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

 

Is Missions a Joke? Answering the Critics

Editorial note: A Life Overseas is a place to share stories and have conversations about cross-cultural missions and international living. In this space we avoid personal attacks. The following piece is a critique of ideas currently being circulated among the missions crowd. It is not a personal attack on anyone whose words are quoted here, and personal attacks of any kind will be deleted from the comment section. Thank you in advance for honoring this request.  ~Elizabeth Trotter, Jonathan Trotter, and Marilyn Gardner

I came off the mission field with a new mission which is to burn down missions. ~Jamie Wright

You come [to the mission field] with the veil of, ‘I’m called, not qualified’ and then when everything falls to s*** and you decide to go back home, it completely negates the authority of the God you said called you in the first place. And it’s just a damaging cycle that just goes on and on. ~Emily Worrall

Missionaries are trying to save themselves. There’s this sense of ‘God is going to come through for me.’ So you have a lot–a lot–of addiction…tons and tons and tons of sexual sin. Deeply wounded people who need help, who need therapy, who need support systems. But we give them permission to leave all that behind and go to a foreign country where it is all exacerbated and everything gets way worse. It’s a rampant problem in long-term missions. ~Jamie Wright

The long-term missionary lifestyle is almost, like, insidious. Because long-term missionaries are the ones really using the manipulative language. They are really misrepresenting their purpose and the necessity for them to live in these other countries. Or they are hiding information about their behavior or the things they are doing. It’s just not good. There are so many people living abroad on the church-dime who have no accountability. It’s really ugly. ~Jamie Wright

Corey Pigg: They [our organization] were sending us out to the 10/40 window.

Jamie Wright: Yes, the 10/40 window. Everybody loves that.

Corey: They felt it was imperative that we went to closed nations to be superheroes. Because those are the last places that need to hear the gospel.

Jamie. Which is hilarious. ……All that matters is that you use the lingo.

Corey: That’s what sells, right?

 

Hi, I’m Amy Medina, and I’m a missionary.

I was a missionary kid in Liberia and Ethiopia for six years of my childhood. I’m now 41 years old and have been living in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for fourteen years as an evangelical Christian missionary. My husband trains pastors and I am the elementary school principal at Haven of Peace Academy. We’ve adopted four Tanzanian kids.

We live off of the financial gifts of churches and friends from the States. We write newsletters every month. We use phrases like “fruit of our ministry” and “unreached people groups” and “discipleship.” I blog. And my blog header has zebras on it. And a rainbow encircling an orphan.

So is my life a joke?

I’ve been mulling over what I read in Jamie Wright’s memoir, The Very Worst Missionary: A Memoir or Whatever and what I heard in the “Failed Missionary” podcasts with Corey Pigg, Emily Worrall of Barbie Savior, and Jamie Wright. I’ve known all along that some non-Christians scoff at my life as a misguided, ridiculous attempt to “save the world,” but I must admit I was surprised to find out that there are some of “our own” who feel the same way–and are loudly proclaiming it.

Ironically, I actually agree with a lot of what these critical voices have to say about missions. I believe that “calling” can be misguided and even idolatrous. I believe that missionaries need to be well-vetted, well-trained, and held accountable. I’m confident that there is a temptation among missionaries to hide their struggles and beef up their successes. I believe that the “white savior complex” is real and sinister, and I definitely hold that Americans need to stop shipping stuff overseas for poor people. And I do think that missions in general, but especially short-term missions, can often bring more harm than help.

So I don’t believe we should write off these critical voices. If we stand against them with scowling faces and hands over our ears, angry at their profanity or their bluntness or their criticism of our sacred cows, then we walk right into the realm of the Pharisees. I’m not saying we have to agree with everything they say or how they say it, but we need to listen.

The truth is, it’s not a bad thing to knock missionaries off those pedestals. And it’s not a bad thing for us missionaries to ask ourselves the hard questions, or for those who send us to ask those questions of us.

Why did I really become a missionary?

Was I running away from something? Was I just looking for more meaning in my life? Was I thinking that missions would elevate my life to a higher spiritual level?

Does my dependence on financial support make me cover up the truth or portray myself as something I am not?

Am I afraid of what would happen if people could see bank records or my internet history, or if they saw what a day in my life really looked like?

Am I really the best person at this time and in this place to be doing this job? Am I submitting myself to accountability? Am I humbling myself and my ideas to the local people?

Almost my entire life has been devoted to missions, in one way or another. And I’ve seen what these critics are talking about. I’ve seen terrible short-term teams who offend the local people or steal jobs in a struggling economy. In rare instances, I’ve known of missionaries who preach the gospel on Sunday and have affairs during the week. More commonly, I’ve seen ignorance and arrogance and racism among missionaries–including myself.

