Elephant and Mouse were best friends. One day Elephant said, “Mouse, let’s have a party!” Animals gathered from far and near. They ate, drank, sang, and danced. And nobody celebrated more exuberantly than the Elephant. After it was over, Elephant exclaimed, “Mouse, did you ever go to a better party? What a blast!” But Mouse didn’t answer. “Where are you?” Elephant called. Then he shrank back in horror. There at his feet lay the Mouse, his body ground into the dirt—smashed by the exuberance of his friend, the Elephant. “Sometimes that is what it is like to do mission with you Americans,” the African storyteller concluded. “It is like dancing with an Elephant.”
Here at 20schemes, we’ve hosted scores of short-term teams over the years. The above illustration is very popular in missiological circles and serves as a good reminder to Westerners about their approach to the phenomenon of short-term mission trips. What I’ll unpack in this article forms part of a teaching session we do with all of our visiting teams. Others have also addressed the issue well.
As a missionary in Brazil, and now as a pastor in Niddrie for the last 12 years, I have hosted countless short-term mission teams from all over the world. I’ve experienced first-hand the pros and cons of this oh-so-modern approach to world mission. In trying to raise financial support for our ministry, we are running into what we call the “American STM Caveat” time and again. It seems like American churches, who like our vision and may even be keen to support us, want to come and experience our ministry for themselves before they will ‘commit’.
Interestingly, this is not a phenomenon known in the UK (although I suppose if a ministry in Barbados wanted support, I wouldn’t be averse to some field research!). Now, we are not opposed to these conditions but, in my experience, less than five percent of those who stipulate this actually follow through with any kind of long-term financial support for our ministry, despite reporting a ‘positive’ experience with us on the field. And to top it off, we are almost invariably left out of pocket as we have hosted teams and shown them suitable Christian hospitality. So, what is to be done about this issue? Well, I think what is required is a review of how the receivers and the senders view one another and what they are hoping to achieve during these short-term trips.
1. Be Realistic
Often, STM’s can be thought of as the team coming in to do something for the people receiving the team and yet, very often, this is not the case. On the contrary, if we’re not careful, visiting teams can cause lots of damage to local work, no matter how well-meaning they are. Coming to ‘love on y’all’ or ‘show poor people the love of Jesus’ can come across as patronising, paternalistic gobbledygook, both to local Christians and the unsuspecting and unbelieving populace. So, what we need is a realistic vision of what STM’s can achieve on the ground.
The reality is that what it costs in airfare for a team of 10 from the U.S. could fund and train five indigenous interns in Scotland for a year. That’s a cold-hard fact. It’s not meant to freak people out, or de-motivate well-meaning churches, but to bring a sense of sobriety and realism to what can far too often turn into a glorified holiday with a paintbrush and a lawnmower. The reality is that in a one-to-two-week period, your team is not going to achieve very much that could not have been done better by people on the ground who actually know what they’re doing and have pre-existing community relationships. If you can handle that truth, then you’re off to a good start.
2. Think Less of Your Personal Experience & More of Long-Term Local Benefits
Christians love a good old ‘personal’ experience. Whether that is with them and God or them and a ‘local’, it all makes for good updates on social media. At Niddrie, we try to educate our teams that any work they do here will benefit long-term gospel work going on in our community—work that will continue long after the team has gone and the memories have faded.
That means that lots of what they will do here will actually be of service to us and the vision of our church. For many, unfortunately, this is often in conflict with their idea of mission (more on that later). Importantly, they will only be involved in projects that we are currently engaged with and can be sustained by us once they have left. That means a lot of what we do at Niddrie feels like ‘hanging around’ or ‘doing nothing’ because it is about people.
This is hard to swallow in a culture where worth is measured by how much you do, rather than by who you spend time your with. We teach our visiting teams that, even if it doesn’t feel like it to you, much of what you do here will matter to us and to the many contacts we have in our community. So, we need to forget about immediate gratification and personal fulfilment and think more about God-honouring service and long-term, localised community benefits (which they may never even see).
1. Be Realistic
These teams are not really going to make huge community breakthroughs for you. The reality is that they are going to be hit and miss. Some are going to be great, full of mature Christians who bring great blessing to you and the work. Others are going to be a nightmare, full of immature late teens and 20-something goofballs who’ve never actually ventured out of whatever backwater they’ve come from, even less engaged with anybody remotely biblically illiterate. Some will be a mixture of the two.
We need patience. We need love. STM’s are a necessary evil for those of us who work in poor areas with needy people and are short of prayerful and financial support. We have to swallow it because, often, we have no other choice if we want to get our work out there. If you can handle that truth, then you’re off to a good start.
2. Think Less of Your Local Expectations & More of The Kingdom Benefit
We need to think of these times as an opportunity to educate people about the needs of our specific mission field. Many people are shocked by the spiritual state of Scotland. Even if some people are useless, most Christians can pray. They will go home knowing the great spiritual need of our land, and that can only be a good thing.
We will have exposed our people to others from a different culture, and that will only be good for both parties as they grow and mature in their faith. They may not see the long-term benefit to our work, and we may not see any benefit in their lives given the likelihood that we will never see them again. We must trust that God is at work in great, unseen ways.
It is better if we stop thinking about STM’s in terms of one-way traffic. In other words, why should all the onus on effectiveness and viability be on the sender? We should think of these things as partnerships, whereby the receiver should also be aware of how we can serve our visiting brothers and sisters in a way that glorifies and honours God. Remember, in their service of us we can be of service to them. We are not engaging in a business relationship, and so even if these things take up more of our time than normal, cost us more in lost man hours that could have been spent with actual local people, and may not result in any visible fruit, it can still be of mutual kingdom benefit.