Monday, 17 February 2014

Are you being served? A look at short-term missions.

Service is kind of a big deal. Everyone can think of an example of bad service. It sticks with you. But, GOOD service is what I want to talk about today. Good service is a really big deal... not just at the gas station or a restaurant. In schools, service learning is becoming a major focus for students because it's effective, it promotes engagement and self-direction and it asks more than listening, absorbing, and consuming.

Churches should have this "service learning thing" down pat. After all, Christians are supposed to be following a servant king.  The words justice and mercy are mentioned over and over in the Bible and in fact, if we claim to be Christ followers, then we believe that God redeemed us from our own failings and gave us a new chance at life that we couldn't fix or work hard enough to make right on our own. Talk about mercy and grace. But sometimes it seems like we are pretty happy to sit comfortably in the grace zone... the zone that seems to encompass ideas from "resting in God's grace!" to "I can do whatever I want y'all! All is forgiven."

But... if we are saved by grace and we claim to love this God that keeps harping on love as a verb, who seems fairly concerned about the every day physical needs of people,  then we should maybe be concerned about those things too. Right? I think that's what James was getting at when he addressed the same issue:
James 2: 14-18  Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?
18 I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, “Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I’ll handle the works department.”
Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.
We could argue philosophical view points, but as people, we know deep down that we are made to contribute, not just consume. So... how?  How do we serve? Even though there are about a billion little ways to do this every day, I know I get caught up in the big dramatic ones. On December 28th, Nathan, Emily and I headed out to Kapsowar, Kenya, ready to SERVE. To contribute. To make a difference. Maybe that was unrealistic for such a short time (8 weeks), but we, wittingly or unwittingly, were determined to GET INVOLVED.


I should have had my head on straight. I've participated in short-term projects or "missions" before and I know that they consistently provide more for the person participating than for the people or place being "served." I know too that people are most able to make an impact in their own circles, in their own cultures, and in their own communities.

Still, there's something humbling about arriving somewhere and realizing that you are actually adding to the strain and workload rather than relieving it. In being served, rather than serving.

What is behind this need to MAKE AN IMPACT, to BE MEANINGFUL, to be USEFUL? Maybe, just maybe, these lofty ideas are more selfish than serving. I am reminded again that in any sort of "mission" project, the people coming (and inevitably going) tend to take a lot more than they bring: resources, space, time, emotional energy and a whole lot of patience from nationals and long-term residents alike. And, realistically, a short-term trip to somewhere far away is expensive. I'm usually the first critic to say, "think of what that money could have accomplished if donated to _____."

So I'm here in rural Kenya, I don't speak the local language, and I can't really DO anything flashy like dig a well or rescue some orphans or join the Olympic runners on the road. I don't get all the cultural nuances, I can't LEAD in any way and people are going out of their way to include me in their daily lives and routines. Over the last two months here, even as Nathan hit his groove working in the hospital, I've been really aware of being served, by the long term doctors and families living here, by Edna, my friend and house helper, and by locals in the market, in church, and on the street.

Don't get me wrong, I get involved in everything I can and the people here are incredibly welcoming, but what I'm trying to get at is:  

What's the point? Why even bother doing this sort of thing? 
What value is there in it? And, if there is value, how should you approach a short term trip like this without being a complete drain on the long-term people in place? Without being a total clumsy muzungu foreigner 100% of the time?  

I don't have any answers, but here are a few of my flawed observations.

The point.

I love travelling. I love learning. I love seeing new things and places and people, but that isn't the point.  At the base of it, I guess the point is the same as it's supposed to be at home, just amplified: to glorify God day by day. I think we get so taken up with what we should be DOING (no matter where we are), we forget what we should be BEING.

In the words of my mom, "God is not as interested in the service as the servant."  I think about Jesus' interaction with Mary and Martha and here's Martha all busy getting everything ready and working her tail off to fix some amazing meal  and Mary was jut sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to Him, learning from Him, enjoying His company.

 Her goal was to get as much of Him as possible and THEN she went out to serve everybody else... Out of that relationship. Out of that love. Out of that place.

This is a lesson I have to learn over and over again. So, oddly enough, the "point" doesn't change, no matter where you are. I need to be focused on glorifying and enjoying God, then FROM THERE,  I am a wife to Nathan, a mom to Emily, and I can interact with all the great people and quirky things that end up being my day.

So why bother going somewhere else to do the same thing? What's the value? 

I think short-term mission or service-based trips should be renamed "learning from friends." It sounds like a gimmicky after-school program, but the three things I think can't be gained from home are:

1. Real IN YOUR FACE awareness. You get to physically be with people that can answer questions like: What is God doing here? What kinds of needs are there here? How can I get involved? What's in this soup? and Where do you get your hair done? 

2. Relationships. Places and problems become real when they are your friend's real life... when you are sitting in your friend's house, joking around and sharing tea. You can't do that from your own couch, on a different continent. You just can't. 

3. Change. Going somewhere else to learn from friends will change YOU. Whether or not the people you meet will remember you, you will remember them and you take that home with you, you spread it around to the people in your life there, and God uses that time in your life to make you more of who He wants you to be and to give direction to where you should be headed... which usually doesn't involve sitting at home on the couch (which is unfortunate, because couches are so comfortable).  

