Encounter teams

Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Mission (Issue 28)

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At the end of a trip, one of the students uttered the words every leader hopes to hear: “This was the best short-term mission experience I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a bunch.” I’ve led my fair share of teams, so what made this one so good? Was it my amazing, charismatic leadership? … Actually, no! Perhaps ironically, it’s because we didn’t follow the typical approaches for short-term mission trips.

In many cases, short-term teams want to maximize the opportunity by visiting as many places, people and projects as they can. Instead, we decided to stay in one location and work with one church. And typically, short-term teams pack as much into the schedule as possible. In our case, it wasn’t long before our contact ran out of things for us to do! He’d even dismiss the team after morning Bible studies, telling us to “just take rest today.” We were in a bustling South Asian city, so once the contact left I’d whisper to the team: “we’re not taking rest today.” Instead we’d break into groups, ask God what we should do, and then go do it. We’d end up encountering new people, finding and meeting needs, and sharing life with various folk. It’s hard to summarise just how fruitful this actually was!

So why did my student think this was the best mission experience he’d had? “Because what we’ve done here is precisely what we can do back home.” Normally we run around doing so much, meaning there’s no way we can replicate it in our normal lives. But here, we were integrating mission and regular life. We were learning how to be open to the opportunities God was opening up in front of us.


This experience left me wondering: are there approaches and models for short-term teams that will help people integrate what they learn into their ‘normal lives.’ I’m not interested in people creating nice memories. There needs to be something of ongoing value from the experience for both the team and those we’re seeking to serve. How can we be making disciples (Matthew 28:19) not just good trips?

Many short-term teams go out with very little solid training – but good intentions are simply not enough! Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions (Moody Publishers, 2014) is a new biblically grounded training package designed to help short-term teams prepare, process and maximise their experience. It also helps teams avoid attitudes and practices that actually harm the communities we’re seeking to bless. Though it focuses on teams going to poorer communities, we think it’s beneficial for almost any team crossing cultures.

It’s made up of eight 90 minute sessions that include reflections, discussion questions and short video teachings. Each team member receives a Participants Guide to help them process all they’re learning, and the Leader’s Guide is designed to give the team leader(s) all they need to know to facilitate the training, preparation and debrief. We hope this package will assist many Kiwis put together, implement and process short-term mission encounters.

If you’re interested in finding out more or discussing your ideas for a short-term Encounter Team experience with NZCMS, email kirstin@nzcms.org.nz


For discussion

In what ways do teams need to prepare and train well – whether for a cross-cultural trip or local mission?

If you want to explore in your small group how these concepts apply to local (and global) mission, I can’t recommend enough the free online video series ‘Helping Without Hurting’


Exploring today’s missional issues from a variety of angles, each edition of the Intermission magazine will equip you and your group to engage with God in your community and beyond. To signup to receive the Intermission in the post, email office@nzcms.org.nz. Intermission articles can also be found online at nzcms.org.nz/intermission.

Through Their Eyes (Issue 28)

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“Finally got a cuddle with a white baby! #savingnewzealand.” Imagine me writing that in a support letter back to Kenya. Sound offensive? Yet how many short-term teams send home photos of themselves holding dark skinned orphans? It’s so commonplace that ‘instagramming Africa’ is actually a thing. We can be certain about one lasting change for almost every short-term team member: their Facebook profile image!

It’s often said that short-term teams benefit more from their trips than the locals they visit. But what do the locals think about teams visiting from the West?

I’ve hosted many short-term teams back in Kenya and now I send teams from New Zealand. While most of the teams that visited Kenya brought encouragement, I’d like to reflect on things we often don’t talk about. Here’s some don’ts for Encounter Teams written from a host’s perspective.


Many people have realised that short-term trips don’t always do much for those we visit. So why do we keep doing them? Often it’s for the personal growth of the team. That might sound good until we reword it: we use someone else’s poverty and suffering and shame for our own self-development. Does that sound right to you? Is that the ‘Jesus-way’ of mission? (See Philippians 2:1-11.)

However great the experience may be for us, the primary purpose has to be blessing those we go to. In fact, research suggests the transformation teams experience doesn’t often last very long. Once we’ve shown the photos, what actually changes in our lifestyle? Could making the primary goal a ‘good experience’ for the traveller be a reflection of our self-focused and consumerist culture?


You may say that you didn’t just go to ‘feel good’; you went to do something practical. One of the teams I hosted insisted they paint some school classrooms. Were they skilled painters? No. Had they ever even painted a room before? Perhaps not. We not only had to re-paint some rooms after they left, but also put our workers out of jobs for two weeks.

When you’re in a country with an unemployment rate of 60%, is it ethical to do what the locals could easily do themselves? It’s not necessarily that they can’t do it, or that they don’t have the money. It may just not be a priority.

