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American Georgetown University men's basketball team and China's Bayi men's basketball team fight during a friendly game at Beijing Olympic Basketball ArenaA friend of ours just returned from a short-term mission trip  where she worked under very primitive conditions. All I am going to mention is there were rats as big as cats—that says it all, doesn’t it!

They had a good trip, they accomplished all they went to do, but in reporting privately to her family about the trip, she said, “They prepared us well, trained us well in every area—except for getting along with each other!”

Several years ago, we had three women from the same congregation who had been friends for decades go on an LST project to a Baltic country.  These three women, all mature Christians, shared their faith daily with former Communists, but by the time they returned home, they weren’t talking to each other anymore.

 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

Whether you are going for one week or one month or one year, every short-term mission group– young or old, large or small (number of workers, not size!), experienced or inexperienced—needs preparation and equipping for loving one another under what often can be very challenging circumstances.

Why do short-term missions sometimes bring out the worst in us?

  • People who have figured out how to navigate successfully their normal circumstances are suddenly confronted with unfamiliar, foreign situations that challenge their competence.  This makes good people tense!
  • People who are used to being in control are not in control. This makes them critical of those in control, who aren’t doing things properly!
  • We are not usually forced to be around others 24/7 to whom we are not married. (And some married people are not used to being with each other 24/7). In such circumstances, no warts or quirks or distinctive differences can be hidden, so a much higher level of tolerance toward otherness is required.
  • Jetlag, long hours, little exercise, “bad” food, lousy beds, no hot water—the first four days it’s just camping out!  The longer the mission trip goes, the crankier these external irritants can make us.
  • A short-term mission is a high-stakes mission!  The higher the stakes, the less tolerance there is for error! Or perceived error!

Let me illustrate with a personal story that makes me laugh—now!

Sherrylee and I had not been married but four months when we moved to Germany as members of a mission team. We were deeply in love (and still are!), but within 48 hours of arriving, we had this huge fight because we needed to catch a street car, and we didn’t know how to buy tickets.  She, being the totally confident one that thinks she can charm her way out of any awkward situation, wanted to just get on the street car and talk to somebody and figure it out on the .way.

I, on the other hand, who does not ever want to get in trouble and has to know ahead of time what the “rules” are, was not about to get on the streetcar before we had figured out what the ticketing procedures were.  Of course, that was extraordinarily difficult when we couldn’t read the signs and we couldn’t speak the language, and the tram conductors only stopped for a few seconds (or so it seemed). But Sherrylee would just have to wait until I figured it out.

Oh, no!  She started getting on the streetcar—as if she thought I would just defy everything in me and get on with her and trust her to make it all work!!  What was she thinking—but I couldn’t stop her, so I got on too—illegally! And I was just panicked. It was Adam and Eve all over again.  And I was furious about it.

In retrospect, it was such a little incident with no significance—and we are still married 43 years later, but it is just these kinds of small, insignificant tests of patience and tolerance that too often undo the much-less-committed-to-one-another relationships in short-term mission groups.

If you don’t prepare for conflict, then you are not a well-prepared mission group.

Watch for the next post on how to prepare for conflict on short-term missions.

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Dan BouchellePart 2 of a series of guest posts by Dr. Dan Bouchelle, President of Missions Resource Network

Here are a couple more suggestions for doing STM in ways that bless both those you go to serve and those you take on the trip. For earlier entries see my last two posts.