But my conclusion is different. I don’t believe missions needs “gasoline and a match,” as Jamie writes in her memoir.

Really what it comes down to is this: Do we have a message worth sharing?

The data suggests we do. Robert Woodberry has done extensive, peer-reviewed analysis of historical data that demonstrates that the impact of the gospel is overwhelmingly positive. In “The Truth About Missionaries,” Hugh Whelchel writes, “[Woodberry’s] research finds that where Protestant missionaries had a significant historical presence, those countries on average are now more economically developed. These countries have comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in non-governmental associations.”

In fact, Woodberry’s research shows that contrary to popular belief, protestant missionaries often stood in direct opposition to white colonialism. He writes, “[M]issionaries punished abusive colonial officials and counterbalanced white settlers, which fostered the rule of law, encouraged less violent repression of anti-colonial political organization, and facilitated peaceful decolonization.” Andrea Palpant Dilley, referring to Woodberry, concludes, “In short: Want a blossoming democracy today? The solution is simple – if you have a time machine: Send a 19th-century missionary.”

These missionaries weren’t just do-gooders who were looking to make the world a better place. They were “conversionary Protestants” who, frankly, were trying to convert people to Christianity. Christian missions, when done correctly, is “both/and” when it comes to sharing the gospel and helping to effect social change.

Why is that? Because a person who has truly been transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t just trying to earn gold stars for converts. That person has had an entire shift in worldview–a worldview that values all human life as sacred, understands that sin has broken the relationships that mankind has with himself, others, and creation, and that redemption in all of that brokenness starts with a relationship with Jesus Christ. So despite how missionaries over the centuries have royally messed up a lot of the time, their success was based on how well they embraced a biblical worldview, and how well they shared it with others. History shows us they have been surprisingly successful.

Nancy Pearcey writes, “That’s why C. S. Lewis calls Christianity ‘a fighting religion.’ He means that disciples of Jesus are not meant to passively allow evil to flourish on earth, while looking forward to escaping someday to a higher realm. Instead they are called to actively fight evil here and now. The doctrine of the resurrection means that the physical world matters. It matters to God and it should matter to God’s people.”  

According to the critical voices, our message should be–and only be–one of love. Jamie writes, “Let’s agree to write an epic of love to the benefit of others.” She wants us to make missions not about ourselves and how it makes us feel, but about what’s best for others.

I wholeheartedly agree. I’m just not sure we would agree on what “love” actually looks like. Emily Worrall says, “Basically what the [Great Commission] boils down to is ‘kindness.’ That’s something that I don’t see a lot of in the mission field. Period.”

Point taken. Missionaries–or Christians in general–often should be reminded to get in touch with their kind side. The gospel is not about forcing rules upon others. It’s not about molding others into our image. But does ‘love’ start and end with only kindness? What makes the gospel so transformative is by recognizing the depth of our sin, the rampant effects of that sin, and how surrender and faith in Jesus is the means of redemption–and our only hope of heaven.

That means that loving others isn’t just standing by and allowing people to self-destruct in the name of acceptance. It doesn’t mean being okay with others’ futile attempts to work their way to heaven. There are times when love needs to confront sin–whether that be the sin of an individual or the sin of a culture. That doesn’t mean we should be arrogant or unkind, but it does mean that we say, “Look! This is why we all need Jesus!”

As an American, I’m certainly not insinuating that American Christians have this all figured out and are the only ones who should be going out to “save the world.” This notion is there and it’s sinister, and it’s not okay. But as God’s Church becomes more global, I think that all of us, from all nations, can take a posture of humility in learning from each other–including and perhaps especially the people who we may be evangelizing. And therefore, the Global Church, under the authority of Scripture, should be working together to bring the gospel to those parts of the world where it’s never been heard. And that’s exactly what’s happening! I see this right here in my corner of East Africa. A cross-cultural global group of Americans, Europeans, South Africans, and South Koreans are working alongside Tanzanians to bring the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth. It is an amazing, beautiful thing.

Are missionaries a joke? Sometimes. People are sinners, including missionaries. Please, by all means, let’s topple missionaries off of our pedestals. Let’s remember that missionaries are just as much in need of the redemption they preach to others. Let’s hold them accountable. Let’s redefine “calling” to include gifting and training. Let’s be wise and sacrificial about how we steward God’s people and God’s resources. Let’s examine ourselves to make sure the mission isn’t all about us.

