The Scripture Scout
8 Personal Proverbs
for the Short-Term Missionary
by Anne-Geri' Fann
with Greg Taylor
“How can we help you? What do you need?” When a group of North American missionaries came to visit an indigenous tribe in Nigeria they asked them these same questions. However, the answer was, "We need nothing. We're fine." Assuming the tribal leaders probably didn't know what they needed, the mission group pressed the question, asking them to think hard about something, anything they could do for the people. Finally, one of the leaders came to the group with an answer. "We don't need that building over there. It is not useful. Could you tear it down for us?" Feeling like they had hit the jackpot, the North Americans worked diligently to help the tribe get this building out of the way, thinking maybe they needed the land for crops or something. Nearing the end of the project, one of the group members finally asked, "What were you using this building for in the first place?" "I don't know," shrugged the patriarch of the tribe, "Some North American group came in and thought we needed a building. So, they built a building."1
How many proverbs or adages can you think of off the top of your head? There are innumerable amounts of these phrases, uttered by the wise, the ancient, and sometimes your mother. Here are a few:
From Solomon to Socrates, some hold a world of wisdom wrapped up in a few catchy words. Some make you laugh while others slap you in the face (or slap somebody else).
I’ve been biting my nails about this one. It is a joy to flesh out mission matters and it is even fun to laugh and learn at mission mishaps. I support short-term mission trips or I wouldn’t be writing this blog (OR the book!). However, there are times when these trips can become a bane to other missionaries and not a joy. Sometimes proverbs like “pride goeth before a fall” hit far too close to home. Sometimes there are some short-termers who would have made just as much a difference if they’d, ahem, stayed in their own homes. If you are about to embark upon a mission trip, these issues I find tough, yet necessary, to approach with you. I am so glad you feel God placed this trip and this mission on your heart to the point that you would pack your suitcase weeks in advance. So, please read ahead. Continue these silly proverbs, any examples and challenges, with an open mind, a ready heart, and a willingness to say, “Wow, this sure ain’t gonna be me!”
Of course, there are significant benefits to short-term missions and there are even some mission projects that cannot thrive without them. But, as with any positive effort, there are also challenging realities. Get ready for the big one: all (yes, all) long-term missionaries I interviewed about this said that the majority of mission teams do NOT really spend an adequate amount of time in training about the culture, learning the spiritual climate of a nation, or preparing themselves spiritually for the challenges ahead. Uh-oh.
Do you feel prepared in these ways? Are you nervous now that you may not be? Why don’t we take a brief look at those possible detriments to short-term work and see what we can learn from them? It may make a new “missionary-in-training” think again about short-term endeavours. But hopefully, it will enhance your trip, not discourage it. It is easy to laugh at a bunch of monkeys plugging away at a useless project on the moon or trying to explain what life is like on earth when neither ambition matters a hill of red dust to the Martians. It certainly is hard to laugh at ourselves when we explore the possibility that the finger of that fable might be pointing at our noses.
With this in mind, let’s have fun with some old proverbs and see if, by mucking them about a bit, we can learn a thing or two about a missionary’s prime directive. Now, let me just say ... i love short-term missions! My life has forever been changed because of short-term missions! I just wanted to say that "out loud" before I launch into the top 8 things no one tells you. I just strongly believe in not only returning home with a great experience, but coming back changed ... yes, opening your eyes to the world around you, but in doing so, coming face to face with Jesus Christ. So. Here we go ... the top 8 things "no one tells you" about short-term missions.
Short-Termer PROVERB #1:
“Know thyself... else thou wilt snow thyself.”
(Gentle Translation: You Don't Have to be Mighty Mouse)
My friend Donna told me she was once asked to do a seminar on parenting for a church outside of Kenya. She had no formal skills other than that she had two young children. But she was told, “Whatever you tell them is probably better than what they have.” She agreed with reservation and began to prepare her lesson. Part of her research was finding out what the families were like. To her credit, she called someone from the area (now living in the states) to gather this information. Once she realized most of the families had over five children (one had ten!) and that many of their kids were teenagers, she returned to the mission group leader, declined the request to teach, handed over her materials and said, “Ask them to teach me what to do. I’d rather learn from them.” She later commented, “Taking a seminar on parenting from an expert is one thing, but being a North American shouldn’t automatically make me one.”