  1. Do what the locals cannot do themselves: It is tempting to take groups of Americans to developing countries to do hands on projects that make Americans feel useful in fighting practical problems. So, we take dozens of people thousands of miles and spend tens of thousands of dollars to do carpentry, plumbing, concrete work, painting, pass out fliers or hand out food and clothes. This is good and hard to criticize. It is doing good and not wrong per se. But often it makes no sense to the local people and can create resentment in places where people with the needed skills in the church or community badly need the work and can do a better job for a fraction of what Americans spend getting there. Not to mention, hiring local people helps the economy, fights poverty, and creates opportunities to form relationships that could lead to making disciples. If you are going to do a service project, bring something the locals cannot do or hire done with your help. If you are bringing a group of people with special skills, e.g., medical personnel, and the local church requests you come as part of their ministry strategy, that is a good use of your trip. Also, doing an English as second language ministry is a great way to help out. People in many parts of the world are desperate to learn or improve their English and will jump at a chance to talk with Americans even if that involve reading the Bible together. Let’s Start Talking does this extremely well and I highly recommend them to any church wanting to do short term missions. LST logo
  2. Do what you are asked to do: It is easy to forget our reason for going and decide we want to rid the world of ____________ and then try to find someone who will let us fulfill our dream in their location. For example, we all want to see people get clean drinking water, end sex-trafficking, reduce preventable diseases, etc. We see the news about huge problems around the world. We feel guilty about our blessings. We want to “make a difference.” So, we develop this dream to go and fix problems other places. But, when our goal becomes to satisfy our need to feel significant rather than help people who really want us there and can benefit from our presence, we can end up being a problem and spend lots of time and money on projects that come to nothing after we are gone. Most of the systemic problems we want to solve are too complicated to address meaningfully by a trip of a week or two. A short-term mission trip may not be the way to address the issues we want to fix and no one may be asking us to fix them anyway.
  3. I know of one ministry that recently spent tens of thousands of dollars drilling a water well in an African village so the people did not have to rely on contaminated river water over a two mile walk away. However, when they returned, they learned the women of the village walked past the new well as they continued to make the two mile hike to the river to get water. Turns out, this was the only time the women of the village were able to talk among themselves and get away from their husbands’ expectations. That meant more to them than clean, convenient water. Perhaps that well should have been drilled two miles away, or maybe the ministry should have listened more closely to what the people in this location believed they needed. There are broken water wells all over the developing world lying unused because no one was taught how to maintain them. But, the people who put them in have some cool pictures to show back home about how they made a difference. The stories like this are endless. The point is, we don’t always know what is needed and need to listen and think long term as we follow the lead of the people on the ground. This is not about us.

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Dan BouchelleDr. Dan Bouchelle is the President of Missions Resource Network, one of the most central missions organizations serving Churches of Christ in the world.  He is writing an important series on short-term missions that addresses the mixed feelings that many missionaries and congregations have about short-term missions, but he is also offering very positive and specific guidance, which I appreciate.  He has given me permission to share these writings with you.

Last week, I posted an introductory piece on the conundrum which is short term missions (STM). Few things can breathe life into a church and help believers rediscover their purpose quite like doing ministry in cross-cultural settings. On mission trips, life is so different that we can’t take anything for granted and serving others in the name of Jesus there changes us. Something about having our routines and expectations shaken by being in a place we don’t understand, and cannot manage well, opens up a path for God to grab ahold of us and us to grasp him back in fresh ways. Being useful to God among people who don’t look like they can do anything for us does much for us and we come away with the greater blessing. However, sometimes getting the benefits that come from going on mission becomes the goal instead of the serendipity and we become a burden on those who provide us access to other countries and settings.

So, how can we do STM in a way that provides a worthwhile blessing to those we serve without creating a problem? Here are the first two of several suggestions to come in subsequent posts.

