Going South of the Border for a Short-Term?
Understanding the pitfalls and proposing healthy guidelines for short term work in Mexico
Could it be true that a good portion of our short term missions effort actually hinders God's work?
Popular cross-cultural evangelistic programs are based on given assumptions. Some of these can actually impede the progress of contributing to a healthy, indigenous local church.
This article explores these assumptions and the problems of dependency that have grown out of short-term missions. Specific emphasis is given to work in poorer Mexican settlements along the U.S./Mexican border, identifying problems and giving practical suggestions for improvement.
North Americans need to be encouraged—not discouraged—for involvement in missions. This overview will aim to provide a framework that will aid in decision-making about investments of time and resources in outreach. Hopefully, it will also be a tool to better judge the broader consequences of cross-cultural work.
The following example may demonstrate how assumptions have strongly influenced our decisions and evangelistic work, especially in Mexico where short-term North American evangelism is popular.
A Typical Evangelistic Case
In a fast-growing, poor border settlement, a great number of men, women and children brave the cold wind and clouds of dust and dirt in an open field. They have come to see a film on the life of Jesus being shown by a short-term evangelism team. The people don't complain that there are no chairs or benches. For almost two hours, the crowd shivers in the cold watching the Gospel film to the end. At film's end, an invitation is given and well over half of those present raise their hand to accept Christ. Food and used clothing are passed out to the crowd and prayer is offered for the new believers. The visiting group leaves, happy to have made this spiritual impact.
Assumptions of the Evangelism Team
- The people are so open and hungry for the Gospel. The cold wind and blowing dirt was a small sacrifice to have the opportunity to see the life of Christ presented. The response to the invitation confirms this hunger. The decisions for Christ are perceived to be genuine.
- The quick willingness to follow the prescribed plan of salvation demonstrates acceptance. The productive work of the group and the film used were the Godsend for which the community was waiting.
- The people are just waiting for someone to share the Word with them. The number of conversions is unbelievably high.
- The cold wind and blowing dirt is nothing new to the people here. This same film has been shown in the community a half dozen times already over the last few months with many of the same people attending. Many of those who made professions of faith did so at a proceeding meeting as well. After the visiting group leaves, people talk about which group gave more food or better used clothes as they walk home.
- The act of "accepting Christ" may have different meanings for the visiting evangelists and their Latin audience. The audience may be poor but can be very astute. They have figured out their visitors long before the visitors have begun to understand them. The evangelism and related "help" simply requires a political alignment of sorts. They learn from experience with visiting groups that "accepting" Christ by raising their hand, coming forward, repeating a prayer, etc. at the American's invitation may better align themselves for the handouts that often follow.
- The fact that people brave the cold and wind is not necessarily a sign of sacrifice to hear the Gospel, but to participate in the only public entertainment in town, especially in communities far from public services. They brave the same cold and wind when traveling movie trucks come into the community with films of violence and sex, and even pay a fair sum to attend.
- With typical evangelistic efforts, there is often a great disparity between the hearing and the understanding of the Gospel message. The vast majority of evangelism focuses on the people hearing and accepting a given message. Yet, in most cases, a critical link is missing–the link of understanding. A large number of both missionary and national efforts have failed in teaching the Word in an adequate, understandable fashion. Although some groups claim that God has sent them out to plant seed while committing the harvest to the Lord, all too often their approach mocks sound Biblical principles and the seed is cast to the wind.
- The perceived number of conversions is indeed unbelievably high. The misconceptions of the visiting group will lead them to return home to prepare larger outreaches involving more people. In doing so, these misconceptions are further propagated.
In the sprawling city of Tijuana, Mexico, there is an abundance of North American ministry groups seeking to help the poor. A steady stream of aid from the north provides what can seem like an endless supply of used clothes, food, housewares and other goods donated to the needy.
Among the recipients are Mexican churches who happily host visiting groups from the north. Churches, outreach programs and ministries have popped up by the dozens in almost every settlement. Many of these have a generous partner church or churches from north of the border. Vacation Bible schools, evangelistic crusades, and drama teams coupled with distribution of food, used clothes and other goods usually bring about the desired result: many "decisions for the Lord."
A number of teams—House-builders, church-builders, evangelism, food distribution—contribute to see God's church thrive in Mexico.
By and large, these efforts are well-intentioned. But the frequent result, often unrecognized, is not what they sought. An unintended consequence is the creation of unhealthy dependence leading churches to look north—rather than up—for support of the church and its ministry.
Decades of time, hundreds of thousands of workers and millions of dollars have been poured into countless projects. Yet in the massive movement of evangelical activity, it will benefit us to stop, step back and ask a couple of questions which seem to have been overlooked for far too long.