“He must become greater, I must become less.” (John 3:30) It’s been on several mission t-shirts I have seen teams wear gregariously off the airplane as they try to look inconspicuously unlike North Americans. However, its proverb, its “prime directive” is clear: I will only assist, not interfere, in the order of God’s work of saving souls. I must humble myself so that he may be seen. I must exalt him in this mission and be here for his motives. I must take up His cup - and drink the water - not the river water that flows next to our bark hut in Australia, but the living water He so generously offers us time and again in His word. Through this water I will have - and offer - eternal life.
As mentioned previously, it does not do anyone any long-term good when you pile on them your riches. Sometimes it can have a negative effect and generate an expectation that you do not want to foster. Even so, if you are not going on a humanitarian trip, don’t forget that you are there to support a long-term effort, not ride in on your white horse and baptize a whole city or get them all to recite a prayer. Numbers are only relatively important. Truly converted souls are the prime directive. Build relationships. They will teach the others. Don’t assume you are their only hope. You are a temporary vessel and He may be using you for “such a time as this”, but if God wants His work done, He will do it, with or without you. Trust Him in that.
Short-Termer PROVERB #2:
“All roads lead to Rome….
which makes it kinda hard to go anywhere else.”
(Gentle Translation: Simply Avoid a
North American Superiority Complex)
One church leader, who takes groups to Central American countries, still refuses to let the national preachers drive his rented vehicle because, “Typically, Americans are more responsible behind the wheel.” Yikes! Where did he get that statistic? Wouldn’t he rather have someone behind the wheel who knows the rules of the road in that country, let alone the road itself?
Another guy (I laugh sadly every time I think of this) waltzed into an ice cream shop in Cozumel, went behind their counter, went straight to their phone, and picked up the receiver to make a call without asking! That is not just a cultural issue – it’s just rude! We can’t assume that just because we are North Americans people are going to let us do anything we want.
One short-termer, a member from a supporting congregation, spontaneously called a meeting of the church leaders to tell them he had figured out what they were doing wrong in the three days he was there! Imagine his reception. More than likely they were thinking, “And you are….?”
The simple lesson we all can learn here is that we need to “get over ourselves." We can listen to people, learn about them, and humbly walk with them instead of objectifying them or treating them as our pets. If we chose to walk into the mission field with the latter attitude, we choose to live a lifestyle outside of the spirit and character of Jesus. He was a great listener, learner, and companion. And, um – He was God! If anyone had a right to a superiority complex…..right?
Short-Termer PROVERB #3:
“A bird in the hand might get scared
and leave you a wee gift.”
(Gentle Translation: Be Careful with Over-Pragmatic Expectations)
Sometimes our great ideas don’t turn out quite the way we plan them (consider the Nigerian building project mentioned earlier). It is difficult to escape our North American expediency: 10 latrines dug, 10 dramas performed, a VBS in every village, a gospel meeting, and 100 people won to Christ. But this is also why our short-term stratagem has the capability for collapse - especially when we don't even speak the language! Listed goals are good, but only when they fulfill what is needed and not what we think is needed.
Many short-termers have good solutions and preventive measures due to their experience and/or resources back home. But sometimes their results can be compound. These take time and patience. Maybe it looks like, "They need a playground, let's make them a playground." They might really appreciate a place for their children to play, but the same money you used to build it might build a small house with a bathroom! Plus, there may be more pressing needs at hand: a woman who needs prayer, a family who would be encouraged simply by your presence at their dinner table, an old man you hold an umbrella for as he walks to the grocery store.
