Greg Austring, former missionary and current Vanguard University professor of Intercultural Studies, Religion, and Ethics, addresses possible down-sides of mission trip ministry.
What are the issues of the people to whom students will minister?
In teaching about short-term missions at Vanguard University, I emphasize the importance of mission teams knowing the context and issues of the people they target. A mis-step here will hurt rather than help!
Knowing the context includes learning the spiritual climate, the culture, and the needs of the people to the greatest degree possible in order that our ministry is effective and relevant. If we are not careful, a project with fine intentions can create more problems than it solves!
Jesus knew His context. He was able to deal with the Jewish religious leader, Nicodemus, the suspicious Samaritan woman at the well, and the charged/convicted/soon-to-be-executed adulteress in the temple courtyard. Jesus knew the environment in which each was struggling and how best He could minister to them. In other words, He knew the context.
One of the kinds of short-term missions on the rise is that of ministry in orphanages. This seems to fulfill the biblical mandate in James 1:27 “to look after orphans and widows in their distress…” (NIV). It looks so obvious: what better way is there to show the compassion of Christ than visiting orphans and blessing them by one to three weeks of just “loving on them!” People who have done so tell of life-changing encounters. The tales told of tears shed by both team members and orphans on the last day of the mission trip indicate that the loving efforts have created a bond in spite of the cultural and geographical differences.
In examining the principle of knowing the context, though, I ask my students what they think are the greatest issues with which orphans deal. Eventually, we get around to the question of abandonment and the real possibility that this may be a central issue of the orphan. I then ask my students that as the team prepares to leave after having given their love and attention to the orphans, “Is the issue of abandonment relieved or relived in those young lives?”
This raises another question. Should we not visit orphans and show love to them? Not necessarily. Although the work done through orphanages is needed and can be very good, it can never replace that which all children need and crave—love and acceptance in a family setting. Visits by loving foreigners can give an intense, but temporary, reminder of that which the orphan needs most for the long term, but not meet that need well. So what does the context require for their overall benefit?
Here are some suggestions for a short-term mission team:
- Partner with a missionary and a local national church to see if there is some way that the church members can be more involved in the lives of the orphans.
- Look for ways that the mission team can take over some of the work of the staff of the orphanage so that the staff can spend more time and give more attention to the children.
- Find ways to share the message of hope in Jesus and the work of the Spirit in their lives. He will still be their savior and guide long after the team has left.
- Invest in ministries that find homes for orphans so that they can realize that familial yearning in their lives.
The context of the orphans includes more than just the joy that they receive in a visit from loving American Christians. Ministry to them means finding ways to respond to their deepest spiritual, physical, and emotional needs that will edify them not just for a week or two but for the rest of their lives.
Another possible project that has a down-side is building construction. Our teams are short on time and personnel, so we automatically build the kind of building we already know how to do, and build best, and turn it over. The possible problem? It looks “American,” and shouts to all who pass by that something “foreign” rather than local goes on there, and leaves the locals with the extra burden of explaining the building, as well as explaining the Gospel!
The solution here is similar: consult with the local churches and missionaries.
May the purity of our intentions be matched by the wisdom of our research!
This is a topic that we must think about carefully. We are very concerned that no zeal for reaching “the regions beyond” be dampened! For any encouragement and help, please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org