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Short-term Missions: Who Decides What the Needs Are?

  • David A. Livermore Global Learning Center
  • 2012 6 Aug
Short-term Missions: Who Decides What the Needs Are?

One of the things that drove me to write a book was my concern that short-term missions just might continue to operate on the same mistakes that have been true about our mission work in the past. The assumption that we know what is most needed by people in another place is the assumption that allowed Rome, England, and Spain to say their colonialist domination was not purely self-centered. Our financial wealth, and all the amenities that accompany that, easily inclines us to think we know what these people need.

I’m often at national conventions where short-term mission organizations are exhibiting. When I walk up to talk to ministry reps from these organizations, I ask them how the national church is engaged in what they’re doing. Consistently I hear, “Oh yes, we’re very committed to working with the national churches there. We ask them if they want to be involved.” Did you catch that? We ask them if they want to be involved. Maybe we should start by asking if we should be involved at all, and if so, how? What might it look like if nationals helped us open our eyes to the real needs? Not only is it colonialist to invite nationals’ input on the back end of planning, but we often end up doing irrelevant and costly work. Local ownership means more than inviting participation or asking for input. It means letting the local churches actually direct and shape what we do in our cross-cultural efforts; they ask us if we want to be involved rather than vice versa.

Building projects are one of the most popular kinds of short-term mission endeavors—building churches, rebuilding homes after a natural disaster, building ministry centers, and so on. I’ve done my share of mixing cement, painting walls, and nailing in studs. Believe me, if you knew my total ineptness at any kind of “home-improvement project,” you’d get a good laugh thinking about me trying to put a roof on a church building in South America.

How do the locals feel about our building pursuits on “their” behalf? As with most of these issues, the reviews are mixed. Many nationals express gratitude for seeing fair-skinned kids give up two weeks of vacation to sweat it out as they mix cement all day long, a world away from their backyard swimming pools. We’ve all watched the video testimonials about how life is completely different now because of the homes built, the hospital maintenance that took place, and the brand-new roof on the church.

As you would imagine, others struggle with the thought of how many locals could be employed by investing the money spent on a typical short-term building project. Local ministries see short-term groups raise money for a one-week trip that exceeds the national ministries’ annual budgets. Jo Ann VanEngen, a missionary in Honduras, contends, “Short-term mission groups almost always do work that could be done (and usually done better) by people of the country they visit. The spring-break group spent their time and money painting and cleaning the orphanage in Honduras. That money could have paid two Honduran painters who desperately needed the work, with enough left over to hire four new teachers, build a new dormitory, and provide each child with new clothes.”5

One Honduran bricklayer had this to say about his experience working with a building team that came down: “I found out soon enough that I was in the way. The group wanted to do things their way and made me feel like I didn’t know what I was doing. I only helped the first day.”6

Across the ocean in Africa, a leader in Zimbabwe asks us to remember that Africans also know how to build buildings. In talking about one of the groups visiting his community, he says, “It isn’t that they didn’t work hard. . . . But they must remember that we built buildings before they came, and we will build buildings after they leave. Unfortunately, while they were here, they thought they were the only ones who knew how to build buildings.”7

Is it wrong to build buildings when we go? Some think so, but I don’t. I think there’s a place for it, but we must temper such projects with our understanding about the true needs and what we truly have to offer. We do have something to offer, but let’s discover what that is through dialogue with the majority world church. A group from my church just returned from a couple weeks in Rwanda. Within their first hour in Rwanda, the local team said, “Ninety percent of your job is done. You’re here. Your presence speaks volumes.” One of the team members told me she thought, “Well, I don’t think so. That’s gracious of you, but we’re here to work hard.” The longer she was there, however, the more she began to see that the tasks they came to do were not what was needed most. The presence and chance for relationship together seemed to be the most pressing need for the Rwandan church beyond any menial tasks that were planned. Do the menial tasks; they teach us about serving, and we get to serve alongside our brothers and sisters. Be sure to remember, however, that painting a room for our brothers and sisters or putting in windows isn’t really what it’s about. It’s about meeting a deeper need that’s in us and in them.

This article was adapted from Serving with Eyes Wide Open by David A. Livermore. Used by permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright 2006. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.

David A. Livermore is executive director of the Global Learning Center at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and is cofounder of Intersect, a ministry that provides leadership training and consulting to emerging leaders in ministries around the world.