for opening your hearts to her. For sharing your story for the umpteenth time. For putting up with teens who refused to eat the food you worked so hard to provide, eating instead another granola bar (not my niece, but she shared stories of her teammates too!).

Before this summer, I only saw these trips through the lens of how much work they were for me on the field. What I didn’t grasp was how, like the loaves and fishes Jesus used to feed the masses, summer trips can feed the Great Commission. They can feed God’s heart for his people. They feed future generations of missions. That one week will ripple out through the years in ways you and I can’t imagine.

You might not remember my niece’s name because you will see several trips this summer. She’s a quiet girl. She’s the one who will hold the disabled four-year-old for hours and sing to them. She’s the one who now sees the value of learning the language because the quiet cook on your property? She wishes she could have talked to her.

She came home changed by the poverty she saw. She returned and the word she used more than another other to describe the people she served? Joy. She saw how God is not White and American and Well-educated. When the cook started to sing How Great Thou Art in your language and my niece sang it in English? She will carry that for the rest of her days.

The extra hours these trips cost you? The foolish questions the participants ask? The food they won’t eat? It is worth it. God took the diamond of summer trips and tilted it so I saw more of its beauty than I have before.

Thank you for hosting my niece.

Her loving aunt,

Amy

P.S. I still have opinions about short term trips. But they are a bit fuzzier than before. My overwhelming sense that I really knew what was the right way to “do missions” has been, um, challenged. Love will do that, won’t it? Slow me down enough to keep me really asking the questions and not just spouting off the same answers I have for years. I’m sorry if this letter is a bit all over the place. I’ve reworked it and reworked it. But I feel all over the place, so how can my words not be as well?

From the Other Side of the Trip

Dear ALOS Family,

Last month I shared a post I wrote two years ago after my oldest niece went on her first outside-of-the-US mission trip. If you have strong feelings about the efficacy of short-term mission trips and have not read my first post, please read it. I used to be much clearer on my opinions on short-term trips; but love, aging, and seeing the trips from another side has muddied the water.

“Auntie Amy, tell me something about Chi-na.” Came the young voice from the back seat of the mini-van, pronouncing China as if it were two words. He was six and at first it was easy to share stories. But as the days went on, the question from the back challenged me to find something about China a six-year-old would find interesting. That six-year-old is now a young man in college, recently returned from a trip to Africa.

Since my first letter another niece and this nephew-of-my-heart have gone on short-term trips in the last three years. Each one has shown me something different about short-term trips I could not see or begin to understand until I saw it from this side of the trip. I will call them Elizabeth, Grace, and David. For the most part, you only see the time that they are with you. I want to share more of what God does in the lives and hearts of these young people.

Elizabeth, who I wrote of two years ago, was changed by her first trip. On her first trip with you she saw what you did and how language makes a vital difference and she wanted to communicate with the people you love. Last summer she went to another country and had diligently been studying Spanish at school, in part because of you, so she could communicate more. This quiet girl, who did not have the best Spanish on the team, became the team translator because you, dear friend on the field, invested in her on her first summer. So, because of you she “put on her big girl panties” and used the language she had. 

One lunch she was seated next to a local pastor who spoke no English and because you poured into her that first summer, she had a meaningful conversation where they shared ministry ideas. Okay, she shared one idea and he shared several, but they had that conversation over a year ago and I still remember it. If Elizabeth was changed the first summer, she became committed the second summer, emboldened by what she could because she put in the time to study. She loves God, she loves you, she was at a pivotal point in her life and you included her in your work.

This is what you won’t see. Last year, as a senior in high school she thought she knew where she would go to college and then she visited the campus. Their Spanish program was too small and she knew she had to find another school. She’s going to major in Spanish with an eye to being a librarian. Her week with you, when you might have wondered if you were supporting a glorified vacation, you were changing the trajectory of a girls major and college. The ripples are still going out and how God uses your input in her life is still unfolding.

If Emily was mainly impacted by the cultural aspect of your work, it was the behind the scenes part that stood out to David. He was a reluctant support raiser. At first his plan was to either pay for the trip himself or have his parents help pay. I will skip several conversations about support followed by newsletters coaching and writing, but in the end, he did invite people to be a part of God’s work in the through him. As we debriefed after his trip, he talked about the people he met, the ways he saw missions differently, and his exposure to “the white savior complex.” Would it help to know that he is a business major? So, what might sound like a dry report and have you wondering if your time was wasted, it was not!

