Short-Term Missions: You Don't Always Understand

As we continue this topic of short-term missions, I hope you don’t think I’m being too harsh. If you didn’t before, you may when you read the next point. Please know that it’s all out of love. Please read with an open heart and understand that we are all still learning, growing, and being conformed more into the image of Christ. If you missed the last two posts, please check them out, as this is a continuation of the others.

Short-Term Missions

4)    Understand that you don’t always Understand

Whenever we have teams come, we like to give them a chance to walk around the local town and purchase items and souvenirs. One time we had a team walking around Kitgum doing some shopping. We were dividing into different groups. When I went to check in with one of the groups, I found that they were trying to buy fabric from a certain gentleman. He saw a large group of foreigners and of course the price went way up. When I found out what he was going to charge them, I began to discuss it with him. He eventually came down to a more realistic price. Later, one of the team members told me he thought I was very rude and uncaring when talking to the man. He said the first price was totally reasonable and there was no reason for me to try to discuss it with him further. He equated it to me acting superior and mistreating local people. The man did not understand the culture. Nor did he understand that the more foreigners come in and willingly throw money at people and overpay for things, the more difficult it becomes for us who live here. It seems like a simple thing that helps a man, but it actually causes long-term damage. Where I live the people were displaced and endured a 20-year war. They were at the mercy of big NGOs who brought food to them because they could not plant their gardens for so many years. Now the war is over, but that welfare mentality remains. I don’t blame the local people, they need time to see a different way. They need to learn how to work and provide for themselves and their families once more. To just give them a large sum of money without seeing what the fair and reasonable price is locally, it is in essence saying that you have no regard for the dehumanizing that they went through and you don’t want them to be everything that they can be. You may temporarily feed someone or relieve some burden, but you’re not helping, you’re actually hurting them. (There are two excellent books that I have read on this topic that I would highly recommend: When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett, and African Friends and Money Matters by David E. Maranz.) We love the people, we absolutely want to help them. That is why we have left our families, culture, comforts, and careers behind - to pour out our lives and to love them and point them to Jesus. I know that most people come with good intentions and good hearts, genuinely trying to help people.

I appeal to all of you who come on short-term trips: please understand that you don’t always understand. We love you and appreciate you, as do the nationals; but please understand that we also love them and want to protect them from any more of the “American saviors” who swoop in and “fix” everything. This is why we implement skills training, income generation activities, and most of all do discipleship and teach them what it looks like to live for the Lord in their world. We can’t ignore the physical needs around us, but we want to approach it cautiously in order that people may grow and learn, not be stifled or hindered.

If you think this is too harsh, don’t worry. Next week I will wrap up with an admonition to seasoned missionaries and an encouragement to the short-term teams and individuals who come and remind us to listen to the prompting of the Lord. We need you and your wisdom, too! (Sometimes we just forget and we can get jaded and cranky.)

Let’s get the conversation going - let me know your thoughts on this topic! Post your comment below.

I share a lot more about this topic in my book, For the Joy Set Before Us: Insights into the Missionary Journey. For anyone getting started out in missions, this is a good resource to add to your “tool box.”  You can get it on Amazon here: