I've just made it back from leading a short-term mission trip in Fiji. I know, it's hard to believe me when I say we were flat-out the whole time with mission and ministry, but we really were! Which raises the question: is short-term mission valid? Does it actually accomplish anything, or does it just give a bunch of us punk-kids a fun experience at the expense of the locals? Is it just a way of 'christianizing' an exotic holiday?
I've wrestled with these questions for a good number of years. I've seen teams doing a lot of good, but I've also watched teams make mistakes - sometimes huge mistakes that almost got other teams banned from visiting some places. So, as I was a leader on this team to Fiji, I was wondering whether or not we should even be there.
Halfway through the trip we were set to run a sports afternoon at a school. When I showed up with the first van load we were tipped off that we'd also be running an assembly for the whole school. The girls were pretty phased, but I knew they had it - and within 10 minutes we had the whole thing planned out... including nominating someone from the next van to share a testimony. When that van showed up we had a total of about 30 seconds to update the rest of the team about the plan - including letting Rach know she would be sharing her testimony in a manner of minutes. Thankfully Rach sits at the far end of the 'easy-going spectrum' so she was keen for anything.
The assembly was a hit. Loads of laughter, sharing, singing. And Rach's testimony seemed to hit home. She shared openly about some of the struggles she has been through, and despite being from a totally different culture and from very different backgrounds, my impression was that this was precisely the message they needed to hear.
Before we transitioned into sports I quickly announced that Rach would be around in case anyone related to her story and wanted to chat. And then, with all the commotion that comes from a group of Kiwis playing netball against a group of (very good!) Fijian youth, I forgot all about it - that is until I was about the jump in the van to leave. I did a check to see where all our people were, and as I looked over the court-yard I saw her chatting with three girls. It was that moment that convinced me there is still a place for short-term mission. An outsider had come in and, perhaps precisely because she was an outsider, was able to share a message that spoke to where these girls were at. Had anyone else tried addressing the difficult issues Rach raised, I'm not sure the message would have made it through.
I’ve become a little sceptical of short-term teams, but this trip restored my belief in them. There are ways of doing short-term mission in a sustainable, generous, gracious way.
In Romans 1:11-12 Paul wrote how he was excited to visit the Roman church (a short-term visit perhaps...) so that he could bless them... but also so they could be a blessing to him. And that's what mission is all about - a mutual blessing, a give-and-take relationship, an interdependence between the 'mission-er' and the 'mission-re.' It's often argued that “so long as the team learns something, it’s ok that it produces no fruit” - never mind any offence done to the hosts, the undermining of long-term work, the negative attitudes they may bring (check out these four points from Jamie the Very Worst Missionary). But short term teams really can be like Paul’s experience – they really can benefit the people while also benefitting the team.
What do you think? Should short-term mission teams still be a thing? What is your experience of being on a team? Of hosting a team?
Is there a group in your youth group or school that would benefit from a short-term mission encounter? Why not get a discussion started - plus we're here to help get you and your group out there!
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