As with Emily, I see how you did not just get David. You might only have seen David, but you got his whole family and support team. Two days ago his mom texted me an article about the work you are doing. She is reading, engaged, and praying for you in ways she wouldn’t have before. As humans, we cannot care about everything (that’s God’s role). Instead, God has wired us for relationships. Because you opened yourself up to David, you opened yourself up to us, his people. 

I’ll be honest, at this point David is not likely to return to the field. He said he acutely appreciated the ways he served alongside you, but he does not feel called by God to join you. However, he understands your life in ways he couldn’t have before, especially the support raising part and some of the ethical dilemmas a foreigner might face. He couldn’t believe that people wanted to support him and tasted of God’s faithfulness and provision. In regards to the ethical dilemmas, at one point he used the phrase, “I totally have it figured out” about something he had been wrestling with related to missions. Oh to return to the confidence of youth. In truth, it is because he trusted you and knows how much you care about those you came to serve, that he knows there is much he does not know. Thank you for allowing his time with you be used to build into a future sender . . . one who will pray and give in a more informed way.

My sweet Grace returned a few days ago from her trip, so she is still sorting through and processing what she experienced. What has surfaced so far is the importance of team. Her youth group would not have been the most united team you have ever had come and serve with you. They were a normal group of kids who have factions and because of the luxury of choice in the US, had not every really needed to come together. But during their trip, she experienced the Body of Christ at its best.

I go into detail because I know how much it would have helped me when I was in your shoes. Some of the teams are large and you might not actually have gotten to spend much time with Elizabeth, David, or Grace, but your time with them goes far beyond the mere days they had with you. Sitting on this side of well-thought out and prepared for short-term trips, I am reminded how God’s math is not my math.

The extra hours these trips cost you? The foolish questions the participants ask? The food they won’t eat? It is worth it. I have to admit, that I did not expect for Elizabeth, David, and Grace to come away with such tidy lessons for me (for us) related to culture, the life of a missionary, or team. Sounds almost too neat, doesn’t it? But God in his mercy may have the lessons so clear and “simple” as if to highlight that His ways are not my ways, and His thoughts are not my thoughts. This letter is merely to give you a glimpse of the parts of a summer trip you might not see.

Thank you for hosting and loving on my nieces and nephew. God has taken your efforts, and like the fishes and loaves, fed more than seems possible.

I’m grateful for you,

Amy

 

Thank You For Hosting My Niece

Dear ALOS family, I wrote the following letter two years ago. I have another letter I want to write, but it will make more sense if we read and dissect this letter this month and next month I’ll write the follow-up. No surprise, I have many thoughts to share. HA, but instead of rushing to share them, they will make more sense if we revisit this first letter and discuss it in the comments. Next one will build on these thoughts. I’m thinking of you and praying for you . . . and grateful for your investment in what you might find annoying! With blessing, Amy

Dear Missionary who hosts summer teams,

I write this letter to you with egg on my face. Many moons ago I spent a summer in China teaching English for six weeks to English teachers from around Anhui Province. Because it was “long enough to form meaningful relationships,” I maintained an interiorly superior attitude that many one- or two-week summer trips were a waste of time.

At least for us on the field. After I quit my job, packed two suitcases, and moved to China, I was now one of you. My belief that week-long trips were meaningful and useful for those who went on them, but not us, only solidified. I wasn’t like “them,” I really got to know the culture. I didn’t just swoop in and out. I “made a real difference” (even now I roll my eyes at myself. Pride is so ugly). I’d join in the discussion about whether short trips were worth all the time, money, and effort that went into them. Was any real difference being made?

Oh knowing everything can be such a burden, can’t it?

Those questions? They are good questions. They should be asked. We should wrestle with them. But what God has shown me this summer is that the boundary lines of my understanding are significantly smaller than I believe them to be.

Put another way? I think I know more than I do.

And maybe you do too.

If you host summer teams, this is a huge thank you card to you. If I could hire a sky writer? I would. I would fly over you and write, “Thank you! You have no idea what a difference you have made.” Well, maybe all I would actually write in the sky is “Thank You!” But what I mean is, “You have no idea what a difference you have made.”

I have nieces that range in age from 9 to 16. The older ones are starting to go on summer trips. Their church begins the process with trips in town, and then the next summer trips within the US, and then international trips.

I have watched how their church takes months to prepare the participants. How they are intentional about serving instead of having “cool experiences.” How they are joining in the Great Commission.

This was our first summer as a family to have a girl go on an international trip. (Side note, if it has not happened in your family yet, it is a little weird when you are suddenly not the one going on that trip. When you are not the one sharing stories and prayer requests.)

