In the previous post, I questioned some often assumed benefits of short term mission (STM) trips; namely, that they help produce more career missionaries and that they increase financial giving from the participant. Statistically, the answer to both of these questions is: not necessarily.
In this post, I’d like to follow up with another issue that can hinder the long-term benefits of STM: self-perception.
Self perception can be very deceiving. People are often their worst critics, and when it comes to missions, national churches are slow to criticize STMs. For instance, the self perception of Americans in doing short term theological training is often very positive. Consider the following comments, which are actual quotes from American teachers who just returned from an STM doing theological training:
- “They were really hungry [for the training].”
- “The training [was] outstanding…I think they were hungry, very hungry. I would even say more hungry overseas than they are here…because they’re looking for more effective ways and tools”
- “They would sit and listen. They wouldn’t get up and go to the bathroom every five minutes or say, ‘I need a break’ every couple hours. They were enduring heat…humidity…the small environment…And they didn’t get up and leave. I mean they were spellbound…in listening to the message, the methodology…the format…the how to’s and the philosophy.”
- “It was fresh and new [like] they had never heard it before. They really soaked it in.”
- “They were so thirsty. They just hung on every word.”
Sound familiar? If you’ve ever taught overseas (like I have) these responses probably echo your own. But is it real? I mean, is this what the national students would actually say? Well, consider some responses from the indigenous students of the SAME training session:
- “You conclude you’re communicating effectively because we’re paying attention when we’re actually just intrigued by watching your foreign behavior.”
- “It was a nice day, but I don’t think what they taught would ever work here. But if it makes them feel like they can help us in ways beyond supporting our ministry financially, we’re willing to listen to their ideas.”
- “I’m glad the trainers felt respected. They should. What they need to realize, however, is that we would never think about talking or getting up to leave in the middle of their lecture. It would be repulsive to do that to a teacher in our culture.”
- “I wish we could have shared more about the real challenges we’re facing in our ministry. How do I lead a church when most of our godly men have lost their lives in battle? How do I help a parent care for their AIDS baby? Those are my pressing issues, not growing my church bigger or starting a second service. I didn’t get that whole discussion.”
Self-perception can be deceiving indeed. The Americans didn’t understand, for instance, that respect for one’s teacher and his lecture is a cultural matter, and this does not necessarily mean that they were dying of thirst for our American wisdom. The lesson that can be learned from this example is this: the actual benefit of our STMs should be determined by those whom we are serving, not by the self perception of the participants.
Now, to be sure, this is only one negative example. Surely many other positive encounters on both ends could be reported. However, these “other sides to the story” have largely gone unnoticed and should at least cause us to venture into such cross cultural settings more prepared. We need to be informed about the potential limitations—or even long-term hindrances—of STM teaching trips in order for us to maximize them and use them to produce positive results among the host churches.
Once again, all of our short term endeavors NEED to ask the question: Is this trip producing a genuine, lasting benefit for the native churches and career missionaries in the region?