Making Short Term Missions More Holistic

"The use of short-term teams in missions has exploded in the past decade. These range from trips to another country to trips to urban or rural areas within the home country. There are a variety of good reasons to utilize short teams. A primary benefit of utilizing short term teams is the learning that can be experienced by those who go on the trip. With proper orientation and reflective learning while on a short term team, much good learning can occur. Unfortunately common myths about missions, especially about holistic missions amongst the economically poor, can be further entrenched especially if quality intentional learning and appropriate practice isn’t a core part of the experience. In thinking about ideas such as poverty as more than deficit, the marred identity of the poor and god-complex of the non-poor, asset-based approaches and the central role of participation in development how might you structure a short-team trip in order to minimize its harm and maximize its benefit?"

This is a difficult question, but nonetheless, an excellent one. This is designed to think about a youth STM. First of all, I would communicate with a missionary in my church and see if they want or need a short term team, warning them that it can be a time consuming process that may take away (temporarily) from their own mission work. I would also not want to take a team someplace that has a continuous round of STMers all summer long. This is for the sake of the missionaries more than anyone. Once I have a missionary, I would coordinate with them about what they want. What are the needs of the community? In addition, I would want the missionary to work with the community to prepare for the arrival of the STM.

Back in the states, many months before the trip, the attendees would begin regular (weekly or every other week) meetings focusing on training and prayer. Failure to attend would a set number of meetings would result in a refund of their deposit and the inability to attend the trip. I do this to test commitment. I would also limit the number of chaperones, and only high-school age youth could join the mission. The meetings would consist of cultural training, language instruction, packing tips, extensive prayer sessions, and some deep soul-searching of motivations and desires. The community would have decided in advance what they would like us to do in their community so all training would be related to that.

Once on the ground in our host community, the STMers would not be allowed to go everywhere as group. In other words, while there would hopefully be time for communal work and fellowship for the team, I would also want each person to be able to experience the people of the community by working in pairs alongside the community, away from the safety of their group. The term “immersion” comes to mind. Difficult and stressful, I know, but necessary.

If it is possible, I would want the community to welcome the team into their homes in small groups. (Safety and economic constraints exist, but they are a barrier to be overcome.) Immersion is the key. However, nothing that is a burden on the community should be done without the consent of the community.

After the trip, communication would be fostered between the church and the indigenous church of the host community. Knowing, the fallibleness of one person (especially teens), if the church and the team leader do their best to keep in contact (say monthly at least) it will set a good example. There should be debriefings for several months after the trip and if possible, those debriefings should lead up to the meetings that begin for the next mission trip. The idea being that the previous team members would train and prepare new ones for the same location.

The church should send teams to the same area for at least five years running. Change is all well and good, but in fostering good, long-distance, relationships, it isn’t. Even if the church takes a break from a specific mission after five years, they should commit to return within two years after the break.

Smaller churches with large turnover would do well to partner with other local churches, or use a mission organization that sends teams from the same area to the same area.

Obviously, there are a lot of specifics I didn’t address. But the idea is that the community would welcome the team, the team would fully immerse itself in the culture, and that relationships be the primary motivator, not construction or VBS. Discipleship is difficult long-distance, but that is what needs to happen, or else leave a bad taste in the mouth of the community.

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