I know, because I’ve been in your shoes, how much work it is to prepare for a team to come in. Even a team who is doing work you desperately need done. There are moments you wonder if it is worth it. There are moments you are sure it is not.

What you might not see, what I had not seen before, was all of the preparation. The preparation of supplies for parties and clubs. The preparation of their hearts. The cultural information they are learning. The ways that those who are coming to you truly want to serve. They want to help you with your calling. They want to work.

What I also had never seen before is that, especially for teen and college kids, you are not just getting one person, you are getting a herd of people. You only saw my niece, but her parents, aunts, grandma, friends, and especially her three younger sisters are now invested in your ministry.

She came home changed.

She knows your name, dear missionary. She has shared the stories you told. Our family now agonizes that children in your village have permanent brain damage because Tylenol isn’t available when they get a fever. The children that she spent a week feeding, playing with, and singing to? We know their names. A place on the globe, the place that is dear to you, is now dear to us.

I understand that this letter is still rather focused on the difference this trip made for her. It is rather “sent one” focused.

I guess what I am trying to say, is thank you. Thank you for opening your hearts to her. For sharing your story for the umpteenth time. For putting up with teens who refused to eat the food you worked so hard to provide, eating instead another granola bar (not my niece, but she shared stories of her teammates too!).

Before this summer, I only saw these trips through the lens of how much work they were for me on the field. What I didn’t grasp was how, like the loaves and fishes Jesus used to feed the masses, summer trips can feed the Great Commission. They can feed God’s heart for his people. They feed future generations of missions. That one week will ripple out through the years in ways you and I can’t imagine.

You might not remember my niece’s name because you will see several trips this summer. She’s a quiet girl. She’s the one who will hold the disabled four-year-old for hours and sing to them. She’s the one who now sees the value of learning the language because the quiet cook on your property? She wishes she could have talked to her.

She came home changed by the poverty she saw. She returned and the word she used more than another other to describe the people she served? Joy. She saw how God is not White and American and Well-educated. When the cook started to sing How Great Thou Art in your language and my niece sang it in English? She will carry that for the rest of her days.

The extra hours these trips cost you? The foolish questions the participants ask? The food they won’t eat? It is worth it. God took the diamond of summer trips and tilted it so I saw more of its beauty than I have before.

Thank you for hosting my niece.

Her loving aunt,

Amy

P.S. I still have opinions about short term trips. But they are a bit fuzzier than before. My overwhelming sense that I really knew what was the right way to “do missions” has been, um, challenged. Love will do that, won’t it? Slow me down enough to keep me really asking the questions and not just spouting off the same answers I have for years. I’m sorry if this letter is a bit all over the place. I’ve reworked it and reworked it. But I feel all over the place, so how can my words not be as well?

3 Quick Ways to Improve a Short Term Missions Trip

Got your t-shirts printed? Your passport up to date? Crowd-funding page all set? It’s almost time to go!

The Short Term Mission season is almost upon us, and very soon swarms of teams will converge on poor communities around the world.

They are ready to paint orphanages and hand out tracts in a language they don’t understand. They are equipped with Malaria tablets and smart phones – and this summer, they’re coming to a village near you.

There’s only one problem: the long-term benefit will be almost entirely for the team themselves.

True transformation among the poor, rarely takes place in a 14 day window. 

So why bother? These trips are expensive, time-consuming, and disruptive. They fill up our Facebook newsfeeds and they divert our funds.

Yet I remain convinced that what the eye has not seen, the heart cannot grieve.

One of the best ways to have our hearts stirred for the things of God, is to get out of our comfort zones and be shaken up. And time and time again, including in my own life, a short time of cross-cultural engagement has turned things upside-down.

But this must NOT be at the expense of the poor. We can do better.

So here are 3 easy tweaks you can make to your short term mission trip that will make a deep, ongoing, more positive impact.

1. Stop calling it a “Short Term Mission Trip”

It’s time we recognize that these short term missions trips are not “mission.”

If our mission is to go and make disciples of the nations (Mt 28:19), how can we make a single disciple if we can’t speak their language? With a tract?

How can we teach someone to follow Jesus in 5 days? With a handy flow-chart?

How do we transform a situation of poverty or trafficking? With a Christmas shoebox?

Nope. None of the above.

Jesus spent 30 YEARS immersed in one culture before launching his ministry. And he was the Son of God.

When he sent out his own disciples two by two, they went to places they spoke the language and understood the culture already. And they went empty-handed (Lk 9:3).