But is missions a joke? God forbid. Missions exists to elevate Jesus Christ above all, to bring glory to him in places and among people where he is not known. If he really is the Son of God, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the First and the Last, the Redeemer of Mankind, and the Light of the World, then let’s go out….and make his name Glorious.

 

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?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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.

Check out this collection of our most-read articles

Consider this the Table of Contents for a book on missions, cross-cultural living, grief, TCKs, MKs, missiology, common pitfalls, transition, short-term missions, relating to senders, and a whole lot more.

I figured it was time to compile our most-read posts and present them to you, organized by topic. So here they are, 85 of our most-read posts ever.

My hope is that this article, this Table of Contents, if you will, would serve as one massive resource for those of you who are new to our community, those of you who’ve been hanging out here all along, and even for you, our future reader, who just found our little corner of the internet. Welcome!

Many thanks to the authors who’ve poured into our community, aiming to build and help (and sometimes challenge) the missionary world and the churches that send. If this site has been helpful to you, would you consider sharing this post with your friends and colleagues and missions leaders?

A Life Overseas is loosely led, with a tiny overhead (that covers the costs of the website), and a bunch of volunteer writers and tech folk. Why do we do it? We’re doing this for you! We’re doing this because we like you and we want to see cross-cultural workers (and their families!) thriving and succeeding and belonging. We’re doing this because we believe the Lamb is worthy. We’re doing this because we believe that God’s love reaches beyond our country’s borders, extending to all the places, embracing all the peoples.

I hope you are encouraged. I hope you are challenged. I hope you are reminded that you are not alone. This can be a hard gig, for sure, but you are not alone.

If this is your first time here or your thousandth, stick around, browse around, let us know what you think, how you’ve been helped, and what you’d love to see in the future. We’d absolutely love to hear from you!

 

With much love from Phnom Penh, Cambodia,
Jonathan Trotter

 

Third Culture Kids / Missionary Kids
10 Questions Missionary Kids Would Love to be Asked
10 Questions Missionary Kids Dread
To the Parents of Third Culture Kids
Funny Things Third Culture Kids Say
8 ways to help toddlers and young children cope with change and moving overseas
6 Permissions Most Missionaries’ Kids Need
An Open Letter to Parents of Missionary Kids
3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Third Culture Kid
10 Ways Teachers Can Support Third Culture Kids
Sexual Abuse on the Mission Field
3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Missionary Kid
My Kids Are Not Little Missionaries

 

Rest / Burnout / Self-Care
margin: the wasted space we desperately need
Please Stop Running
Ask A Counselor: How in the world can we do self-care when . . . ?
Living Well Abroad: 4 Areas to Consider
8 Ways for Expats Who Stay to Stay Well

Top 10 Digital Photography Tips

Family / Marriage
Missionary Mommy Wars
A Christmas letter to parents, from a kid who doesn’t have any
Nine Ways to Save a Marriage
The Purpose of Marriage is Not to Make You Holy
Why “Did You Have Fun?” is the Wrong Question
Failing at Fatherhood (how moving abroad ruined my parenting)
When the Mission Field Hurts Your Marriage
Dear Single Missionary
Homescapes MOD
I’m a missionary. Can I be a mom too?

 

Cross-cultural living & ministry
3 Kinds of Selfies You Should Never Take
Missionaries are supposed to suffer . . . So am I allowed to buy an air conditioner?
Introverts for Jesus: Surviving the Extrovert Mission Field
To My Expat Friends
What Did I Do Today? I Made a Copy. Woohoo!
The Teary Expat Mom, Shopping
One-Uppers
A Cautionary Tale: Expats & Expets (What not to do)
The Introverted Expat
5 Tips for Newbies About Relationships with Oldies (From an Oldie)
The Aim of Language Learning

 

Missiology
Please Don’t Say, “They Are Poor But They’re Happy.”
Let Me Make Your Kid a Buddhist
How to partner with a poor church without screwing everything up
Rice Christians and Fake Conversions
Responding to Beggars
10 Reasons You Should Be a Missionary
There’s no such thing as the “deserving poor”

 

Theology in Missions
The Idolatry of Missions
When the Straight & Narrow Isn’t
Rethinking the Christmas Story
But Are You Safe?
When Missionaries Starve
Why I Will Not Say “I Never Made a Sacrifice”
The Gaping Hole in the Modern Missions Movement {part 1}
Is Jesus a Liar?

