I really like hot sauce. In fact, I recently tried to make my own. I went to the farmers market and bought some seedlings. I planted, watered and tended to my peppers for several months until they were mature for harvesting. After much research, I discovered that fermenting the peppers enhances the flavor so, of course, I chose to go that route. I prepared the brine, added my peppers and began the waiting process. And then, like a very sad anticlimactic twist in my adventure, I heard about botulism (a deadly illness caused by incorrect fermentation). My heart sunk. Had I fermented properly? Was it worth the risk to move forward? Six months later, my potentially poisonous peppers are still fermenting in the corner of the kitchen like a harsh reminder of my unfruitful labors. I haven't thrown them out. I'm still in denial.
Had I taken the necessary precautions, my story would have ended differently. In the same way, none of us want to invest our hearts, time or money in something that doesn't have lasting value. When it comes to short-term missions trips, we should carry the same mindset. Having been on both the going and receiving ends of short term teams, I have seen trips that truly benefited the local ministry and trips that were more of a burden than a blessing.
We must aim for the long term benefit of the local ministry. If we don't, there is a strong chance that we will be left with the question ( What did we really accomplish? ) and be disappointed with the answer. Before you go, ask God how He would use this trip to strengthen the local ministry in a sustainable way.
As we examine fruitful and effective short term missions trips, I think three aspects should be considered: the missionaries, the local church and the native people.
1. The Missionaries
Imagine treading water and trying to juggle at the same time. Welcome to the life of a cross-cultural worker! Missionaries have the unique job of ministering the gospel in a foreign context, and it gets tiring. Remember that most missionaries live on a tight budget and don't have family around. They often feel isolated and discouraged. Also, don't forget that missionaries are the ones who stay after your team leaves! When planning a trip, do all that you can to strengthen and refresh them.
Send a missionary couple on a date while someone watches the kids. This was a huge treat my wife and I enjoyed after eight months of not being on a date.
Relieve them of all financial burdens they wouldn't have if the team wasn't there. Pay for their meals at restaurants. You're probably eating out more than they normally would. If you take the team on a day trip, pay for their gas and tolls.
Take them out for coffee and see how they're doing. Even missionaries need to be ministered to!
2. The Local Church
Unfortunately, I've seen churches on the mission field frequently host teams from abroad to do things that the local believers should be doing. I believe this stunts the growth of the local believers by making them feel inferior or incapable of doing what the teams come to do. It can also communicate an unbiblical dependence on the West to serve and evangelize.
The reality is that the local believers are probably more capable than your team is at communicating the gospel in their context! They know their people, speak their language and remain when the team leaves. During your trip, try to do all you can to include them, encourage them and connect them to the unbelievers you're ministering to.
I strongly discourage street witnessing with a translator. Imagine how strange it would be for someone and their translator to approach you on the street like that. Have the translator share the gospel!
Let what you're doing be a joint effort. Whether you're doing outreach or working on a building project, involve the members of the local church.
Do something that the local church can't do by itself. For example, a team from America recently hosted free English classes at our church. Some of our believers and many unbelievers from the city attended. I taught the classes, and the team led small groups and built relationships. At the end of the week, we invited our English learners to a concert where they heard testimonies and a gospel presentation in their language.
The team had a specific purpose in coming. They did something we couldn't do by ourselves. Most importantly, this event connected unbelievers to our church, and we are still ministering to them.
3. The Native People
I'm not saying that missions teams aren't important! As foreigners, you will have open doors that the locals won't; people will be intrigued by your presence. Part of God's plan is to use His people to share the gospel cross-culturally. Just remember to be sensitive to the culture you're visiting, and be careful not to be offensive. Also, keep in mind that cultures outside of the West are generally more relational, so take time to talk and get to know people!
Ask the missionary for cultural do's and don'ts before you arrive!
Don't be obnoxious. If you're coming from America, remember that we tend to be much louder than other cultures. Keep in mind that you are representing the local ministry you're working with.
Learn some basic phrases in the local language. It shows that you care.
Build relationships as a way to share the gospel with the natives. Remember that these are people, not a task.
In the end, my hope is that these thoughts can help us do short term missions trips even better for the glory of God. May He prepare us for that day when we, with people from all nations, will be worshiping around His throne!