- If these mission activities have been so successful as assumed, then why—in many cases—do the benefiting churches seem to become dependent on them?
- Could many of these supposed great ministry outreaches be the very elements which have crippled the churches which they intended to bless?
To the first question, I believe the answer is a simple one: many of these popular ministry efforts may be considered a failure. A growing number of national pastors and long term missionaries report finding few real followers resulting from such efforts.
Our North American cultural value of immediate gratification has affected our view of reality, creating a desire for instant cross-cultural evangelism. Today, one frequently finds mission organizations promoting short-term evangelistic teams going to foreign countries to evangelize the nationals without knowing the culture or language. Apparently they believe that these major factors are easily overcome by using some translated North American tract and perhaps a native speaker to translate testimonies.
Financial Support—Strength Or Weakness?
The second question prompts an answer that I believe is strongly tied to the first. In many cases, North American ministry efforts abroad have created a case of extreme dependency. We have seen too many national churches and their perceived successes become totally dependent on outside groups for their ministry vision, finances and programs. Many groups seem to embrace the paternalism created by their financial ability to "make it happen."
As long as there are North American groups distributing goods tied to some evangelistic effort, I have observed an apparent willingness of people to "get saved" over and over again as each new group comes to share the Good News with them. Maybe our standard of measure is not an accurate one—and what is viewed as ministry success in actuality might be a ministry failure.
Many North Americans have heard the stories of mass conversions in Mexico—and quietly questioned their validity. Yet, they don't state their skepticism for fear of being pegged as "anti-missions" or "unaccepting" of God's great work abroad. But the reports of such dramatic advances by North Americans with limited foreign language ability and cultural knowledge makes one suspicious.
Misinterpreted Culture, Values and Response
There are other assumptions North Americans have made about short-term evangelistic efforts. The interpretation of "response" has often been very wrong. Short-term evangelistic groups have often misinterpreted Latin cultural values as intense interest in their visit—and have returned home to recruit others to join them. There are communities along the border which have seen four times as many vacation Bible schools as there are vacations! In many cases, the different groups use some of the same type of dramas, clown shows, puppets, skits and crafts. And the same children get "saved" over and over and over again with the invitation of each new group arriving on the scene.
Partnerships Creating Dependency
Dependency finds fertile ground in other popular trends propagated by short-term evangelistic activity. Foreign churches and short-term mission agencies can form what may appear to be an attractive church partnership with a Mexican church. The proximity of Mexico to the United States makes such an arrangement quite feasible.
On one hand, many American ministries have perceived the general population as very open to the Gospel and their evangelistic programs. On the other hand, they see the small local congregations and their poor church buildings. This can easily lead a group to believe that if only they could help these small churches, they could be as "successful" as their own church. A partnership is formed.
This partnership often boils down to a simple definition: the foreigners influence the direction and norms of the local ministry with their monetary resources and volunteers. The Mexicans' participation will be to help meet the Americans' objectives. The group returns to organize some relatively well-funded "outreaches" to "help" the Mexicans. One team builds them a better church building, another leads a vacation Bible school while still another team prepares for a service that night and passes out invitations throughout the community. North Americans can be perceived as dominating and controlling. More often than not, they forcefully step in and take control—although they may not realize that they are viewed as doing such.
Few pastors will speak up or reject these offers of help even if inside they resent the paternalism and humiliation of being directed by a group which many times doesn't speak the language, know the congregation or understand the community in which they work. A congregation struggling to learn to depend on the Lord and to be a light in their own community can find it easy to surrender their responsibilities and needs to a wealthy group which is more than anxious to assume these responsibilities.
The initiative of the congregation to meet their God-given opportunities and duties can be squelched by well-meaning outsiders. Pastors can be led to compromise their convictions if it means a financial and/or material connection might be established. Dependency is created and propagated, and it all grows out of misguided assumptions. Partnership or assistance in themselves aren't always bad because there are appropriate times and places to help. The problem comes from what might grow out of such assistance.
Ownership, Blessings and Dependency
It is indeed more blessed to give than to receive. This may explain why many national ministries supported by outsiders are not blessed. They are in a position of perpetually receiving. By the nature of most short-term work, the giving is almost completely—if not exclusively—organized, administered, supervised and evaluated by the short-term group or mission. From this their sense of ownership grows. Rarely do the nationals feel much ownership, if any, of ministries that depend on the outside. When, for whatever reason, the foreign organization or church moves on and the visiting groups fail to arrive on the scene, the national church with all of its prior busy activities can evaporate.
Charity and Pity Can Spawn Dependency
In my observation, North Americans often pity national churches. Groups are sent to "fix up" their buildings, do their evangelism, preach in their services, lead vacation Bible schools for the church and other programs geared to build the church. Sadly, these churches find that their own efforts pale in comparison to the well-funded foreign programs. They can lose their initiative. Some become corrupted, seeking an inside track to foreign groups and the resources they bring. The church may abandon its indigenous efforts and become dependent on the foreign support.