 

Cautions
10 Reasons Not To Become a Missionary
In Defense of Second-Class Missionaries
The Cult of Calling
Want to see what a porn-addicted missionary looks like?
Telling My Story: Sexual Abuse on the Mission Field
When Missionaries Think They Know Everything
Visiting Home Might Not Be Everything You Dreamed
Misogyny in Missions
The Proverbs 32 Man
Stop Waiting for It All to Make Sense

 

Grief & Loss
Outlawed Grief, a Curse Disguised
When Friends Do the Next Right Thing
Ask a counselor: how do we process loss and grief?

 

Transition
What If I Fall Apart on the Mission Field?
Beyond Culture Shock: Culture Pain, Culture Stripping
Dear New Missionary
5 Mistakes I Made My First Year on the Mission Field
Why I Quit My Job as a Missionary to Scrub Toilets
Jet Lag and Heart Lag
When You Start to Pick Your Nose in Public…
You Remember You’re a Repat When . . .
Going Home

 

Short Term Missions
What to Do About Short Term Missions
Stop calling it “Short Term Missions.” Here’s what you should call it instead.
Your Short-Term Trips Have Not Prepared You For Long-Term Mission
The Mess of Short Term Missions

 

Relationships with those who send
A Letter to Christians Living in America from a Christian Living Abroad
Dear Supporter, There’s So Much More I Wish I Could Tell You
Staying connected with your family and friends when you live overseas
How to Encourage Your Overseas Worker
When Your Missionary Stories Aren’t Sexy
Facebook lies and other truths
Please Ask Me the Non-Spiritual Questions

 

If your favorite article didn’t make the list, put the title and link in the comments section and let us know why you love it. Thanks again for joining us here. Peace to you.

 

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Thank You For Hosting My Niece

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 the 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 you 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?

 

Your Short-Term Trips Have Not Prepared You For Long-Term Missions

I can still remember the random thoughts that shot through my head during my first couple of weeks as an adult long-term missionary.  Wait, what?  There’s nothing planned for us today?  So what are we supposed to do?  Hey, when is someone going to take us souvenir shopping?  I was really looking forward to that!  Why is no one telling me what to do with the trash?  What am I supposed to do with it?  Why is no one telling me what to do about anything?

I caught myself many times.  No, Amy, you live here now.  This is not a short-term trip.  I knew that, of course, especially since I had been an MK.  But it was weird how my short-term trips had programmed my brain with certain expectations.

This is not a post about the good or the bad of short-term missions (STM), or how to do them wellThis is a post about the limits of STM trips as preparation for long-term missions.

These days, just about every long-term missionary has been on at least one STM.  Of course, many long-term missionaries choose that life because of a short-term trip—which is a wonderful thing indeed.  But what is often not discussed is how different long-term missions is compared to short-term trips.  And sometimes, those misplaced expectations can actually make a long-term missionary’s transition even harder. 

So if you are headed for long-term missions after a series of short trips, what differences should you expect?  Here are four things to consider.

 1.  No one is going to hold your hand. STM trips, when done well, are carefully controlled.  Your entire schedule, down to when and what you will eat, when and where you will sleep, and how you will spend all of your time, have been decided for you.  You might not even get to handle local money yourself.

So when you arrive on the ground as a long-term missionary, it might come as a shock that you will be more or less on your own.  If you’re lucky, there might be a few missionaries who will show you around and get you oriented.  But they will be busy, and you will find yourself thrown in the deep end a lot sooner than you wanted.  It might be scary and overwhelming and not nearly as fun as your short-term trip.

2.  Daily life is not all ministry; in fact, most of it isn’t. My husband remembers his first STM trip when he was in college, and the shock he experienced when he realized that his host missionaries not only watched television regularly, but they had cable.  What?  Missionaries need rest?  On STM trips, you might joyfully work 12-hour days and fall into your sleeping bag at night feeling smugly satisfied with all you accomplished.

But as a long-term missionary, you might waste 5 hours driving all over town, looking for the right-sized lightbulb.  Or you might spend all day in the immigration line.  You can go whole days where all your time is consumed by figuring out how to just live, and you think, Ministry? What’s that?  On top of that, you’ll soon discover that burn out comes really quickly if you don’t allow some downtime into your life.  Even if that means getting cable.

3.  True results take a long, long, long (long!) time. When you went on that STM trip, you may have been ecstatic to see the kids who raised their hand at the VBS.  One of the best moments of your life might have been when the poor family stepped into the new home you built for them.  And you will never forget the party that broke out in the village when they witnessed the well you paid for.  But a few days later, you got on a plane and left.  You weren’t there to notice that the VBS kids never showed up at church again.  You didn’t see the poor family get pushed out of their brand new home by an older relative.  Six months after the well was built, you weren’t there to see it broken and rusting.

