Those who facilitate and participate in short-term missions walk a fine line. It’s the line that separates helping from hurting, empowering from practicing paternalism, and education from poverty tourism. Yet sadly, it’s a line that many who pack their bags and grab their passports fail to recognize.
I feel the tension every time I lead a team—am I, along with this group of 25 ragtag college students, helping or hurting?
Below are 5 truths I remind myself and my teams of before heading off around the world.
1) Good intentions are not enough.
Remember when we talked about relief, rehabilitation, and development? Being able to differentiate between these three solutions will allow you to better serve on your short-term team. I’ll give you a quick refresher. Relief is the provision of temporary emergency relief after a crisis. Rehabilitation seeks to restore people and communities to their pre-crisis phase. Development is the process of ongoing change that moves to restorative relationships.
Many short-term teams try to bring relief to countries that have not recently experienced an emergency. They walk into a community with free goods, providing short-term handouts instead of long-term investments. This can hurt the local economy and create paternalism, or doing something for others that they can do for themselves. When looking for an organization to serve with, remember it takes intentional planning and partnerships to help restore and develop local economies, people, and programs.
2) You’re not bringing Jesus to people.
This one is essential—you’re not bringing Jesus to people. He is already there. Even if some communities have not heard or accepted Christ, it’s important to recognize that He has been working there since the beginning of time. As a team, your desire should be to partner in the work Jesus is already doing.
It’s also important as a team to discuss and intentionally ward against the prosperity gospel that can so easily slip into our worldview. In Western culture, it’s far too easy to equate economic superiority with spiritual superiority, but nothing could be further from the truth.
3) You’re getting something out of this.
I’ve come across people who think gaining something from a mission trip means that the experience was a selfish one. But the truth is, walking away with emotional, educational and spiritual growth is essential to a good trip—both for yourself and for the people you’re visiting. The question isn’t, “Are you benefiting from this experience?” Instead, the question should be, “What are you doing with the benefit?”
The majority of people in the world will never have an experience like you’ve had. By sharing the stories and lessons you’ve learned, you can advocate for the people you went to serve. The authors of When Helping Hurts state, “People who have power seldom think about that power, while people who do not have it are very aware that they do not.”1 This experience can help you leverage the power you have to help those without a voice.
4) The trip is not about you.
While you’re gaining something from the trip, it’s not about you. Many of our team members want to come back with a list of accomplishments—the number of houses they built, fences they put up, or rooms they painted. However, teams aren’t always about what you’ve done, but instead who you’ve interacted with.
It’s important to come back from a trip content to describe the relationships you’ve built and the lessons you’ve learned rather than the checklist you accomplished.
5) Development is messy.
There’s no quick and easy fix to poverty. Real change comes from consistent, long-term partnerships. When choosing a short-term mission team, ask questions like, “Are you filling a need specifically asked for by those working in country?” and, “Is the work you’re doing going to continue after you leave?”
When your focus is on long-term restoration and not just physical checklists, we guarantee there will be bumps in the road. However, it’s the only way to move toward sustainable, positive change. Keep in mind, “Development is a lifelong process, not a two-week product.”2
1When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself, pg. 57
2When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself, pg. 157