Ask. You can't give people everything they’ll request, but you can find a way to do something for them personally and not just what will make you feel good about the trip. If we ask the missionaries or the indigenous leaders we can usually find better ways to pursue long-term solutions that are about them rather than piecemeal projects that are more about us.
Short-Termer PROVERB #4:
"Give him an inch and he'll take a sudden break saying,
'Okay, I'm done now!'"
(Gentle Translation: Avoid Limited Mission-Mindedness)
We can be missionaries in New Jersey as well as New Guinea. But sometimes it is easy to believe that we are only doing mission work when we are in another country, preferably suffering. Many people consider it a sacrifice to give up “vacation time” to do mission work. How about giving up some time out of your busy weekly schedule to go down to the retirement center and brush Mrs. Bower’s neglected hair? God can use us daily and does on a regular basis. Sadly, He often has to use us without our knowing it. It is such a blessing when we do!
In the movie Bruce Almighty, God gives Bruce Nolen, who has complained that God has fallen down on His job, a chance to have His powers for a few days. Bruce abuses them by doing things totally for Bruce. When God confronts him about whether or not he has actually helped anybody the response is simply, “No.” But Bruce does immediately decide to pray for them. He prays, “Dear God, please feed the hungry millions and bring us world peace.” God smiles and says, “That’s great, Bruce, if you want to be Miss America. Now pray about something you really care about.” Bruce finally recognizes the tiny miracles around him, people that give of themselves without regards to how it affects them. Finally, Bruce decides that the most effective way for changes to be made is to be the miracle himself.
Don’t be so excited about your upcoming mission to Haiti that you forget that it is your turn to wash the dishes after dinner or help your younger sibling with some homework. Who knows what kind of difference you’ll make to your friend who is watching how you interact with your family because he or she does not have one. Or who knows if, during her high school valedictory speech, your kid sister will thank you for getting her through math.
If we ask God to show us, we will not just recognize the miracles He is doing on our seven day journey to pass out Bibles in China, but the miracle next door, a kid who has said no to drugs and yes to an education. Maybe we will join in by offering to tutor him on Saturdays. Maybe we will be a miracle, too.
Short-Termer PROVERB #5
“Give a man a fish; you feed him for a day.
Give his daughter a bunch of candy
and she’ll probably throw up all over you.”
(Gentle Translation: Try Not to Foster Dependency)
Joseph came into the missionary’s house with vomit all over his shirt. “I read the handbook, Profa Fann, but I didn’t believe it!” The handbook for this particular mission point encouraged the participants not to make it a habit of giving away candy. Why? Because that organization has become calloused and is without compassion to those who might enjoy a tiny luxury such as chocolate? By no means! It is because the writers knew all too well that the children’s’ stomach was not accustomed to the sweets, resulting in, well, Joseph’s nasty shirt and a sleepless night for their mamas. “He kept looking at me with those sweet little eyes and I just kept giving him Pixie Stix!”
God repeatedly uses short-term missionaries as introductions to the nationals and career missionaries who want to reach them. They generate interest and approachability. And let’s be honest, it is easier to evangelize a receptive people when one is passing out food and clothing. But there are countless stories of nationals in various countries who have become so dependent on the “fast food” missionary that their own inventiveness has been damaged.
Many have heard Lao Tzu’s famous proverb,” Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Sadly, this wise adage has gone ignored in many short-term trips. There is nothing wrong with compassion. Compassion is a blessing and a spiritual gift. But we must be careful not to invalidate it by refusing to be shrewd with it. Sometimes it has been used as an excuse to do the wrong thing.
Have we considered what we are doing long-term when we come down with free clinics and free giveaways? Does it occur to us that we may be stealing their dignity when we say, “Here. Take it. I can get more!” The team who has free give-aways will most likely have chaos on their hands; will encourage begging, and dependency. The team who lets people bring their own payment, be it be a live chicken or the monetary equivalent of two cents, will have a good time, encourage skill, and preserve dignity. But something like this happens all the time: what if both teams come to the same place in the same month? A perplexing message will be sent. And, what are the long-term effects?
