Thursday, July 13, 2006

Downside of Short-Term Missions

Let me give you the bottom line upfront. WATCHERS (short-term missions) are great for casting vision, however, they are seldom strategic for actual on-field ministries. Second, WATCHER programs confuse the issue of what really is missions and the role of DOERS on the field. Third, WATCHERS can actually hinder the work of the national church and DOERS. Fourth, the long-term profit of WATCHERS is disproportionate in relation to its benefits.

I am well aware that the national church and DOERS, not WATCHER programs, should develop strategy. Unfortunately there are many WATCHER programs developed by WATCHER ministries, who have no intention to live on the field but want to do good work and create programs that may be fun, but not effective. Prayer walks, Bible distribution, feeding programs may be helpful, but they are not necessarily strategic. Most of my life is spent working and thinking about the best way to present the Gospel in a culturally relevant way. For people who do not understand who Jesus is and what He is about, the simple approach provided by most WATCHER programs cannot, will not, reach the heart issues of most people in this world.

Second, as I have stated before, if everything is missions, nothing is missions. The little ditty that “You are either a missionary or a mission field,” is just wrong. DOERS pay a price for their commitment to go to the field, by leaving their host culture and families, the humiliating process of raising support, learning language and suffering through culture longer than ten days. The church has so confused and, in my opinion, demeaned the profession of DOERS, that the career person is looked upon as being no different than those who just came back from their vacation with a purpose. The mindset with North American church members today is not only can everybody be a missionary, anybody can be a missionary.

Third, after the WATCHERS return home, what do they leave behind? Goodwill, maybe. A church built, perhaps. But they also leave behind things like, the local church pastor is being paid by foreigners so the local church members don’t have to support the church; Christianity is about goods and services that only the WATCHERS can provide. In anthropology there is a term for a religious sect called the “cargo cult.” (I don’t have time to explain it; you will have to research this yourself). In a similar way, nationals (and even some DOERS), look to the sky each summer waiting for the god of goods to fly in. Sure salvation is in Christ, but the blessings of that salvation is surely in the hands of the WATCHERS.

Fourth, while some WATCHERS do become DOERS, donors, prayer partners or involved in their community, I dare say that the commitment of short-term missionaries is as long as their trip. Hard to quantify this reality, as far as I know there are no studies on the subject, but given that the fact that there are literally thousands of people engaged in WATCHER programs each year, the number of people to sign up to be career DOERS are a fraction of those taking short-term trips. Donations for the support of national work and DOERS is certainly disproportionate to the money spent on WATCHER expeditions.

I am not on a campaign to do away with WATCHER programs. I am on a campaign to help people understand that missions is not simple. I am educator and one of my roles is to inform people that short-term mission programs should be done right and be well thought out. In a few days I will discuss the up and down side of INTRUDERS, but this should be enough for further discussion among yourselves.