But when you sign up for long-term service, those disappointments become your reality.  And if you’re expecting quick, easy, fabulous success stories, you’re not going to last very long in your new country.  You’ve got to start your new life with your teeth clenched in determination, with lots of grit, and humble, long-term perseverance.

 4.  Going home will be a whole lot harder.  Anyone who has gone on an STM trip will secretly admit that the best part is coming home.  You’ve got a great couple of weeks behind you.  You eagerly discuss with your teammates which fast-food restaurant you will go to first when you get home.  Your church and friends and family are bursting with questions and praise and eyes full of wonder at your stories.  And when all the excitement dies down, you settle back comfortably into your old life.

Except, coming home after two or three years looks nothing like coming home after two or three weeks.  Your friends have moved on with their lives.  You are a different person—you feel different, and your friends treat you differently.  They don’t know what to ask you and you struggle to relate to each other.  You may find that the home you dreamed about now feels confusing and disorienting.

One of the keys to adjusting to a new culture is holding loosely to your expectations.  Unfortunately, STM trips can actually make that worse by creating a false picture of what your new life will look like.  I still love short-term missions trips when they are done well, but it’s important to understand their limits in preparing you for long-term service.  Don’t be surprised if you need to un-learn some of what they taught you.

 

Thoughts on Sharing our Stories

“Perhaps the greatest danger of our global community is that the person in LA thinks he knows Cambodia because he’s seen The Killing Fields on-screen, and the newcomer from Cambodia thinks he knows LA because he’s seen City of Angels on video.”
― Pico Iyer

Years ago at a dinner party in Egypt, our English host was waxing wise about China. His wife, a no-nonsense French woman, looked at him at one point, shook her head and said “Nigel, who made you the expert on China?” Nigel did not miss a second to respond “I read Tai-Pan.” He was referring to the book by noted author James Clavell.

We all laughed, but the reality is more serious. The person who has read a book cannot claim experiential knowledge. A person who has spent ten days on a cruise ship and has visited nine ports in those ten days is hardly an expert on every country where they have stopped. Yet they sometimes claim to be. The person who has gone on a short-term mission or volunteer trip needs to be careful to tell their story with integrity and honesty, not as an expert, but as a learner.

It is easy to make broad assessments of places and people based on a limited view and a single story. At the same time, when we travel and when we live in places, we do experience the world through a different lens, and we do want to communicate those experiences. Much of my life is a learning process of how to communicate what I have experienced and be fair and wise within that communication.

Over the next few months, we will once again see many from western countries begin to plan trips to other parts of the world. These trips have different names. Some people call them “Short term missions”, other people call them “Vision Trips”, and still others call them “Voluntourism”.

I’m not here to say these are wrong. I think we have to be careful about telling people they shouldn’t go to other parts of the world. My husband started a semester abroad program in Egypt that is going strong over 20 years later. It has moved from Egypt to Bethlehem to Jordan, but it still exists. Everyone of the students who went on that program would say it was life-changing. I believe them. I watched these students grow and change during their three months in the Middle East, and what they learned changed their worldview.

Sharing our stories is a God-given desire. It’s not fair to tell people they aren’t allowed to tell stories because they only went someplace for a ten-day trip. That ten-day trip had a deep impact on how they view the world, and the decisions that they will make in the future. Neither is it fair to demand that someone spend a lifetime in a place before they are allowed to make an assessment, or write a view-point. But it is fair to ask people to have humility when they tell their stories. It is fair to ask people not to speak from an authoritative place. 

So if you are traveling this summer to volunteer or visit, if you are going on a home leave and will be speaking in churches, or if you are responsible for a group that is coming to your adopted country, here are a couple of guidelines to follow when sharing your stories.