When a Central American village woman waits to have a serious surgery until The Gringo comes to visit because he might give her monetary aid (he has to everyone else!), she has not become empowered. She has become reliant on a Godfather figure who, out of his compassion, has contributed to her dependency. There are many other options she could take, but she has been “trained” to wait for The Gringo instead of utilizing her own countries humanitarian resources.
What can we do to prepare ourselves better for humanitarian missions? Maybe we should spend some time in dialogue with our team leaders and experienced missionaries concerning why so many people are poor, sick, or dependent. This might help us be more attentive to the possible greater need of becoming self-sufficient.
We must seriously consider that humanitarian work is not necessarily mission work. A hungry child with hollow eyes is merely evidence of Satan’s hold on the world. The fact that this child’s belly is full does not necessarily loosen his grip. And although seeds are being sown, we must ask ourselves if we are truly planting or if we are merely throwing seeds on the ground and hoping for a harvest.
Joseph has become wise about his candy-giving. Oh, he still brings it, but he’s very cautious about the quantity – plus he wears a bib.
Short-Termer PROVERB #6:
"Curiousity killed the cat that ate the rat that lived
in the missionary's house we kinda trashed..."
(Gentle Translation: Try Your Best Not to Exhaust
Our Long-termers or Damage Christ’s Witness)
“The last thing we want down here is ‘Tourists for Jesus’! We don’t have time to babysit,” says Kim Wirgau, a missionary in Catacamas, Honduras.2 “One time someone actually wanted to make sure I took them to a house that had a dirt floor so they could take a picture of it. I asked them how would they feel if they were sitting on their front porch, a van of people piled out, took pictures of their home, piled back in, and left?” Molly Dawidow, missionary in Poland, recounts a situation in Vienna when a team opted for the opera over a church gathering!3 Another missionary tells of a man who held up the group’s schedule for an entire afternoon because he panicked about an appointment he may have been missing in the states, only to find out (thanks to his palm pilot, which he was asked not to bring) that it was a haircut! These are just some of the attitudes and perspectives that can fatigue career missionaries and local leaders, taking them away from the critical objective at hand….souls.
Sometimes, usually due to deficient training, short-termers can injure the present Christian witness. Many missionaries have complained about the sweep up that follows when a group of teens/adults have not followed their advice on appropriate dress or appearance. Most things are cultural, but they all have to be explained. When someone with a different point of reference sees an innocent tattoo, it is the various African missionaries who have to explain that the bearer is not worshipping another god. When a local resident sees a girl in short-shorts working out in the sun (legs are more private than breasts in some countries), again, it is the missionary or local preacher who has to explain that she is not intending to be provocative. It is arrogant to think that just because one is doing some good, people should accept them for how they present themselves. The bottom line is, the missionaries and locals know more about the culture and perception of the people with which they work. It will not hurt to wear pants and cover up the tattoos for one week.
Then, there is damaged witness that has little to no possibility of setting right. Two missionaries in Germany got “plastered” one night because they simply wanted to taste the famous beer! Clearly, they lost credibility for a new Bible program they had come to support. The local people, who tend to know better how to drink responsibly, didn’t understand. Can you blame them?
There may be some ideas or rules endorsed by the church or program you are participating with, but there is a larger mission involved and everyone needs to keep that in mind. Yep, you may need to adjust styles of dress, behaviour and activity for personal and group safety while traveling to and fro. But each group member has chosen to be a representative of your organization while traveling in this different place. It is imperative to uphold individual and group standards appropriate to the mission and to the culture of the target mission point.4
And one more thing about avoiding exhausting a witness, the girl in the photo in front of the plane? Um, check to see if that is 'okay' in your destination and not an equivalent of 'the bird' as it is in some other countries. Just saying. :-)
Short-Termer's PROVERB #7:
“Rosemary for remembrance.
Stink Weed for forgetting.”
