Reframing Short-Term Missions: HOSTS

“Non merci.” “No thanks.”

That was the response we heard over and over as we attempted to hand out glow sticks to the passing crowd.  We had created a unique way to advertise an upcoming kids English camp. We had attached business cards with the camp information to two thousand glow sticks. Interns, staff and friends were enlisted to hand out glow sticks to the crowd gathered to listen to music in the streets during Paris’ Fête de la Musique. As dusk fell the glow sticks came out and our workers came back saying “Nobody wants them.” As the night continued we handed out a few here and a few there, but most of the people didn’t want them or didn’t trust that they were actually free. Finally, the glow sticks were forced into the hands of those passing by.  We hadn’t asked of our local friends if they thought this was a good idea. We had just ordered the glow sticks and business cards and bull-headedly went to work. As we left that night, business cards could be seen littering the sidewalk for blocks. Not one single person called or registered from all the work we did. But I did learn a valuable lesson that night. Always work with your host to develop ideas and advertising.

I share this story with you to confess that, as I share with you about short-term missions, I do it as one who hasn’t always done things right. To do short-term missions well, the right posture towards your host is incredibly important. As we talk about hosts, I want to define hosts with a two-fold definition. First the hosts are the people of your host culture. Those whom you will be going to share the love of Christ with but also those you will be working alongside you to help you share the love of Christ; translators, pastors, evangelists from or living in the country to which you are headed. The other types of hosts I am referring to are the missionaries or pastors or leaders of the group you are partnering with. Those who invited you or have arranged for you to be with them.

Here are three posture changes towards hosts that apply to both the culture and to the workers.

From For to With:

It seems innocent enough at first. “We are going to X country to run a VBS for kids.” But if we dig deeper into that statement, we see it might make us into something bigger than we really are.  We, from outside of the host culture, are going to run a VBS in a culture different than ours. I remember talking with a young man years back who was headed to China to help with a VBS and he had chosen a USA based curriculum that used alliteration, and he was excited to share Jesus with kids. I don’t remember the alliteration, but I am sure it didn’t translate to Chinese. If he had asked the group he was going with or the host, I am sure they would have helped him to understand how this didn’t make sense in their culture and maybe even was more confusing than just stating the Bible stories.

What if we stated instead, “We are going to X country to help the X church host a VBS”?  It is a slight change, but it sure lets the local church have buy in and allows us to better understand our role as short-term missions teams. We are going to work with people either the local church or established missions worker. And if we aren’t… we might not be ministering effectively. If we are there for 10 days and don’t have a local or long term minister alongside of us, who is going to follow up? Go WITH the hosts to see the kingdom of God advanced.

From Being Needy to Something to Give:

The first time I took a team to Mexico, we went into a home to pray with a family and I took the lead. We prayed one after another in a nice orderly, one after another, as we were accustomed to doing. Before we entered the next house our host took me aside and said, “Hey let’s do it this way. I’ll say let’s pray and then we all pray until I say amen. It was a loud boisterous noise in multiple languages going up to heaven. And for the next three months, even after returning home, our group prayed that way.” We can learn from those we serve with. If we think we have it figured out because we Googled how to do things in country X, we might miss out on not only the right way to do things, but the why of doing things that way. Let your hosts be the experts on their country, because they are. I can’t tell you how many times, I have had team members try to correct locals on history and culture. Learn from your hosts. Learn their culture. Learn their ways of greeting. Learn and let them teach you.

From Project to Relationship:

This posture might be the hardest for the average checklist, efficiency-minded person. A project is completed in a week and marks significant change. The home was built, the well was dug, the wall was painted. And it normally translates to a before and after picture, easy to share with the folks back home All of these things are great and play a role in mission work. But if we see them as the reason why we go, then we miss the point. Missions agencies do these things so that they can have relationship with the people they connect with through these projects. People aren’t discipled because their homes are painted or built, people are discipled because people around them told them about the person of Christ, who compelled the team from your church to leave their home and help build their home. This happens because of relationship. And relationships take time, are messy, move slowly and don’t fit well in a slideshow what the mission team did while on the trip. But relationships are the key to seeing the Kingdom of God advance in dark places.

Missional context also looks different today than it did 50 years ago. The modernizing, global word means we are connected to everywhere, and need of Jesus is indeed everywhere. Poverty might look material, or it might look relational – isolation, a lack of deep relationships, broken families. These are less apparent to the naked eye, but represent a huge global need – in our own backyards and neighborhoods, in post-modern Europe and Latin America. Ministry might look less like a work project – and it might look more like inviting someone to share a meal, like the slow mundane work of building relationships. And this isn’t easy to quantify or document. By reframing what we think “ministry” or “missions” looks like, might just spur us on to live more intentionally in our own Western contexts as well.


Stay tuned for upcoming posts on more posture shifts in the next couple of weeks!

Tony Roos and his wife Raeni can often be found solving the world's problems while drinking coffee. He is the Envision Paris Site coordinator and graduate of Crown College in Minnesota. He is lucky to be raising two wonderful world changing daughters and often is amazed by them.