  1. At the beginning, verbalize your limitations. What if we began our stories by recognizing our limitations? We might say: “This is what I saw and experienced. This could be quite different from what others have experienced.” Other ways to begin are “Thank you for inviting me to share my story. I want to say at the beginning, that this is my story. Others could have completely different experiences. In no way do I mean to stereotype, and if I fall into that, please forgive me. I may share general information, but I will let you know that it is general.” Or “I’m honored to be asked to share what I did this summer. As I share, please know that I saw only a small window of what goes on every day. I want to be faithful in sharing what I saw, but honest in what I don’t know.”
  2. In all things, cultural humility. We don’t know everything about our own culture, let alone someone else’s. It is critically important to have an attitude of cultural humility as we go, and as we come back. Cultural humility always puts us in a posture of learning and never as the expert.
  3. Be careful of hyperbole. Anyone who knows me and my husband knows that we love a good story, and some stories are made to be embellished. But we don’t embellish at the expense of others. Using rich, descriptive language is important; telling stories that stretch the truth beyond recognition is dangerous.
  4. Watch your use of the word “all.” When we begin to use the words “All refugees do such and such…” or “All South Africans believe this …” or “All Iraqis….” then we are on dangerous ground. We can say many (if it’s true). I can say “Many Americans have an individualistic world view.” That statement is true. But changing the “many” to “all” doesn’t give any room for deviation.
  5. Remember, no one is a single story. I have said this many times,  but I won’t stop. No one is a single story. Chimamanda Adichie’s famous TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” should be required viewing. With 10 million views and counting, many people have already seen it. “The problem with stereotypes,” she says “is not that they are incorrect, but that they are incomplete. No one is a single story.”  Stereotyping puts people into boxes that are difficult to crawl out of, and we do a disservice to people when we box them in.
  6. Share what you learned about yourself.  The more willing you are to be honest and real, the more your story will resonate. Be willing to share mistakes you made and how you learned from them. Be honest about your pride, your self-consciousness, recognizing your privilege, and your tendency to be egocentric. Tell a story about how those things were challenged.  Tell a story of how you learned more about God through being out of your comfortable places and away from your comfortable people. The more vulnerable you are willing to be, the more others will see themselves in your story. As the quote above says: “Don’t forget – no one else sees the world the way you do, so no one else can tell the stories you have to tell.”*

Stories are important. When we stop listening and telling stories, we will stop being human. We walk in our stories every day and sharing them with others is important. That is why the way we tell our stories is so important. Because if we share them well, everyone benefits.

What would you add that would help us tell our stories with integrity and honesty? 

*Charles de Lint

How to Host the Best-Ever Short-Term Team

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In our twelve years as missionaries, we’ve seen some doozies of short-term teams.  The first team we witnessed up close (which was a large group of fully-grown adults) thought it would be funny to see how many days each of them could go without showering.  Of course, they had a perfectly good shower available to them, but they had some sort of a bet going (or something).  We did not find it funny.  Nor did our local friends.

We saw other short-term team members who openly criticized the missionary who was hosting them–because apparently living here for three weeks made them experts.  Another church insisted on sending their missionary a gigantic team of about twenty people.  The missionary had no idea what to do them all, so they ended up painting walls.  In a city where there’s 40% unemployment.

Eventually we started hosting our own short-term teams.  Though they weren’t without bumps, thankfully we never experienced any total disasters.  We learned a lot along the way, and got better at it as time went on.  There’s been a lot written that’s been directed at the short-term participants.  But since this is the time of year when churches might be contacting you about hosting a summer team, I want to focus on you:  The Host Missionary.

How can you ensure that your visiting team will be the best-ever?  Here’s what I’ve learned.

 

  1. “Exposure” is a perfectly good purpose for a team, so let’s not pretend it has to be more. 

There are basically two types of short-term teams.  A skilled team is a group of people with a specialized skill who come to fill a specific need, like medical, dental, specialized construction, or technology.  The other kind (which tends to be the majority of short-term teams) is an unskilled team.  I’m talking about a group of people with willing hearts, curious minds, and a hard-working attitude who want exposure to missions.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that these kind of teams have no skills to offer—because of course they do, and their enthusiasm and critical mass might be just what you need for your ministry project.  But the primary purpose for this kind of team is exposure, and it’s really important that you get that clear in your mind and in their minds. 

I think that a lot of the pitfalls of short-term missions can be prevented when we all recognize the elephant in the room and name the true purpose of most teams.  There is nothing wrong with a group of people going overseas to learn about culture and missions.  In fact, it can be incredibly beneficial.  But from the beginning, you need to make sure your team knows its purpose.  If you ask for a building team, is your real purpose because you need the funding?  Then be honest about your motives, and make sure you are careful not to steal the dignity and independence of your community.  Do you ask for a team because you really just want to build a greater connection with your sending church?  That can be a great reason too, but don’t pretend that their assigned “project” is more needed than it actually is.  If we want to fight the mentality of I’m going to save the world in three weeks! and encourage a mindset of learning, then it’s important that we’re straightforward about our motivations.

And if a church wants to send a team, but you really don’t have meaningful work for them to do, don’t just create a job could cause more harm than good to your ministry.  Instead, graciously invite the team to come and learn.  Use your local friends to help the team go through a typical “Day in the Life” of your country.  Set up interviews for the team with other missionaries.  Take them to visit various ministries.  Have them experience local places of worship.  Ask them to take notes and participate in discussions.  And even if you do have a specific task you need them to accomplish, make sure they know from the beginning that learning is going to be a big part of the purpose of their trip.