(Gentle Translation: Don't Forget Why You Came…
Not to Mention, Their Names)
You will never forget this experience on “the field” and I doubt that you truly forget the names of the people who touched you the most. But they might feel forgotten. You are miles away in your familiar environment while they are sweating it out in the trenches. It is easy, and natural, to get caught up in everyday life that we temporarily forget about that whole other world we stepped into for a time. Although I think I have improved my “memory” over the years, I have to admit that I am also guilty of “forgetting.”
Now that email is accessible in Honduras, I will try to write a big long letter to my friends there explaining what is going on in my life and asking about theirs. I feel pretty good that I take the time to do that! Pardon me, while I break my arm patting myself on the back. But instead, my friends down there complain that I don’t write. The gall! The last time I was accused of “not writing” I got a little ticked off. I do write! I write big letters! In another language! And in my defense, I only get bi-weekly notes from them simply saying (translated), “Hello. Greetings from your brothers and sisters in the Lord. I hope you are doing well and are happy at the side of your husband. We love you.” Then, there is maybe a sentence about their health, but it is almost the same thing every time. And half the time it takes me a few minutes to sound out their spelling so that I can understand what they were trying to communicate. All that pseudo boasting to say ...
Okay, first of all, if I take the time to remember who and where I am writing, I will also remember that my closest friends there live in a small village and have to travel two hours to use the Internet, and they do it on a regular basis. Secondly, I should appreciate this brief well-wishing because it is rather labourious for most of them to type. Third, most of them have a third grade education so yes, it is hard to read their misspelled words and conversational grammar, but it is also pretty huge that they spent the 15 minutes it probably took to write one sentence just to say hello to me. And last, I should remember to write more, if just to say hello or wish them well or to tell them I happen to be healthy that week. It means a lot to them and it’s no skin off my nose. It is one way they will know they are not forgotten.
Another more important way to “remember” is to COME BACK. It is admirable that some young people wish to have diverse experiences in a variety of countries. It is good for an individual to desire to do missions, but guess what? We, as leaders, aren’t really training you to be missionaries when we don’t encourage you to establish lasting relationships in a particular mission point.
I know of one young lady who did five different mission trips with her youth group. She is a sweet, humble gal who was very embarrassed when a leader held this up as an example for the rest of the youth to follow. But I also know of another young man who went on a mission trip to the Czech Republic from 8th to 12th grade. He has nine friends there who he communicates with on a regular basis. He made a personal commitment that he would keep in touch so that his new friends would expect to see his face when he got off the plane every year. He writes about himself, about the weather, about their school, their families…and their faith. Three of those nine have come to Christ. The permanent mission team in Brno watered these new believers and is watering the other six. But this young missionary planted an important seed by deciding it is an important responsibility to keep relationships.
“A fool and his money are soon parted;
often with a going-away party.”
(Gentle Translation: Avoid Accidentally Taking Away
a Long-Termer's Life Support)
Let’s get this out of the way immediately: there is no substitute for the career missionary. This should not discourage you nor should it invalidate your excitement. But the reality is that short-term missions, however helpful they are, do not balance a real decline in long-term commitments.5 Many talented and God-serving people like yourself are being sent in teams to administer formidable endeavours while there are many more individuals with long-term mission goals who are unsupported. This troublesome statistic raises the question who are these trips benefiting? If we are honest with ourselves, we may realize that the answer is ... *sigh* ... us. It makes us feel good to see ourselves building some structure and passing out food, clothes, or medicine in a slide show or a video. It changes our perspective to be with people who “don’t have what we have” or live in what we consider a cozy home. In this generation, where it is quite easy to travel, it is easy to want to experience other cultures and hope to do some good along the way. These are definitely serendipities to short-term work, but they should not be the only objective.
There are several churches in the United States who send thousands of people every year to do short-term forays in places like Zimbabwe, Bulgaria, Honduras, Ghana, China, Haiti, and Kazakhstan, while supporting no one on a full-time basis in those countries. It might be interesting to see just how many Christians would opt for donating to short-term teenagers instead of committing their resources to full-time missionaries. It is easy, it is a one-time gift, and it doesn’t usually hurt us. However, it does hurt somebody.