So, to me that's the point of short-term trips. Awareness and relationships, changing yourself, linking people together that wouldn't have interacted otherwise. Spending time sitting at Jesus' feet and then heading out from there.

So what does that LOOK like?  


Do I just go somewhere and sit around being awesome? 
Maybe, but this never works for me (I end up just eating a lot of cookies and getting grumpy).

"We take the action, and the insight follows, not the other way around."  -Anne Lamott

I think participating in a short-term trip looks a little bit like a do/don't list. Here's mine. It's tragically flawed and in progress (just like me). Feel free to disagree.

DON'T:  I am learning these, one foot-in-mouth moment at a time

  • Make assumptions (donkeys galore)
  • Insist on sharing your talents/gifts in the way you want to or are used to. It might be inappropriate or kind of ridiculous. Feel it out. Wait to see how you can fit. 
  • Demand cultural "experiences". You want to sing with the children or pump water at the well or whatever? Don't make someone else stop their normal life to help you "experience" something. See what normal life looks like here. 
  • Throw cash at problems. Don't create dependency or provide a "feel good" quick fix. Talk talk talk to locals and workers to find out how best to partner with people if you notice a need you think you could help with.
  • Treat local people like projects. This is likely how so many countries end up with travel warnings.
  • Talk louder when there is a language barrier. As North Americans, we are already the loudest most obnoxious people on earth. Yelling won't help.
  • Make it all about you (cut to profile pic of you and the cutest local child you can find. You don't know their name, but they are soooo cute).


  • Your chores and take responsibility for all the stuff you can do for yourself. Done that? Good. What are people still providing for you? Can you take ownership of any of it? Yeah? Do that too. 
  • Look around and see if there is anything you can do to take some of the pressure off someone else. Can you buy them veggies too? Make some lunch/snacks/cookies? Entertain their kids? Feed their iguana? Play soccer with the neighbours? Play bridge with Grandma? Whatever. 
  • Get involved. Do it quietly and do whatever you can without it being a huge hassle or a big deal.
  • Tag along. You don't have to lead/develop/take over. In fact, you probably won't be able to and you'll likely be a nuisance if you try. I think we undervalue service when it isn't all flashy-feel good, but you will likely learn way more about people and places if you just dig in and show up in the every day stuff.  
  • Get to know everybody you can. Work at developing friendships. If you're doing your chores and not being a pain, people will probably at least not run the opposite direction when they see you coming. (If they do that, don't take it too personally. There was probably an emergency or at least something more interesting going on). 
  • Keep some perspective. Remember that you are short-term, so you need to be worth investing energy in. This is all "wow! new! amazing!" to you, but the long-term person you are interacting with is going to have a brand new YOU lemming next week/month/year and then POOF, YOU leave, so be worth interacting with. 
  • In the same vein, try to learn as much as you can before you come, so you only ask five idiot questions a day (instead of fifteen). Learn and use as much of the local language (my attempts are dismal at best) as you can. 
  • Listen, listen, listen (I'm working on it. I talk too much), ask questions and listen some more. Learn as much as you can about as much as you can. ASK what God is doing here. ASK what's going on. Find out from the people that actually GET the culture, get the broad picture. You can get the gist a lot faster from listening than deciding on your own. Think you're so intelligent you can figure it out from your observations?   A story: Day two of Nathan and my Kenyan "experience" we observe a lady in Marakwet dress, dancing around a field, waving a stick, and circling chickens for about ten minutes. Ah, a traditional ritual? A rain dance of cultural significance? No. She has dementia and the chickens are a fascination. Good thing we asked, right? See what I  mean?   
  • On a related note, laugh. Laugh at yourself. Laugh with other people. Probably don't laugh AT other people. I haven't really been anywhere that goes over super well.
  • Examine your own heart and purpose. What strikes a chord? Look at your life and the things that you need to change.   
  • Respond. So you're going home. Now what? What responsibilities do you now have because you have been invited in to someone else's world? How can you better support people staying behind? Figure it out. Do it. 

So I guess what I am trying to say through this long rambly post is... yes.

I think there's a place for short-term "learning from friends" trips and you may even encourage someone else while you're at it.

We can all do small things with great love and we can all look a little further than our comfy couches and we may just find the joy that Christ offers (and that I tend to run around looking for everywhere else) all wrapped up in that package.




  1. I have been on several short-term trips overseas and I have read the same criticisms toward short-term missions as you have included in your post. I have found that in every trip I have gone on, my presence has made an impact on both the people I served and the people (friends) back at home. I think short-term missions gets a bad rep, but there is something about being able to physically hold an orphan or sit with a leper that no amount of money can accomplish in "helping" others. Being intentional about the relationships you make wherever you go, no matter how long or short your trip, is certainly important, because there is something only you can offer to Kenya that no one else in this world can offer. Blessings!

  2. Thanks so much for your comment! Yes, I definitely agree that there is an incredible personal and social impact and that our gifts as individuals are valuable. I appreciate your perspective.


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