My American, suburban eyes view the world through lenses seemingly crystal clear. Decades of travel, however, have revealed the heavy tint on my lenses. When experiencing a new culture, I tend to compare people and circumstances with my own everyday norms.
I am not alone in my lens-tainted version of the world. From sipping morning coffee to earning a day’s wages, we each have our own “norms.” It is what we know. With little warning, however, this familiarity ascends to the standard by which we order the world. In our increasingly connected planet, it behooves us to stop and call out these silent navigators. We can then step into spaces that allow new sight into our world’s varying expressions of life.
When I serve with mission partners on short-term teams, I receive the gift of immersion into new communities. I humbly become the learner. The new-to-me food, traditions and lifestyles represent ingenuity and adaptability. Culture manifests in their everyday norms. Amidst this diversity, I find a stunning representation of God’s creativity.
Many churches engage in short-term missions well, preparing team members and supporting their field staff. They allow us to connect with what God is doing around the world while also clearing away the tinted lenses of personal impressions. With the ever-increasing numbers of short-term missions, we can embrace their benefits in the many facets of discipleship and evangelism.
In my upcoming book, Mapping Church Missions, I explore the interaction of short-term missions and culture. Below is an excerpt from the chapter considering the benefits and the potentials. (The book is available for pre-order through InterVarsity or Amazon).
“The afternoon sun warmed the hut. I paused to allow my colleague to translate my English teaching into the Karen dialect of the Thai village. The women and men in the room leaned in to hear the words in their native tongue. A few nods and guttural affirmations encouraged me that the message transferred.
“Outside the window opening, peeping chicks drew my attention as they scurried behind their strutting mother hen. A cow and her calf moseyed by the open doorway. Barefoot and dusty children darted in and out of the hut. All eyes returned to me. I continued my teaching on women leaders in the Bible. Then another pause for the translator. Repeat. Earlier in the day, I had watched a young man emerge from the jungle bush. With a well-worn Bible in one hand and small bedroll in the other, he had walked several days to attend the teachings. He was a pastor in a village farther south. In a bamboo hut down the dirt path, my missions teammate and home church pastor was teaching the basics of preaching.
“I looked around my sparse classroom and marveled at my presence in that place at that time. Our ministry in Thailand came after years of partnership with a career missionary. My heart swelled with joy at God’s grace to draw me to this unreached and forgotten corner of the planet. Here the Lord would use us to teach the Scripture to his followers so young in their faith.
“Our small team of six came to Thailand at the invitation of our longtime mission partners, Austin and Sinte House. Along with the indigenous staff of Farthest Corners, the Houses’ focus is in Southeast Asia, specifically Burma/Myanmar. Our short-term mission group came to teach pastors, women and children. Farthest Corners evangelizes and disciples emerging leaders among the nationals. Occasionally, they host short-term missionaries to bring special training, much like we host guest speakers in our U.S. churches.
“Our team’s time in rural Thailand improved our understanding of Farthest Corners’ mission field. We stayed with local families in their stilt homes, sleeping on bamboo floors and eating traditional foods. As we immersed ourselves in the culture, we learned about differing worldviews and the unique struggles of the Asian church. Furthermore, we deepened our connection with our mission partner. Many miles of traveling and teaching together enriched friendships that would last well beyond the two weeks we were there.
“When we turn to Scripture, we find evidence to support short-term mission projects. On numerous occasions, God incorporated short-term assignments to fulfill his kingdom purposes. Nehemiah’s fifty-two-day project to rebuild the walls in Jerusalem may have been the first short-term mission construction project. God’s travel plans for Jonah directed him on a brief evangelistic mission to an enemy nation. Paul’s missionary travels were a series of short-term missions in different cities. The Lord guided him on a seed-planting ministry from city to city throughout the Mediterranean region. Most places Paul arrived and departed within weeks, sometimes within days.
“Concern over the financial costs of short-term missions prevents many people and churches from undertaking the effort. Scripture, however, reminds us that God is the ultimate owner of all our wealth. Sometimes, he directs its use in ways beyond our understanding. From the opulent temple in Jerusalem to the expensive perfume that anointed Jesus, we observe how the Lord’s use can differ from our expectations. I would likely have echoed the disciples’ objection that ‘this perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor’ (Matthew 26:9). But we have an extravagant God who works in extraordinary ways.
“No price can be placed on affection. God places unparalleled value on relationships. Financial resources alone mean precious little in our journey to fulfill the commandments to love him and to love one another. As orphan care advocate Gary Schneider once told me, ‘God sent Jesus, not the gold of Fort Knox.’ It was the physical presence of Jesus and the relationship he offered that changed the world. Similarly, the Lord calls us to be present with others. No amount of worldly wealth will replace people caring for one another. The influence of a Christ-filled heart cannot be duplicated through cash.
“There are numerous benefits that can be derived from short-term mission trips. First of all, these teams can enhance partnerships between the local church and mission partners. Furlough visits begin relationships, but the connection strengthens when short-term mission teams serve in the field. As missiologist J. Rupert Morgan explains, ‘The twenty-first century North American church does not want to be involved in missions simply by proxy but wants an active role, and short-term mission trips fulfill this desire.’ Congregations want to connect beyond financial support and monthly updates from the field. With the ease of travel and the means to do so, members are ready and willing to serve.
“A congregation can also learn more about the culture and the missionary as the team is training for their short-term mission project. Sunday announcements, newsletters, and blog posts can update the church and share needs from the mission field. A financial collection can be organized to purchase items in the field, such as supplies for the children’s ministry, household goods for orphanages, or a night out for the missionary family. Not only will the donation be an economic blessing to the missionary’s community, but it also offers a way for the congregation to be involved. Team leaders can also share a calendar of the team’s expected daily ministries, which not only invites the congregation to pray specifically but also gives them the chance to learn more about the missionaries’ daily life and ministry.
“Short-term missions also increase our appreciation of globalization. The reality of our multicultural life is evident today in our neighborhoods, workplaces, and the marketplace. Short-term mission projects develop our cultural intelligence by increasing awareness of other people and their customs. David Livermore explains that short-term missions “can enhance our ability to interact across cultures day in and day out as we move throughout the twenty-first-century world.
“When serving with the Thailand short-term mission team, for example, I confronted my culturally limited view of the gospel. The guilt-innocence culture of my Western worldview caused me to understand the salvific work of Jesus differently than people do in Asian cultures. In their shame-honor worldview, the language of redemption and ‘payment for sin’ is not effective when sharing the gospel message. I learned, instead, to describe God’s desire to restore honor by removing the shame of sin. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection allow my disgraced self to enter God’s family. God’s kingdom spreads more effectively as we become more educated ambassadors of his message. Lessons learned for a short-term mission project alter our perspectives for a lifetime.”
(Taken from Mapping Church Missions by Sharon R. Hoover. Copyright © 2018 by Sharon R. Hoover. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downer’s Grove IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com)