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Through Their Eyes (Issue 28)

“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 Intermission articles can also be found online at

7 thoughts on “Through Their Eyes (Issue 28)

  1. Thanks Steve, I’ve observed the same where I am at serving at the moment. People come knowing what’s best and then I hear comments that ‘the missionaries’ left us in this mess.

    Fully agree with the import costs of donated goods to be found from a non-existent budget, so if you’re thinking of donating things, please think about the import taxes and duty and send some money to cover it.

  2. Thank you for your comments. It’s great to have a conversation about these issues. I’m currently hosting an Encounter team of 22 Kenyans in New Zealand. I have asked them to reflect on these issues too as they reflect on Kiwi culture and we are having fascinating conversations.

  3. It was painful to read all that , but it’s very true. In the Central Asian country I was in a short team could be a worry . I lived there for 10 years and it can take a long time to learn the culture and try and see the world through their eyes. After one western team’s visit to a neighbouring country all mission workers got thrown out. They had not listened to advice they were given and caused a big problem .

  4. Very compelling read Steve. You have honestly pointed out some fundamental facts that often affect the cultural, economical, and sustainable well-beings of many. As I read the article I couldn’t help but reflect on my recent visit to Kondoa, checking on my own behaviour… Thank you for the insight.

  5. Excellent article – tells it like it is! Sometimes short-term mission is justified on the grounds that it’s a first step towards long-term missionary service but I’ve seen research (can’t tell you when and where now!) that suggests that very few people make this transition. Why do you think this might be?

    1. Two fold I think Ian. The realities of living in a different culture are too difficult. Secondly these trips are often undertaken as periods of time out, annual leave or sabbatical.

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