Going into another culture, do we stop to ask what local resources already exist? Will our involvement lead to future sustainability and self-reliance? Will it develop creativity, communal concern and responsibility? Is our perception of their needs even correct?


Many teams end up doing things they never do back home. Why is it ok to preach while overseas but not in your home country? Or share the Gospel on the streets without any experience back home? Visiting teams need to prepare themselves for effective service, even if it takes a couple of months or even years. This includes learning something of the culture before you arrive.


Let’s be honest – Westerners love tasks! (That’s the stereotype anyway.) But completion of tasks can obscure relationship-building. One team was so focused on building a church facility that they virtually refused to interact with locals. In contrast, if a team ends up not doing ‘any work’ because they spent time having lots of cups of tea and talking, that’s okay. That may be what’s needed to open doors for ministry in that culture. If mission is framed as a project that can be accomplished and therefore left behind, what is communicated to the developing community that received workers in a spirit of friendship? How can teams instead prepare to initiate or enhance a long-term partnership?


If relationships are key, visitors shouldn’t be the only ones singing, preaching, witnessing and serving during the visit. When we hosted teams, we tried arranging home-stays for a couple of days so visitors experienced Kenyan family life. We also ensured there were enough locals on the team to help, not just with translation, but as equal co-participants in ministry. This reminds us that we’re a ‘body of many parts’ that need to work together (1 Corinthians 12:12-26).


In many parts of the world, hospitality is such a strong value that hosts often super-extend themselves to make visitors welcome (sometimes even putting themselves into debt). The ‘gifts’ host communities offer need to be valued – including non-material things such as a warm welcome, forgiveness for cultural blunders, their time and energy, protection from thieves, social guidance to negotiate an unfamiliar culture. Local food may not be to your taste but it’s served in a spirit of generosity. Often hosts provide food that‘s rarely eaten, such as chicken or goat, sacrificing part of their livelihood to honour the visitors. How offensive, then, is it for us to spend every meal complaining about what we’ve been served when it’s better than what they typically get to eat themselves?


I once insisted a team couldn’t take pictures in the slums or take more than five people at a time as it’d generate unnecessary attention. I was ignored. After the visitors returned home, we went back to the slum to do some teaching. The people who’d seen us with the mzungus insisted we give them any money we’d received and pay them for the photos taken. That team had left us with issues we had to sort out for many weeks to build credibility again. Encounter Teams need to humbly accept they don’t always know what’s best, or else they may unintentionally do things in the community that are culturally disorienting and disruptive.


A team I hosted brought a 40 foot container full of electrical appliances. Washing machines are great … but not in the community I was working. They had no regular running water, power bills were high, the machines’ voltage was 110 instead of 240, and we would have put people who do laundry out of a job. The team planned to ’fix’ our laundry issue but we didn’t need to be fixed. At least not that way. And the icing on the cake: the money used to clear customs could have employed 20 local people for a year!

Developing a passion for sharing, supporting and reaching out to others is important, but it needs to be well informed. Throwing money at a project can actually have negative impacts in the Majority World, often hindering where we’re trying to help. Well intentioned aid can develop a culture of dependency, and a subtle message can be communicated – that communities can’t help themselves and that local ways of doing things are always wrong.


If involvement in an Encounter trip is to be more than a tick on your bucket list then keep in touch with your hosts. The trip is the beginning of a journey, a relationship, an encounter.

Perhaps I’ve raised more questions than answers. I don’t want to discourage Encounter trips or generous giving, but these are questions we need to wrestle with, along with opening our wallets and investing our time.


For discussion

Go through and discuss the don’ts that stood out.

Read Philippians 2:1-11. How do these principles apply to your group’s local mission involvement?


Exploring today’s missional issues from a variety of angles, each edition of the Intermission magazine will equip you and your group to engage with God in your community and beyond. To signup to receive the Intermission in the post, email office@nzcms.org.nz. Intermission articles can also be found online at nzcms.org.nz/intermission.

Fiji, Faith and Justin Bieber

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I’ve made it back from Fiji! It’s been a whirlwind little tour.

It started off with visting our three Haerenga Interns for a debrief. It was fantastic to see them in the village context that had been their home for over a month and I was amazed to hear Warena conversing in the local language – I’ve been trying to learn Norwegian for about 7 years, yet he’s already about as far along with his Fijian! We then hopped on a bus across the Island to meet the team of students from Middleton Grange School, spending the next couple of weeks traveling with them.

I’ve not been part of a short-term team for a good number of years and I wasn’t quite sure how things would turn out. As should be expected when you throw a bunch of young adults (with only a couple of months before they graduate I don’t think they can be called kids anymore!) into a foreign context, the first few days were a little rocky. But we quickly found our feet as a team.