So, let’s get rid of this ridiculous, oxymoronic term, “Short Term Missions” and replace it with something that will better reflect what is going on. Here are 2 ideas, and you can read a couple more in my original post on this topic.

1. Vision Trips – By shifting the focus from what we are doing for the poor, to what God wants to teach us, we are in a better position to be transformed. When people find themselves face to face with poverty for the first time, something significant happens. A Vision Trip becomes a focused, intentional time where we ask God to open our hearts to the plight of the poor. And the rest of our lives will be irrevocably shaped by what we have witnessed.

2. Learning Exchanges – By shifting the focus from what we are teaching the poor, to instead be about what God wants to teach us through them, we are less likely to disempower and more likely to grow. We are also more likely to communicate to the receiving community that they have something to offer. When we travel as learners, eager to have our minds expanded and preconceptions challenged, we will not be disappointed. This category includes those who travel as part of their vocation – as a builder, surgeon or dentist for example – but are open to learning from others while they are passing on expertise to others in another country. That’s mutuality.

Let’s get our labels right, and our practice and understanding will follow.

 

2. Put away your wallet. 

After many years living in Cambodian slums, I have seen a lot of harm done by well-meaning do-gooders with big fat wallets. We arrive with our Western mindset that applies an economic solution to every problem. And we overwhelm the local community with our vast reserves of bling.

Don’t get me wrong — they are more than happy to receive your money. But here are 10 reasons that’s not always a great idea. And in case that doesn’t convince you, here are 4 more.

Funding is definitely needed. Redistribution from the wealthy to the poor is an important Biblical concept. But these things are not easily navigated while on a brief visit.

So, here’s a quick rule of thumb I’ve developed to help visitors who want to give to the financial needs of the community, but don’t want to screw up the dynamics: The Matching Principle (TM).

Yup. Brilliant name I know. Basically, the idea is this — however much local people can raise, that’s the limit to which you contribute as an outsider.

So, say the church roof has been blown off by a cyclone. Instead of opening your check book and saying, “What’ll it take? Daddy Warbucks will cover it!” — how about saying, “How much can you guys raise? We’ll match it.”

By matching what local people can raise, we never put ourselves in a position of power over them, because our contribution is equal. We allow them to participate in the solution, thus empowering rather than overwhelming.

 

3. Think beyond the short-term hit and run.

Let’s agree right up front that there is no such thing as a part-time Christian. There is no such thing as a follower of Jesus who is not in full-time service to God. You are not more engaged in serving God because you suddenly find yourself painting an orphanage in Guatemala. When we compartmentalize our service to God, we compartmentalize God.

Instead, consider this. As followers of Jesus, we are all called to a VOCATION — a lifelong call to serve Jesus in a particular field. Our vocation, whether in butchering, baking, or candlestick-making, is the primary means we have been given to serve God. A short-term vision trip should inform and shape your vocation.

So, some of us will have a vocation as an architect or a writer, as a parent or a nurse. And some of us will have a vocation in humanitarian work, Bible translation or social entrepreneurship. These are all just different variations on every Christian’s call to pursue a vocation that serves God and his upside-down kingdom.

When we see that each of us has a unique and important vocation, we’ll no longer single out some as more spiritual than others. We’ll support and pray for all equally. And we’ll develop a theology of work, that works.

So, ask yourself this key question as you plan your trip: How does this visit inform and shape my vocation in everyday life?  If you’re a student, allow the trip to inform what direction you go with your studies. If you’re a teacher, how will what you learn shape what you teach? If you’re a technical expert in something, how can you forge connections that will strengthen others in your field in more difficult circumstances?

This is how you begin to think globally while acting locally.

If you implement these three changes, they will result in a profound shift in your thinking and approach to your upcoming trip. When you stop thinking of this as a time of “doing mission” and realize that God is wanting you to learn deeply, your posture will change. When you limit yourself to giving in a responsible, empowering way, you allow room for the poor to grow stronger. And when you consider the place of this trip in the context of your everyday vocation at home, it will become more meaningful and strategic.

What are you waiting for?

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Craig Greenfield is the founder and director of Alongsiders International and the author of the recently published Subversive Jesus. During more than 15 years living and ministering in slums and inner cities in Cambodia and Canada, Craig has established a number of initiatives to care for vulnerable kids and orphans, as well as formed Christian communities for those marginalized by society. His postgraduate research in International Development led to the publication of his first book, The Urban Halo: a story of hope for orphans of the poor which is currently available for free on Craig’s website. He loves God, the poor, and fish and chips. He’s on Twitter and Facebook too.