  1. listenListen and submit to the leaders on the ground: Don’t go assuming you know what is needed, overly eager to make a difference in ways that make sense to you. You don’t live there. Even if you speak the language, you don’t understand much of what is being said and not said. You don’t know what is needed. You don’t understand the unintended consequences of your presence after you leave. Focus on building relationships with local leaders, especially national leaders, which are strong enough they can tell you what they need and then submit to their direction. This will take time and patience. Go as servants not saviors. Help them with their objectives in ways that fit their operations. Don’t compare them to churches in the US on some scale of “conservative” v. “liberal” because you don’t understand how the gospel speaks in their setting. Don’t carry your American culture or church culture with you. The way you dress, the way men and women interact, who prays and who doesn’t, the way you shake hands or look at people, all communicate things you don’t understand. Ask for guidance and submit to what you hear without judgment. Remember, this is not your country, culture, or community. You are there to help them, not to have an experience that fulfills you. Go without an agenda so you can serve a better one.
  2. Only go where you are invited: If you ask to bring a team of people to a missions location, especially one your church supports financially, you are likely to hear “yes” even if you are not needed and are not helpful. You will probably get a “yes” even if you are a burden. Why? Because Americans are green and most of the world is polite. Americans look like money and many church leaders around the world know that where Americans go, money often follows. Turning down an American team risks offending donors or potential donors and that is a frightening prospect to churches who are often in an unhealthy state of dependency on Americans anyway. On top of that, saying “no” requires a level of confrontation that is considered rude by a high percentage of the cultures in the majority world. Hospitality is a core value of many cultures and they just can’t refuse to take people in, even if they are a burden or problem. Believers around the world will host Americans and provide for them in ways they would never provide for themselves because that is part of their value system. They may not want you or need you, but if you tell them you want to come, they will probably smile and act like your presence there is a great honor and blessing when it may be an expensive distraction they cannot afford. But, they also may think they can’t afford to say “no.” American teams, whether a group of unskilled teenagers or a team of highly skilled medical professionals, can do a great deal of good and bless ministries around the world if properly utilized. But, American churches often don’t do enough cultivation on the front end and unknowingly do as much harm as good because they assumed too much. Not everyone needs us or wants us to come, especially when the value we bring is not a fit or a priority for the work.

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Honestly, the first time I was asked to do a short-term mission trip, I agreed only because I could not figure out a good enough reason to say no. I was in college, so I even called my parents because I felt sure that they would want me to come home in the summer . . . but, in fact, their answer was, “You need to do what you think God wants you to do.”  I finally committed with my heart and not just my head—and I’ve never stopped. Thank you, Mom and Dad!

So here are a few tips about making the decision the first time, and I say the first time because I do believe that if you go once and do something meaningful, you will continue to find ways to go.

  1. Don’t expect all of your motives to be spiritual. I think many people do not hear the call of God because they love to travel, love to experience new things, love to meet new people. Who do you think gave you these desires? For what possible reason could He have done this? Instead of viewing these as personal or selfish desires, recognize their intended use and go!
  2. In two weeks or less, you can change the focus of your life!Especially if you are at one of those critical points in life, where you are trying to decide what you are really doing that is meaningful?  People who are now unemployed, who fear unemployment, who are nearing retirement, who are into retirement and finding it boring, who are disabled from physical work, who are unhappy in their profession with just punching a clock—a short-term mission project can give you brand new glasses to see your life with.
  3. You will never have more fun! Time spent doing the will of God—all day long—will beat fishing, skiing, cruising, touring, hunting—because it is everything you enjoy about these activities wrapped up into the same package, but framed with an eternal purpose.  When you show someone how to pray, or tell them who Jesus is for the first time, or hear them trusting you with the burdens of their heart because you care about them; when you see the light of understanding go on in their eyes, when you see your new friend baptized—and the huge smile on their face . . . it is so much more than a great round of golf.
  4. “Can you afford it” is really the wrong question. The fact is that a two-week mission trip will probably be much less expensive than a two-week vacation.  However, your investment in a short-term mission trip will come back to you for the rest of your life—and afterwards. Can you afford not to go?  (I’m going to write about raising funds shortly, so watch for those tips too.)
  5. Age doesn’t matter very much!Eighty-year-olds have gone with LST on missions. Eight-year-olds with their parents have also gone. In many cultures, age is revered.  Years ago, a man said to one of our older workers, “I’ve never met a Christian with gray hair.” His comment was the result of too many American Christians thinking that short-term missions were just a youth group or college student activity.  A friend of ours in her 70s just lost her husband this year, but she took her grief and her loneliness to eastern Europe to fulfill a mission call. Now  she exchanges the grief with the joy of pouring her life out for Christ and the loneliness with all the people God brings to her.  Her new life and joy is palpable.
  6. Be strong and courageous and do not be afraid!Fear is our enemy. God spoke these words to His people over and over again in scripture. Count them up if you don’t believe me—then do something to overcome your fears.
  7. Don’t procrastinate. Do it soon! Why should you wait? Does it sound like any of the excuses given for not coming to the Great Banquet? (business, relatives, obligations) Don’t surrender your seat at the table because of just couldn’t decide to do it.

