February 8, 2019

Why Your Short-Term Mission Trip Probably Isn't Alleviating Poverty

Let me tell you a story about a pastor called John who lives in a small town in Scotland. You’ve never heard of him and you’ve never heard of his community. Where he lives unemployment is high, drug abuse is off the charts, and life is hard and short. John was saved about 10 years ago on a holiday abroad. There was no evangelical church in his hometown and so he struggled to grow in the faith. Not long after, his wife and children were saved along with a couple of his friends and neighbours. With no other options, they started meeting every Sunday at John’s house. He had no theological training. He hadn’t even finished high school. But John did the best he could with the tools he had. Soon they outgrew the house so they rented a little hall in the middle of the neighbourhood. Times were hard. Money was scarce. People would profess faith but would fall away after only a few months. Back to the drink. Back on drugs. Enticed away by a member of the opposite sex. Sometimes the group would swell to about 30 people and then sometimes it would sink back down to half a dozen. John was often lonely and didn’t really know how to handle some of the difficult pastoral problems that came his way.

He tried to get support and counsel but it was difficult to come by. Pastors in nearby towns were suspicious of him, especially because he lacked theological training, so they kept him at arm's length. He spoke at a few churches in other cities about his need for financial help, personal mentoring, and for mature Christians to move into his community to help him. People listened politely, even sympathetically. Some gave him money now and then. A few young families even came to his town to have a look at his work. But, a tired, run-down man with a young family, half a dozen semi-literate converts, and no musicians meeting in a drafty old hall put them off.

The months and years went by with John slogging his heart out—giving it his all—trying to reach his community and his town for Jesus. Then one day out of the blue, John heard that a large church in the next city was thinking of planting a church in his town. John was elated, so he rang the pastor to ask if it was true.

“Yes,” he said. “We feel a burden for the town.”

“Me, too!” said John excitedly. He’d been working on his own for almost a decade at this point. “Would you be interested in doing the plant in partnership with us?”

Awkward silence.

“We have other plans. We want to plant in the city centre, next to the university campus. We have a team of about 30 and a young pastor ready to go. We want this plant to become a pioneering centre for a ministry movement across the city. Maybe we could do something together.”

John hung up, devastated. He knew what that meant. He’d heard it all before. He spent the rest of the day in a deep depression. He was glad that a gospel witness was coming to town but it wouldn’t be coming anywhere near his community, that much was certain.

What more could he do? He couldn’t compete with this new church plant with their huge budget and massive online presence. They didn’t even have a website. He struggled to get enough money to pay for his kids' clothing, never mind build an online presence. He didn’t attract young people because he didn’t have any young people. They struggled to pay the monthly electricity bill never mind finance an internship programme. He felt defeated. He felt dejected. He felt ignored. He felt angry. No one was coming to help him. His little church wasn’t growing. Maybe he should just pack it all in.

John’s experience is the experience of literally thousands of pastors, church planters, and revitalisers, not only in Scotland but in poor communities around the globe. Earlier this year Acts 29 launched Church In Hard Places, a global initiative in an effort to support, resource, and train men like John who work in some of the hardest places in the world with little money, no support, and a lack of solid theological training.

The poorest pastors in the poorest places around the world are trapped because they can’t compete with the multi-billion dollar mercy ministry industry that has grown up around their communities and their so-called needs. They’re fed up of going cap in hand to churches looking for support, prayer, and people but instead are treated like glorified travel agents for rich, Western Christians looking for a cross-cultural experience. And so, desperate to attract support, they put on poverty safari’s so that outsiders can wander around their communities, taking selfies and updating their profiles on Snapchat. They wince as they realise that a church will drop $20k dollars on a missions trip for their young people and then prevaricate over supporting them for a few hundred dollars a month. How do we know you won’t waste the money or it will get to the right place, they ask them, as they take their so-called mission team for a day out to the local tourist markets so the young people can have some downtime on their week-long trip. Never mind that they haven’t had a break from ministry in 12 years.

The system used to recruit missionaries and young people is broken. There is a fault in the matrix but nobody seems too keen to fix it because, after all, many are realising their dreams to travel overseas and be given the appearance that they are helping the poor and needy. The evangelical Christian community in the West buries its head in the sand despite the damage that badly thought out mission trips do to pastors like John and their communities around the globe.

Let’s not think too deeply about the fact that the Western evangelical money machine basically runs the most sophisticated and expensive 4D-real-life-experience/babysitting service in the world and then passes it off as legitimate short term missions and poverty alleviation. Agencies will spend millions on flashy and emotive videos in an effort to persuade people to give their lives to the cause of world missions. I know. At 20schemes we are desperate for gospel workers, male and female, to come to our land and share the good news of Jesus. Desperate. I could quote all the stats showing our need over and against another country’s need or another agency’s work. I could post the links right here to powerful videos of lives transformed by the gospel and then make the ask to join us on our exciting adventure into the future. But I’m tired of that. And you know what…so are you. So, my challenge to you is this—forget the idea, spoon-fed to the younger generations since birth, that you're the future of your local church and the global church. You’re not. Jesus is. The best thing you can do for the kingdom this year is to knuckle down wherever God has you now. Ask your pastor and the elders how you can better serve them and your local congregation. Go out and find that John in your community. You’ll probably find them in the areas of your town that you would usually avoid, struggling away, invisible among all the bells and whistles of modern evangelicalism. If you’re really wanting to serve the least of these, go and do a free internship there. Serve him and that community in anonymity. Turn your iPhone off. Don’t tweet about it. Keep off Instagram.

Millions of people around the world are slipping into hell this year. There is only one gospel. Jesus Christ the sinless One came to earth to live a perfect life and die a humiliating death on the cross so that sinners like us could live in eternal bliss with our heavenly Father. On that third day, He rose again and now sits at the right hand of the Father. Someday soon He is coming again to collect His people up into His loving arms. Jesus isn’t looking for another David Platt, John Piper, or Kevin DeYoung. He’s looking for a million John’s ready to go anywhere He calls them and to serve Him faithfully. The true heroes of the faith are not appearing on stages at conferences. The true heroes are soldiering in difficult, heart-wrenching conditions, unseen by all except their God, silently working, doing the real work of mission among the poor. They understand that it is the local church that shows off the manifold wisdom of God to the watching world and this wins the battle in the spiritual realms. Even if it is a small congregation. Even if the singing isn’t done very well. Even if they struggle to keep their head above water. It matters. They matter. The church of Jesus matters.

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