When I returned to Haiti for my seventh short-term mission trip, I wondered how I can do good and not harm. The question of doing good is inherent in short-term mission trips. In other words, how can Christians engage in short-term mission trips and do good, instead of doing harm? The fundamental assumption must be doing ministry with, not doing ministry for. How do Christians do ministry with? Christians must have partners in place.
Does God need us to go places and do work, especially when God is already there and doing work through the people who live there? A typical, international short-term mission trip costs at least $1,000 per person. Thus, a trip with a dozen people will cost at least $12,000. This is money that the local Christians could use to further God’s kingdom, using local supplies and local labor. Work trips or construction trips are especially susceptible to the danger of replacing local labor with short-term missionaries, who often do not do construction work for their primary vocation. I am not a builder, so why would I build a house for someone in a foreign land? Is it because I cannot see the poor result of my labor? Or am I so condescending that I do not think the people deserve something better than what I could make?
Although my criticism might sound like a broad indictment of short-term mission projects, I cannot and will not condemn them because this reflection comes from the first day of one such project. I am in Haiti, again, working with an orphanage, practicing English with the children, singing songs, and telling Bible stories. Thus, the question becomes not “does God need us to go places and do work,” but what does God need me to do? Books like Ministering Cross-Culturally (Lingenfelter) and Toxic Charity (Lipton) help answer this question.
If we enter mission projects, whether short term or long term, local or international, and seek to discover what God is already doing, we stand a much better chance of following, rather than getting ahead of God. In Psalm 139, especially verses 7-12, the psalmist asks, “Where can I go from God?” The answer is, “Nowhere.” Thus, God is already here in Haiti and everywhere in the world. Does God’s presence negate the work of the Holy Spirit? Does it mean that Christians do not have to follow the “go and tell” edict of The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). No!
My “No!” is as emphatic as Karl Barth’s “Nein!” to Emil Brunner. Christians are still called to spread God’s good news. However, the Christian understanding of sharing God’s good news has evolved. Mission trips are not days filled with telling heathens about Jesus. They follow Brother Lawrence’s teaching in Practicing the Presence of Christ. Each Christian can “walk in the awareness of Christ, just as Jesus walked each day in constant awareness of his father in heaven.” The awareness of Christ can shape the interactions Christians have with other people.
Each trip can be filled with divine appointments. Short-term missionaries can witness to one another, the ticket agent at the airport, other passengers on the plane, the people with whom they work, or any other of the myriad encounters in a given week. These interactions can be as simple as a smile or as profound as meeting someone from the other side of the world who becomes a lifelong friend and spiritual sibling. A divine appointment can be a patient response to a porter who ignored one’s refusal for assistance and then erupted when one did offer a tip. Alternatively, the Holy Spirit might nudge a wealthy westerner to share a dollar or two with someone who lacks resources for the most basic human needs.
Short-term mission trips do not offer the chance to build relationships in the same way as long-term missionaries. Through intentional ministry and careful planning, short-term mission trips can mimic some of the relationship-building of long-term missionaries, but on a smaller scale. Returning to the same place, year after year, fosters relationships. I try to put this into practice; as I stated in the opening line, this is my seventh trip to this orphanage, and I learn something new every trip.
One of the most effective and patient teachers is the pastor who oversees the orphanage. He is Haitian; his approach is often different than mine. However, I learn the most when I listen to him, trust that he knows his context, focus on serving God, not spreading my North American approach to organized religion. Listening to the requests of those who are already serving Christ in that area will do more good than harm. Setting aside preconceived notions and focusing on what God is already doing builds unity among God’s people. In other words, I validate the local pastor when I listen, and the two of us become partners in God’s work, not a North American giving paternalistic advice to a subordinate.
One of the most radical responses to short-term mission projects is to consider not going. Sending one or two people with money equivalent to the cost of sending an entire group creates the potential to do an incredible amount of good. The one or two short-term missionaries can build relationships with local leaders and, after establishing trust, they can use that money as the local leaders feel God leading.
God is moving, and God calls Christians to move too. Short-term mission projects can be an effective tool for joining God’s works, but the people who engage in short-term mission projects must do so carefully. Due diligence and cultural sensitivity are invaluable, if often overlooked, ingredients to a successful trip.