 

  1. How much you communicate ahead of time will directly correspond to the level of success of the team.

There needs to be one leader on your side and one leader on their side, and before the trip, all communication needs to flow through only these two people to the rest of the people involved.  If you are co-hosting the team with another missionary, pick one to do the communication.  If the team has co-leaders, you need to know which one is really in charge.  We learned this the hard way, so trust me on this.  You will avoid a lot of misunderstanding and hurt feelings this way.

The more you communicate ahead of time, the better the trip will go.  Get detailed.  Write a purpose statement for the trip about what you want to gain and what you want the team to gain, and a concise, daily schedule.  Require the team to read cultural or historical information about your country or people group.  Tell them exactly how you want them to prepare.  (I highly recommend requiring Cross-Cultural Servanthood for all team members.)  Tell them exactly what you want them to bring (or leave behind).  Anticipate questions before they arise.  Answer emails quickly.

 

  1. Their best learning will come from you personally.

The worst thing you can do with a short-term team is to drop them off at their “ministry” and leave them for the day.  Not only will the results be unpredictable, but the team will significantly lose out on their main source of learning:  YOU. 

If a team is going to learn what missions really looks like, they need to be around you and your community as much as possible.  You are the host.  Helping the team to be a success will take more time than you can imagine.  You need to integrate them into your entire schedule for the duration of the time they are in your country.   This means that you avoid housing the team in a hotel or church building.  Instead, arrange for them to stay with you in your home or the homes of national friends, even if it means they sleep on the floor.  Sure, that might mean that they see your messes and they might even witness you snap at your spouse.  But they’ll also see how your routines flow with the culture, how you interact with local people, and that hey—even missionaries watch TV sometimes.  Maybe falling off their pedestals is exactly what they need to see you do. 

This doesn’t mean that every time you are with them is a lecture on the benefits of oral storytelling in a non-literate culture.  It means that you see the entire trip as an opportunity to infuse the messy beauty of missions into those who are sharing your life for this short time. 

 

  1. Know your limits and stick to them.

If your car only has room for four extra people, then it’s okay to say that you only want four people.  If you don’t have the energy for high schoolers, then insist on college students.  If you only have two weeks in your schedule available for this trip, then stick to those dates.  It’s really important that you are calling the shots on these things.  Sometimes church leaders at home are so focused on what this trip is going to mean for their people, and you might start feeling pressured to let just one more student join in, or that really mature 15-year-old, or to add just a few more days to the trip.  Of course, if it’s realistic to flex on these things, then do so.  But remember that at the end of the day, you know what is best—for your family, for your ministry, for your energy level.  Push aside those people-pleasing tendencies and shoot straight with the team leader. 

 

  1. Don’t be afraid to be controlling.  (Yep, I said that out loud.)

For years, we hosted short-term teams to run our summer youth camps.  The first summer, we handed the team a blank slate:  Here you go….do what you want…just make this a really great camp!   That was dumb.  We found ourselves constantly putting out fires.  Oh, you can’t sing “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” since most of these campers are not Christians.  Oops, you can’t play games that allow boys and girls to touch each other….that doesn’t work in this culture.   But these mistakes weren’t the team’s fault!  They were completely new to this country and we hadn’t given them the guidelines to know what was appropriate.

As the years went on, we continued to tighten the reins a little more each year.  We asked the teams to send us the song and game list in advance for our approval.  We chose the camp theme and did the teaching time ourselves.  Of course, we still really needed the teams in significant ways—there was no way we could have run these camps on our own.  But we found that they felt more successful—and we had a much happier experience—by tightly controlling what they did.

This goes against our instincts, since everything in missions right now is about not controlling, and instead releasing people to do the work themselves.  But that doesn’t apply to bright-eyed Americans who have never stepped foot on the continent before.  If you’ve only got a team for a few weeks, then yes, you need to control everything about what they do, say, eat, and sleep.  Want to avoid some of those short-term team nightmares you hear about?  Then be controlling.  And make sure they know ahead of time that’s what they should expect.

This means you might need to say things like this:

No, we don’t want you to bring your digital devices to the village, and only one person will be the designated photographer.

Yes, girls do need to wear long skirts, and here’s a picture of what I mean when I say “long skirt.” Let me explain to you why this is important.

You know, it’s really not actually funny that you’re making a game out of not showering.  Let me point the way to the bathroom. 