I have done short- and long-term missions. My parents were missionaries in New Zealand for years. Boy, do I know about fund-raising. And there is one thing I have learned that I would like to pass on to you. Maybe you can do something about it. I have been involved with missions for so many years and have many supporters, family and friends, through prayer or money. When my teams have had to raise money for myself on a short-term trip there is always the nervousness that we might not make our goal. But we always do! These supporters are big givers with big hearts for teen missions.
But then there is my cousin, Ryan. He and his wife, Amanda, are full-time missionaries in Mexico City. They are good missionaries. They send regular reports to their supporting churches and most of those reports contain a list of relationships they are making, church groups that are meeting in their home, or people who have come to Christ. However, they have had to come back to the states three times in two years to raise money and have still not reached their goal for daily necessities. And they don’t need much more monthly support than one and a half of my team members get for a week or two on a quick mission voyage.
The last time I lead a mission trip, we raised, among the 12 of us, over $20,000. Did you know that, depending on the country, it only takes about $15,000-$30,000 to support one missionary for an entire year? And we were only there for one week! I can’t kid myself by thinking we did more good in a week than Molly or Kim or Ryan do in a year. Our one week could have supported almost an entire year for some missionary, in some cases even covered their salary!
When you return from your trip, you will probably understand the great necessity for supporting full-time workers. Now. HERE IS HOW YOU CAN HELP: Remember them when you start making money, okay? Although $25 here and there throughout the year to support a short-termer is noteworthy, $25 a month makes a big dent in supporting our guys who have made mission work their career.
So no, our beloved long-termers aren’t merely exhausted by various difficult attitudes. What may tire many of them is seeing good monetary support deflected by difficult groups and sometimes even piece-meal humanitarian projects whose efforts have the long-lasting effect of a mere two months. There is a bundle of money going into short-term groups and some of these career missionaries could give some more expedient advice on where to spend it! They would also argue that short-term missions should not be discouraged, of course, but that it is imperative to seriously consider why we do them, encourage guidance, and then consider what we have to offer with the long-term effects in mind.
IN CONCLUSION! (Really, really.)
“He must become greater, I must become less.” (John 3:30)
It’s been on several mission t-shirts I have seen teams wear gregariously off the airplane as they try to look inconspicuously unlike North Americans. However, its proverb, its “prime directive” is clear: I will only assist, not interfere, in the order of God’s work of saving souls. I must humble myself so that he may be seen. I must exalt him in this mission and be here for his motives. I must take up His cup - and drink the water - not the river water that flows next to our bark hut in Australia, but the living water He so generously offers us time and again in His word. Through this water I will have - and offer - eternal life.
In short, simply be aware. Speak (or be silent) through your awareness. Avoid bad attitudes, useless projects, or pity parties that lead to giveaways. Work out of love and relationship. Make friends. Keep them. Work with your team and the mission leaders. Steer clear of assumptions. Listen to advice. Respond in humility. Pray a lot. Make time to read your Bible while you are there, just to refresh your mind and open your heart. Remember that Jesus was the ultimate missionary. He listened, He loved, He taught, and He healed. He can do all of those things through you too, if you let Him. Don’t throw a monkey wrench. Throw a miracle instead.
“…..and He sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.” (Luke 9:2)
1 Nagai, Ayumi. Interview, 2001. Country changed to deter severe embarrassment from the guilty.2 Wirgau, Kim. Interview, Predisan3 Dawidow, Molly. Interview, Polish Mission4 Miriam Adeney and Sue Church.5 Coote, Robert T. International Bulletin of Mission Research, Jan. 1995.
6 This blog article is edited and reprinted from Fann, Anne-Geri' with Greg Taylor. How to Get Ready for Short-Term Missions, 2006 Thomas Nelson.
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