 

I’m not particularly proud of the story of my first decision to go, but I did learn something that stuck with me. Whatever your reasons for not going are, if you will simply set them aside and go, your life will be changed because you are right in the middle of the will of God. I know that is true.

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The biggest hindrance to Christian youth and college students participating in short-term missions is their parents. I really hate to say that but after thirty years of recruiting college students for summer mission projects, I know this to be true.

Here are a few thoughts for Moms and Dads to think about to help them be more comfortable with what their young people want to do for God.

1. If your goal for your child is that he/she holds on to—even grows in—the faith you have tried to share with them, you need to let them go when they feel called. A great study done by a psychology professor at Abilene Christian University may be all I need to cite:  His study of 25,000 young people in churches of Christ showed that a “summer mission experience” was the top factor correlating with those students who continued in their faith after high school.

2. Before you ask your child to be “sensible” and …….(you fill in the blank with summer school, job, visit Grandma, internship, etc), you should ask yourself what message you are sending about the place of the kingdom in his/her life. Young people tend to “walk by faith” a little more naturally than we adults who have learned what the worst case scenarios are and who try to cover ourselves with insurance against such.

3. Check to see if you are afraid for yourself or are you afraid for your child. Some parents have not traveled much, never been out of the country, never had a passport (even if you are governor of Alaska!). No wonder you are a bit anxious about releasing your student to go to China or Africa or ………  Millions of Americans go overseas every year—for much less important reasons that sharing their faith.   “Be strong and courageous and do not be afraid.” We have to teach our children Christian bravery.

4. You don’t want to teach your children fear of random violence! One year we had a grandmother who offered to pay her granddaughter to stay safely in Oklahoma.  While the daughter was safely in Germany, the Edmond post office massacre occurred near her “safe” home in Oklahoma.  Unless we want to be crippled by fear, we cannot be live our lives afraid of random violence.

 

5. The best response to your child is to say YES–and to go with them! There is no better activity for Mom and/or Dad than to share some special time serving with your young person in serving the Lord.  Yes, you can do that any weekend at home, but to really step out on faith together, going somewhere very different, meeting people that are very different, but doing the most important task in the world together—there is nothing like it!

Sherrylee and I sometimes wondered if we were ruining our children by taking them with us each summer to do Let’s Start Talking—from early children through their teen years.  I guess I better let them tell you what it has meant to them. . . . but I know that God used it for good, and they are all people of strong faith.  Isn’t that what you want for your children?

 

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Clint Loveness, a friend and Let’s Start Talking participant has created a great story video that speaks about young people, video games, and missions. You probably want to share this with your teens and grandteens!  It’s just over four minutes, so click below and enjoy it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJGuAInoOlk

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I promised to tell some of the stories behind the LST Expectations and Commitments, formerly known as the Guidelines.

First, I want to say that almost all of the stories come from the 1980s when Let’s Start Talking was just beginning, and we were learning how to do short-term missions in a very new way!

Secondly, all of these stories revolve around people who were 19 or 20 years old and have since become very mature, responsible people.  These early stories should not reflect on them anymore than they do on Sherrylee and me and Let’s Start Talking now.