 

  1. But also be full of grace.

Yes, stick to your limits.  Yes, be the one in control.  But be nice about it.  Keep your expectations in check.  Remember the mistakes you made when you went on these kind of trips, or when you first arrived in your country.  Hopefully you will have agreed to this trip prayerfully and carefully, so if things go wrong, you can trust that God is in control.  And since your life is the primary way that this team is going to learn anything on this trip, then let them go back home saying, The grace of God was with them. 

 

If you have hosted a short-term team, what have you learned?  If you have participated on a short-term team, what is your advice for the hosts?

 

Stop calling it “Short Term Missions.” Here’s what you should call it instead.

Today’s guest post comes from Craig Greenfield, whose new book Subversive Jesus: an adventure in justice, mercy and faithfulness in a broken world is out this month. Subversive Jesus is the story of one family’s experiment in putting the most counter-cultural teachings of Christ into practice. When Jesus says invite the poor for a meal, Craig and his family welcome homeless friends, local crack addicts, and women from the street corner over for dinner. When Jesus proclaims freedom for the captive, they organize Pirates of Justice flash mobs to protest cruise ship exploitation. The adventure takes Craig’s family from the slums of Cambodia to inner city Canada and back again. You’ll find that this book becomes an invitation to say yes to this subversive Jesus and do something courageous with your life – for the sake of justice, mercy, and faithfulness in a broken world.

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Imagine if I wrote this letter to my local dentist.

“Dear Sir, I’d like to come and be a dentist for 2 weeks. I’ve been meeting once a month with a small group of others who also want to be short term dentists, and we have our t-shirts printed and we’re ready to come.

PS. Can you drive us around, translate for us, and help take cool photos for our Facebook pages?”

I’d like to be a fly on the wall when the dentist received that letter.

We don’t have short term Social Workers, or short term Bio-Scientists.

We don’t have short term Gastro-enterologists or short term Politicians.

So why, why, why, WHY, do we have short term Missionaries in ever-increasing numbers?

Here’s the problem. We’ve created in our minds a false continuum. At one end of the continuum is “short term missions” and at the other end is something we call “long term missions.” We think of them as pretty much the same thing, but with differing lengths of service.

But they’re not the same. No, not at all. And by naming them both “mission” we’re missin’ the point.

It might help at this point to situate “long-term missions” properly. Let’s just 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. If you are a full-time banker, and a part-time Christian, you might be deluded. (So, don’t tell me you are going into “full-time Christian ministry” — I’ll be tempted to ask what you thought you were doing up to this point.)

As followers of Jesus, we are all called to a VOCATION.

That’s the term we need to embrace. It will put everything else in its proper place. Our vocation, whether in butchering, baking, or candlestick-making, is the primary means we have been given to serve God.

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 cross-cultural service among the poor. Humanitarian work, Bible translation, social entrepreneurship — these have all been labeled “long term missions” — but they are 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!

Now that we understand how “long term missions” has been unhelpfully singled out as different from anyone else’s vocation, we can better understand why “short term missions” is such a misleading term — and find a better place for it in our journey to serving God.

Truly, these short term missions trips are generally not “mission” — they are not part of a vocation to serve cross-culturally among the poor because a vocation does not take place in 2 weeks or 2 years.

But when correctly framed, they can be important and even life-changing seasons of engagement with the poor.

Here are 3 suggestions for renaming short term missions trips:

1. Vision (or Exposure) Trips – a focused, intentional time where we ask God to open our hearts to the plight of the poor.  What the eye has not seen, the heart cannot grieve over. It’s natural that when people find themselves face to face with poverty for the first time, something significant happens. The rest of our lives are irrevocably shaped by what we have witnessed. We gain Vision.

2. Learning Exchanges – a time when our theology and understanding of the world is rocked to the core and deconstructed. 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 God while they are passing on expertise to others in another country.

3. Discernment Retreats — where we discern our vocation more deeply on the margins. To pursue a vocation in any field without the perspective of the world’s poor (where God’s heart and good news is centered) is folly. How can we be a banker for God, if we don’t know how the financial services industry affects the poor? How can we be an architect or planner for God, if we don’t know how the design of cities affects the homeless? How can we be a teacher, if we don’t bring the reality of the world’s poorest to our students?

These trips could potentially spark a new vocation — or even be a partial outworking of our current vocation (for example, serving overseas from time to time).

In short, there is no such thing as a 2 week vocation. And there is no such thing as “short term missions.”

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

I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas on short term missions in the comments. What would YOU call them?

originally appeared here

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craig1Craig Greenfield is the founder and director of Alongsiders International and the author of Subversive Jesus (to be published by Zondervan in 2016). 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.