Effective Short-term Ministries
This is not to say that short-term groups cannot be a great asset abroad. They can. Well-directed short-term groups have done many great works in Mexico and around the world. Schools and medical clinics have been built. Groups have worked hand-in-hand with their national counterparts in bringing appropriate community development projects to new settlements. Short-term groups have participated in cultural exchange programs, sports clinics and some in using specialized technical skills or teaching. Short-termers can bring personal help, encouragement and technical support to field missionaries and established national works. Some are willing to go exclusively as prayer teams. The testimony of hard work, selfless giving of one's time, energy and resources can powerfully challenge and encourage a local church. It can also be a strong testimony in the community as an extension of the local church.
Although there are many arenas in which short-term missions may play a beneficial role, in most cases direct evangelism is not one of them.
One Mexican pastor captured the tendency of the North Americans to foster a sense of materialism. "Yes, these groups do stimulate interest amongst the people, but the interest is of a material nature, not spiritual. Actual spiritual interest diminishes as a result of these outreaches," he said. How careful we must be not to cause someone else to stumble.
A successful group understands its strengths and weaknesses in participating cross-culturally. Many groups want to contribute something big or extraordinary. It needs to be stated and understood that this cannot be promised. Any agency that does so is misleading if not totally misguided. In most cases, groups will work very hard but will never be able to directly trace their work to any far-reaching spiritual impact.
Actual solutions to the short-term ministries' dilemma are perhaps easier stated on paper than they would ever be implemented in real life. Solutions would include:
- Adequate training of short-term group leaders and groups.
- Elimination of involvement in typical and direct evangelism programs.
- A coordination of groups with carefully evaluated appropriate ministry activities.
Although implementing the above would injure or close down many short-term ministries, the few willing to make the investment of time and effort will find the investment to be of eternal value for both the short-term team and those interacting with them.
The Responsibilities Of Sponsoring Agencies
For more than two decades, I have worked closely with many short-term groups, serving as a missionary in Mexico and South America. I am convinced that the vast majority of short-term missions are of much greater benefit to the short-term participant than to those to whom they minister. It is crucial that short-term groups come with that understanding. It's a three-fold task for any responsible church or mission sponsoring short-term ministry to:
- Provide maximum opportunity and challenge to participants to strengthen them in their walk with God.
- Seek maximum value of their ministry to and with the community and local believers.
- Minimize the damage that may occur to the local people, churches and their ministries.
Commenting on the issues raised in this article, a missionary recently remarked, "The people who most need this are probably the ones least likely to read it. They are the mavericks, the independent types who want to do their own thing, make their own contacts and refuse to listen to anyone. They are spiritual disasters waiting to happen."
Mutual Benefits Reaped When Sound Principles Are Followed
Group size: Generally when a group exceeds ten members, the dynamics of the group begin to change dramatically. Larger groups usually imply larger logistical questions, projects and organization leading to undesirable assumptions and perceptions of those in the community. In my experience, smaller groups typically have more personal involvement and make more of a positive impact than larger groups. They fit better into the community. Sadly, many short-term ministries would not survive if they worked with smaller groups, as they are built on the premise that bigger is better. They depend on larger groups to finance their objectives.
Short-term members as learners serve more effectively: Those who go as learners will have more opportunity for a deeper, meaningful testimony than those going with a more traditional "missionary" mentality. Meaningful opportunities emerge when individuals seek to learn as much as they seek to teach, listen rather than just speak, observe as opposed to constantly "doing."
People and programs: As North Americans from the U.S. and Canada, we must realize our tendency to be project and task oriented. Latin culture—as well as other cultures around the world—can find us cold and disinterested. Latin culture is people oriented. Projects, program schedules and "getting the job done" are just not as important as people and relationships. Understanding and appreciating this intrinsic dynamic alone would reform many outreach approaches.
A number of other factors contribute to effective short-term ministry abroad. Most are related to our assumptions about ourselves and our understanding and appreciation of other cultures. These qualities, along with godly character and spiritual maturity are critical to productive impact.
We could learn a great deal from those who have avoided being entwined in the selfish cycle of dependency arising from being a ministry target. Viewing oneself as poor and therefore needing the material and spiritual benevolence of others can lead to a welfare mentality. Viewing oneself as a follower of Christ who, although materially poor, has spiritual riches to share with others, leads to another mentality. The following story is one such example.
A Lesson on Responsibility
Marcos is a member of a poor congregation located in a settlement where there is no electricity, sewer, running water and other services. He is a man who lives in a fast-growing Mexican community where there is much foreign, short-term evangelistic activity.
