In my last two blogs I wrote about being “American-centric”. I said that we need to be aware of our tendency to see the world through our own culture, and that we can counter that by opening the doors to new experiences, cultures, and opinions. Not only should we be aware and counter the tendency, we must understand how to interact appropriately when traveling outside our culture.
As a follower of Christ, I believe that short term missions trips are a necessary and valuable part of the church. I also know that planning and executing a trip can be tricky at times. I have found that when going to another culture, effectiveness is most often determined by timing, appropriateness, and adaptability. So how can you measure if the mission or project is going to be successful? Here are a few basic questions that I think are essential for you to ask yourself before planning a trip or project overseas, to make sure you’re not being American-centric!
- Who initiated the project? Often, who initiated the project is the greatest predictor of how successful it will be. Why? Because people on the ground have the most accurate understanding of the real needs in a community. Too often, people come in with ideas and projects that just will not work (or are impossible or inappropriate to the culture). It is also much more likely that the people who initiate are the ones who will take ownership, and getting local ownership is essential.
- What is culturally relevant? I heard of a project recently that wanted to build a house for a pastor, which is a great idea. However, they did not first consider what is appropriate. The team built the bathroom inside the house. And in that specific culture, bathrooms should never be in the house. The bathroom and the house were never used after the team left. Despite good intention, breaking cultural norms can be very damaging to your work.
- When are you doing it? Timing can be everything. You have to consider if the people you are working for are available and ready for it. Are you doing a VBS while the kids are supposed to be at school? Timing also means knowing if the people are ready for your work. Have the locals shown the passion and initiative to be apart of it? At CFA, we do not open a center at a church unless the church has first taken the intiative and demonstrated interest in helping people with HIV.
- Where will the project be in ten years? You have to think longterm and sustainable. I have seen many projects that were started and never finished or not maintained, like half built churches or water pumps that are too rusty to use anymore. Who will maintain the work? What is your follow up plan? Obviously a lot is unknown, but try to think what the implications of the project are. You are not just done when you leave, there are always left behind effects of what you do. If its an outreach event, who is shepherding the people who came to know Christ?
- Why are you doing it? This requires an honest assessment of your intentions. Are you trying to make yourselves better known or feel more accomplished? Or are you humbly wanting to serve people who need to know Gods love? Is it to share Gods love, or to build a resume? Your intentions will certainly come out when the work begins through the way that you serve. If you go out of pride and fullness, you will not have maximum impact. But if you go in humility with brokenness, you will be sharing in the grace and the joy of the Gospel together with those you are serving.
- How will you implement the project? It’s important to use the right avenue for change. This will also determine the success and effectiveness of the mission. Will you go through the church? Will it just be your team? Will you involve local volunteers? Use the channels and avenues that will be most effective. I think the most effective projects are ones where locals take ownership and involve the local community and church body.
Sharing the Gospel must be our motivation and focus while working overseas. Ultimately, the point of our work is to fulfill the great commission and share Christ with every nation and culture, not diluting our message with our own selfishness or cultural biases. This needs to be demonstrated in any work that we do overseas. In 1 Corinthians 2, Paul says, “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified…so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom but on Gods power.”
At the end of the day, I hope that we bring the pure and simple Gospel message of Christ to the nations; nothing more and nothing less.