Too Much Wine

At the same time when most of the home churches of our students still preached and proscribed total abstinence from all alcoholic drinks,  Western European Christians virtually all drank beer frequently and had an occasional glass of wine.

Almost without exception our first workers were offered beer and/or wine during those early LST projects by their hosts!  One of our young women who had never even tasted wine before saw a glass poured for her at her host’s dinner table one special evening. Panicking a little, she decided that she would just down that one glass quickly and get rid of the problem. Of course, her host immediately poured another glass, which the student chugged as well!  She really doesn’t remember much of the rest of the evening.

After hearing this story, we decided it was just better to insist on abstinence, thus Expectation #7 – Protect the integrity of your testimony!

Too Much Romance

It was the very day their team was leaving for Germany on an early LST project.  They had been dating for some time at college and had come to a critical point in their relationship.  He was ready to ask her to marry him. She was trying to figure out how to break up with him!

As it sometimes happens, she found exactly the right moment to break up with him just before they boarded the plane for their six-week LST project together!  He cries for the entire flight, while she talks to a young Air Force officer that she just happened to be seated next to.

After this team had been on the field for about a week, Sherrylee and I get an emergency phone call! Come to Hildesheim! The entire team is engulfed in civil war, with the guys on His side and the girls on Her side!

Sherrylee and I drove up from Mannheim, met with the team, laid His and Her’s relationship out in the open and tried to bring some peace and harmony to the team. By the end of a very long evening, everyone is crying, everyone is hugging, so sorry for the trouble that has been caused. Everyone is going to do what is right. He is going to be stronger!

We leave, but before the second week is over, we get another emergency phone call from the team! It’s not working! He can’t eat; he can’t sleep; he is so heart-broken that sometimes he can’t even get through a conversation with His readers. She on the other hand is just having a great time—which makes Her team members mad who now almost all feel sorry for Him.

We drive up there and offer Him a little break—a few days away from the team so he can pull Himself back together!  He accepts, and we make the arrangements for Him and take Him to a friend’s home for a few days.

In the meantime, we learn that it makes all the guys mad that He is “punished” by being taken away from the team, when She is the problem!

Anyway, after just 24 hours, He calls us and says he feels so much better and has rejoined the team. Thanks for having given Him such good advice and support!”  So, we think, maybe they will hold together until the end of the project, which is now just three weeks away.

Three or four days later, we get the call and NOTHING is working right, so we drive back up to Hildesheim, move Him off of that team permanently, and place Him with another team about four hundred kilometers away.  It’s not ideal, but it is the best we can come up with.

The Hildesheim team seems to improve with some of the tension relieved. We visit the young man on His new team, who, in general, is better as well—especially since one of girls on the new team has started paying Him special attention!!

Well, two weeks later, all of our LST teams meet at a Frankfurt hotel for our EndMeeting before we fly back the next day. We meet together, pray together, and just celebrate what God has done during the summer!

After the meeting is over, He comes up and wants to talk to me privately. As He explains it to me, before He and She ever left the States on this project, they had planned to travel around a little together, visiting friends in Italy. He wanted to know what I thought He should do in light of the current situation.

I told him, “GO HOME! Are you crazy? After all you guys have been through—what are you thinking??

Against my advice, He and She traveled together to Italy.

Three months later, they were engaged.

In May of the next year I performed their wedding ceremony!!

Unbelievable!

But as we have pointed out to our workers each year since, what was the effect on the mission project? So, because of this incident—and many similar others, LST has a very strict no Romance policy—sometimes called affectionately our NO LOVE policy.  Today it is Expectation #5 – Use all of your time for developing spiritual relationships and none of it for romantic relationships.

Btw, He and She had many happy years of marriage until He died of a brain tumor just a few years ago. They were faithful Christians, leaders in their churches, all of their years together.

Lord, forgive me the sins of my youth!

 

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