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Mission Trips Are for Whom?

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Dave Gibbons: “In most countries, relationships and the trust of indigenous leadership often take years to develop.”

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It was a CNN World News flash: Finally, on March 9, 2010, one of the two remaining missionaries held in Haiti had been released. The report added, “The missionaries were stopped by Haitian authorities on Jan. 29 [17 days after the country’s devastating earthquake] as they tried to cross the border with 33 children without proper legal documentation. The group said it was going to house the children in a converted hotel in the Dominican Republic and later move them to an orphanage. [The missionaries] originally claimed the children were orphaned or abandoned, but CNN determined that more than 20 of them had at least one living parent. Some parents said they placed their children in [the missionaries’] care because that was the only way they knew to ensure a better quality of life for them. The 10 Americans, many of whom belong to a Baptist church in Idaho, have said they were trying to help the children get to a safe place after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake flattened cities and towns in Haiti.”

I love how the local church around the world has the heart to respond to crises such as the Haiti earthquake. Recently, other global catastrophes have also caught our attention and moved us to action. Not only has mass communication shrunk the globe, but with the advent of Twitter, instant messaging and YouTube, we are more connected than ever to places we’ve never walked.

But as millions of dollars—and thousands of people with good intentions—stream into foreign places, one has to wonder if we are effective and responsible stewards of our resources. And in the Church, are our mission trips really making an impact? Are our local churches able to independently work in these unfamiliar countries with an adequate understanding of local law, economics, the political landscape, the educational and health needs, and the customs and culture of multiple indigenous people groups?

In most countries, relationships and the trust of indigenous leadership often take years to develop. The navigation of local customs and laws is complex, but even more important is the indigenous relational intelligence necessary to artfully transform the vital systems in most places. Our common approach to missional engagement is compassionate and well-intentioned, but usually not sensitive to local, indigenous leadership and unfortunately, rarely sustainable.

Here are a few principles that are important to keep in mind whether we’re planning a mission trip or feel the need to respond to a global crisis.

Jesus is already there.

God has been working in countries long before we were born. How arrogant for us to think that we’re bringing Jesus to people. In our missional endeavors, do we reflect the heart of listening, respecting, serving and learning that we see in Christ’s own response to the world?

We spend a lot of human resources and capital by going to the field, but we may be better served in focusing on building relationships with those who are already serving there. While we may get great video for our mission campaigns, we may get poor—or at best, mixed—reviews from those we are really endeavoring to love.

Collaborate with NGOs and respected nonprofits.

Don’t do community development initiatives alone. Established organizations like World Vision, though not perfect, have staff and systems in place to better stream resources to the most needy. Even if you don’t use large nongovernmental organizations like World Vision or Compassion International, then work with a country’s local indigenous leadership. You have to assume the locals know way more than you.

Do we really think that one church in the Western world, or even one group of churches or one denomination, can take on the complexity of relationships with government, culture and society by itself? Maybe, but it’s unlikely. Even some of the largest churches have attempted this, and the reviews are, at best, mixed. Partner with other churches in America, but more importantly, partner with local indigenous leaders. Be willing to live in a country and establish long-term relationships, taking the attitude of a servant, learner and listener. Perhaps our best work cross-culturally is not what we’ll give, but what we’ll learn if we listen and serve.

Relationships are long-term and without strings.

It’s more important to build sustainable and holistic long-term relationships than it is to complete short-term mission trips that are long on good intention, but short on relationship. Our common modus operandi of missions work puts us in positions of authority rather than postures of true servants. We move in countries with great hearts, but with ignorance and Western bravado that usually stirs more consternation than gratitude. For example, the “bait and switch” approach of loving people so that they will come to Jesus is disingenuous to most human beings. We must focus more on truly loving people and let the Holy Spirit do the transformation.

Going and serving is a good thing. But we should go with the perspective of a long-term relational learner and the commitment to build relationships with local ministries and more experienced organizations. Let them take the lead. Be willing to follow, to listen and to love without any strings.

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