When it comes to examining our posture on short-term missions, it’s important to turn inwards, as those who participate in these experiences, to evaluate our own motivations. And, when these are perhaps skewed or sinful, to re-align with Christ. It’s important to mention that while we are talking about individuals, this is a collective shift we are making. It’s not just about us, but about the broader Body, and how we view ourselves (The Church) in the narrative of missions. And particularly, how those of us in the Western Church view ourselves.
To begin, we have to move from the posture of saviors to participants. What we mean by this is that: your short-term trip is not about conversions, or about you coming home with super spiritual stories (centered around what you did) to share with your friends or on social media when you come back home. We are not the protagonist of the story, and the story has been happening longer than we've been around. This is God’s story and always has been. He is at the center. And He is on the move. We get to be sensitive to His leading, and at His invitation, follow Him into His work. This only happens by grace, and with the help of the Holy Spirit (John 15). And if God is on the move everywhere, he's not only on the move in Africa (as the dominant missions narrative might cause you to believe). He's on the move in Cleveland, in rural small town Pennsylvania... in our own neighborhoods. If it becomes less about us being the savior (which also tends to garner more attention when we're positioned better economically, geographically, i.e. why it stands out in other countries), it frees us up to participate in more "mundane" stories in our own cities.
Moving from saviors to participants also takes the pressure off performance. We are very efficiency-minded and results-oriented. If something big doesn't happen on our 10-day trip, we start to panic that we're doing something wrong. This is American, not biblical. Look at Hebrews 11. It reads "All of these people died in faith without receiving the promises, but they saw the promises from a distance and welcomed them." At first glance, this seems a bit depressing. But what it celebrates instead is long, steady faithfulness in the same direction. We may water seeds that others have planted, and those who come after us may be the ones to see the fruit. The fruit we may be lucky to see could be years of effort and prayers. We need to hold results loosely, and celebrate the glimpses we get of God's work during our short-term missions trips.
A second posture shift we need to make is moving from experts to learners. I believe this has to do significantly with how we see ourselves in the West. Most of us have some degree of higher education or plan to. We’ve grown up with mobility, freedom to travel and pursue education as far as we desire, access to most resources we need, and we’re used to giving input on democratic group decisions. And we bring this context with us on short-term missions trips where we often have little to no context of the culture. Luckily, in healthy scenarios, we are teamed with long-term workers with longevity and personal experience of the people, the culture and history of the area, not to mention the local church. We can’t Wikipedia something and expect that to elevate us to the level of expert. We need to enter with a posture of listening and learning, instead of thinking that our [Western] strategies, ideas, and faith don’t carry nuances of our home culture. We defer to the leaders of the ministry and local church and allow them to determine how we use our time (most likely slower than we expect), what sorts of "projects" we do (it may be more relational than tangible), and how we do it (in a way that's culturally sensitive, honoring, sustainable). This is a great opportunity to learn, so let's take it.
The final shift is taking ourselves from priority to secondary in terms of focus. Often times we, as church leaders, cast vision for trips is with language like “This will change your life!” While it may be true, it should never be the focus of a short-term trip. The focus is simple: joining God on mission. If your life is changed in some way - great. This is a wonderful byproduct of short-term trips, but not the goal. When this becomes the focus, things get skewed, and ministries and people are offered up on the altar of self-realization (an idol for us here in the West), and we miss out on the bigger (and better) picture of what God is doing in that place. We need to put the priority on obedience first, and let the other stuff fall into place.
Keep reading with us next week! And if you’re interested in more, please sign up for our free e-book on Reimagining Short-term Missions, coming out early 2018!
Britt Kwan is the Trips Coordinator and Communications Coordinator for Envision. When she’s not coaching pastors through how to use technology or tweeting gifs, you can find her out hiking, reading, or baking pies. She lives in Colorado Springs with her husband, Brian, and their four chickens.