Most of the team dove on in head first – preaching for the first time, sharing testimonies for the first time, singing in front of groups for the first time, offering personal prayer for the first time. Some were a little more hesitant, but over the trip they also warmed up and started stepping out more and more. I can honestly say that every one of this group grew in their faith considerably over this short span on time.


To give you some insight into the sorts of things we got up to, we spent two days visiting a school in Sigatoka. On the first day we split our team into three groups, each group taking four Religious Education classes over the course of the day – quite the ‘deep-end experience’ for students who have never taught a class in their lives! My team was the cream of the crop (sorry other teams – but I really do love my little team)!

Our first class was a great hit – it turns out  white folk dancing terribly at the front of the class is quite the amusing sight. Plus I came up with a neat trick to get the energy levels high from the start. Throughout the day you could hear the constant commotion coming from the other classrooms where our teams were sharing. In a quiet voice I commented about how every class was listening  to the noise coming from all the other classes, wondering if they were missing out on the best show. So, to make all the other classes wonder what on earth was going on – and to make them wish they were in our class – we were all going to start laughing. Quietly at first, then building into a fury of hilarity. We’d take it down for a moment, then quickly build to an overwhelming roar of laughter. And when the other classes asked what had gone on, we’d all just say “you had to be there” and leave it at that.

Needless to say, we made all the other classes very curious!


It wasn’t all fun and games. The students took the opportunity to share their faith. One of my team shared her testimony openly with the classes and I’m certain it struck home for many. She’d also share a song or two with the class that related to what she had to say. It therefore seemed fair that, in a Year 11 class, one of the students share a song with us. After a lot of giggling one of the girls was nominated and came up the front. I was expecting a Fijian song so was surprised to understand the words she was singing. It wasn’t until we reached the chorus that I realized I knew the song – “Baby” by Justin Bieber. Needless to say, this was my favorite rendition of the song – thanks to the drumming on desks, the 30 person backing chorus, the Fijian swag added to an originally underwhelming song, along with the fact that me and the team couldn’t stop laughing at the whole situation.

So there you have it: Faith, Fiji and Justin Bieber collided in the most unexpected way!

Final Reflections

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A team from Christchurch has recently returned after a week long Encounter Mission trip to Fiji. The team of 25 offer their final reflections from their time in Fiji. 

The 25-members of the team have visited remote villages that have never hosted a white group before. They attended six churches – from the Suva Cathedral, to the ‘tin cathedral’, to a make-shift church in a bus garage. They have heard about the plights of people kidnapped from the Solomon’s and brought as slave labour to Fiji. They combined with Cathedral youth to minister breakfast on Suva streets before dawn; learnt about specialist laptops developed for majority-world countries at the University. They heard the testimonies and singing of students from an Anglican High School. They met children living in an orphanage. And they experienced living together ‘marae-style’ at the Bible College.

The team sang and taught songs, shared personal testimonies, spoke out publicly to groups, prayed for strangers, and offered themselves to serve as best they could in the villages they went to. So what were some of the common reflections from the team members, mainly aged 15-21 years, many travelling out of NZ for the first time? Here is a summary:

“When I wake up every morning I need to be more grateful for what I have.” “No food, really means ‘NO food’. If you don’t catch fish, you only have your crops to eat.” “The villages gave from what little they have, and they gave us their time.” “Fijian people are so welcoming. We were strangers, but they treated us like family.” “We need to learn to be more thankful for what we have.” “They have a richness of spirit and poverty of wealth, and I would say we were the opposite.” “Second chance schooling was encouraged and appreciated.” “My faith has grown and I want to grow even more in God and stay connected with him.”

The team also has put their lessons into a mission action plan for when they come back to NZ, in response from the incredible, inspiring, life-changing experiences they have had. Commitments they have made include:

To partner and invest in establishing a kindergarten at the coastal village they visited. It needs furniture, books, stationery and toys. A donation by the team of Fj$1600 is being pledged. Bula material for the children at the orphanage is pledged of Fj$400. (The Golden Oldies ladies will then use this material to teach them to make their first-ever bula dresses and shirts in August.) To establish a ‘reverse mission’ and fundraise to bring students from Basden College to NZ for a mission in 2015, maybe even to Easter Camp. To gather up children’s bible story books for the Sunday School group at the tin cathedral who have no books for teaching. To find ways to support the amazing ministry and people of the St Johns Bible College. To give thanks to God for this life-changing experience. This short term mission has enabled the team to grow personally in their faith, but at the same time it has established further partnerships with the people of Fiji, to build the Kingdom of God.

A final thought shared with the team: “Did you know, your visit to that remote Melanesian village way up the Singatoka valley has meant so much to those people. Taking time to travel there has uplifted their spirits. They will talk about it for years. Bula Vinaka”

To hear more about their time in Fiji visit their blog at www.encounterfijimission.com