Although we work with this church in teaching and training, the church does not have any evangelistic activity carried on by outside groups nor does it give anything away to attract people to attend services. To the contrary, the poor congregation is not seeking help from anyone, but rather they are seeking to serve others. This small church is sending support to a ministry in Mexico that is translating the Bible into an Indian language. They also fully support their own missionary candidate in training for cross-cultural ministry.
Marcos works in a dangerous factory job. The work is heavy and hard. The pay is minimal, even by Mexican standards. Marcos and his family live in a home made of scrap wood covered with tar paper, a few old salvaged garage doors nailed together make another wall. The floor is dirt and the roof is leaky. Most would call it a poor shack, but to Marcos and his family, it is home. Marcos received a bonus at the factory where he works. Upon arriving home, he and his wife prayed together thanking God for this extra blessing.
They proceeded to make a list of their needs. I don't know what all was on their list, but they could have easily spent the entire bonus on fixing the roof, laying concrete over their dirt floor, covering the walls to better protect their family from the elements and buying clothes and food. Instead, this couple concluded that a sizable portion of the small bonus should be sent to the mission field.
This was a natural conclusion for Marcos and his family, and it is not an isolated case. Giving in this small church has resulted from their receiving an understandable, chronological teaching of the Word. This brought them to a saving faith which they, in turn, desire to share with others. They also send their offerings to missionaries working with unreached people groups, some in other countries.
Why this outward focus? This ministry was raised on the premise of not viewing people as just ministry, but seeing people—yes, poor people—called out to be followers of Jesus Christ. Once saved, they need to be taught further, discipled and challenged to reach out to others, to go make disciples.
Although Marcos lives in a community characterized by a lot of foreign Christian benevolence, evangelism and aid programs, he has avoided being entrapped by the dependency these programs have brought to many in his settlement.
Marcos gave testimony to the fact that one of his biggest blessings has been the opportunity to be part of a missions effort to see the lost of his country reached for Christ. This is something he feels God has called them as Mexicans to do. Marcos and the others from his church, sometimes with great risks and sacrifices, continue their ministries.
Is it right for us in North America to stand by while our brethren struggle to support their own ministries? Yes, it is right. Foreign ministries which permit this struggle are doing more than just ministering, they are allowing opportunities for others to minister as well.
Those who give to ministries working with the poor should look to partner only with organizations that know when to stand in the gap and when to let a gap remain—that it might be filled by the indigenous church.
Organizing a Short-Term Missions Team
Short-term groups can be of great encouragement and help when pointed in the right direction. Groups can be a great blessing in helping ministries and working alongside the national brothers and sisters in a respectful manner. The following six practical points may help in organizing a short-term team.
- Group leaders should visit the field before taking a group. Visit a number of different ministries and compare notes. It is amazing what a few hours of visiting and prayerful consideration will do. Ask lots of questions yet be objective and realistic in evaluating responses.
- Find projects that contribute to encouraging the local ministry. Group leaders will have to lean heavily on the integrity of those locally responsible for some good steering in this area. A good rule of thumb is to veer away from doing for the people what they can or should do for themselves. Sometimes physical help or a prayer team can be more appreciated than a well-financed group coming to "do what the people have not been able to do." Creating dependency is never good.
- Determining a credible ministry can be difficult. Looking at some past history with both Mexican and American missions can be helpful. Big numbers, big programs or big construction projects don't necessarily reflect great spiritual leading.
Ask questions. Some good questions to ask may be:
- What were the vision and goals of this ministry when it began?
- Who started the work and why?
- Where is that person today?
- What happened to the original ministry?
- What has happened to the people who were ministered to five years ago?
- What have past North American groups done at this location or in the surrounding community?
- What has been the result of those investments? Were they used to build up a denomination, organizational status, someone's personal agenda, or have they been used to see others reached, discipled and taught in a responsible, godly manner?
- How is financial accounting handled?
- Good missionaries are good students and respectful, sensitive guests in the countries where they serve.
- Group leaders should be encouraged to know that leading a hard-working servant group can be a great asset to the spiritual ministry of a church. Your example of servanthood and "giving of self" can be a strong motivating factor to other believers.
A recent informal survey of national pastors showed they have a healthy concept of the limitations and the abilities of outside volunteers. Some pastors said they did not want volunteers bringing a lot of money. They also observed that volunteers do not do well as personal evangelists. They said the single greatest blessing of short-termers was their motivational example. The Mexican brothers saw the sacrifice they make to come and assist. It encouraged them with a model of servanthood.
Rick Johnson is the director of International Action Ministries. Contact: 619-276-3557 or by mail 2610 Galveston Street, San Diego, CA 92110