Developing Relationships in Short-term Missions

Members of STM teams often share experiences that will
last a lifetime

I recently received a bad haircut. I had a feeling it was going to be a bad haircut when halfway through, the stylist stopped and stared at me with a concerned look on her face. She said, “You know what? I’m not going to charge you for this.”

In the past, when it has been time to get a haircut, I have typically chosen the first available stylist at the cheapest barbershop I could find. In light of this recent experience, however, and in anticipation of the photos that will be taken at my upcoming wedding, my fiancé has encouraged me to be a bit more selective in finding a stylist. 

You might ask, “What does any of this have to do with short-term missions?” The answer is that whether concerning haircuts or short-term missions, relationship has a cost. 

I can certainly see the value in having one particular person cut my hair. In time, this stylist would become familiar with my preferences. He or she would know what I liked and expected. The problem is not in recognizing the value in the relationship with a new hairstylist. The problem is that a haircut now requires a lot more work: making appointments, scheduling times, etc. It’s one thing to value relationship; it’s another to actually pay the cost of relationship.

The same could be said for short-term missions. We all want our short-term mission trip to have a long-term impact, but how many of us are really willing to pay the price?  

I remember my very first short-term mission trip. My friends and I had heard the rallying call of the Great Commission to “go” and so we went with great passion and conviction. My well-intentioned youth pastor loaded us up in a rented van and we headed to Mexico to paint the walls of a church. During the day we painted the church while locals from the community watched from a distance. During the evening we held a service. I had a blast with my friends from the youth group that week, but in retrospect I can’t help but wonder if we had missed out on a tremendous opportunity. I do not remember the name of the community we went to or the names of any of the people we met. My fear is that this anonymous community has no memory of us either. My fear is that the only testament to our time in Mexico is the church walls that are now in dire need of a new paint job. 

In reflecting upon this first mission trip, I can’t help but wonder what could have happened if rather than simply going and then returning, we had made an effort to stay in contact with that small church. What if, rather than us painting the walls as members of the community watched from a distance, we painted alongside these community members and served them as they refurbished their church building? What if we had committed to praying for them and they had committed to praying for us? What if we had committed to returning a year later to again serve the community and the church body there? What if during the year prior to a second trip, we had engaged our church and community and challenged them with ways they could also get involved? What if, rather than focusing exclusively on the “go” part of the Great Commission, we had paid attention to the whole commandment to “go and make disciples”?

While going is a good starting point, it’s simply not enough. As Christians, we’ve been called to go and make disciples – a much higher cost of relationship. At Food for the Hungry (FH), we believe the short-term mission trip offers a unique opportunity to speak into three types of relationships: (1) the relationship with the receiving culture, (2) the relationships with fellow team members and (3) the relationship with the sending church, churches or individuals.

Relationship with the Receiving Culture
In viewing the relationship with the receiving culture, we stress the importance of focusing on relationships in the local community. For most team members, there will be a strong desire to focus on the task or project rather than the people encountered along the way. In the case of my first mission trip, our youth group focused on painting the walls of the church rather than on the community members who watched from a distance. How much more impact would the trip had if instead we simply laughed with them and taken breaks to play with the kids, even if it meant the community had to finish painting the church after we left? 

Luis Sena, a colleague of mine who was born in the Dominican Republic (DR) and has headed up the work for FH in the DR for years, recently told me why he stresses the importance of relationship over task to the teams we send him. Like nearly all countries, Luis states that in his country there is a vast divide between the “haves” and the “have nots.” When the impoverished in the community see this vast divide and realize that the affluent are making no attempt to bridge it, the poor members of the community feel they are inherently unlovable. In contrast, those who come on a short-term mission trip are often viewed as affluent. When we come into these communities, play with their kids and generally display the love of Christ, it makes it easier for many in these impoverished communities to believe that they are lovable and that there is a God who loves them. In many ways, Luis’s observation seems to be the flipside of the idea expressed by the Apostle John when he states, “If we don't love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we have not seen?” (1 John 4:20).

Relationships within the Team
In viewing the relationships within the team, it is important to recognize that transformation does not begin and end during the time in-country. Before a team ever steps foot on foreign soil, FH facilitates study and worship time together so that team members begin investing in each other and understanding more fully the ministry they are joining together. When they return, we encourage ongoing accountability among team members so that the trip acts as a turning point in their lives for ongoing future ministry.

Relationship with the Sending Church
The role that a short-term mission trip can play in transforming the local church is rarely fully explored. For most of us, our understanding of God has been limited by our experience of God. If our experience of God has been limited to Sunday morning services, a weekly small group and fellowship within a community of believers amazingly similar to us, our understanding of God may end up very narrow. For many Christians, this type of routine will be the totality of their Christian experience. 

I recently had the opportunity to travel with a small group to Ethiopia. One of the group members was not a Christian. Upon returning home, he told friends and families that he “saw God” while in Ethiopia. It’s amazing and paradoxical that the creator of heaven and earth would choose to reveal himself through hurt and need; however, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus states, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Challenging team members to be a voice or advocate for the hurting and needy may very well transform the sending church or community.

Recently, upon returning from Rwanda, a group I work with gave a presentation in their church and conveyed to the congregation what the experience meant to them. A group of older ladies from the church was so moved that they organized an auction that raised several thousand dollars for the community in Rwanda. Though these older ladies may never step foot on African soil, they were still transformed. According to the above passage in Matthew, these ladies raised several thousand dollars for Christ.

Unfortunately, most of us lead lives which seem to be ruled by the tyranny of the urgent–to the great neglect of deep and lasting relationship. Though we understand the importance and value of relationship, we often sacrifice it on the altar of busyness.  

While I firmly believe that God used my first mission trip to Mexico, I also believe we missed some tremendous opportunities to forge relationships and see a greater, further reaching work being done. While pursuing the relationship with that small church in Mexico would have required an additional investment of time and resources, I wonder how the community in Mexico, my youth group, my church and even my own life might have looked different had we done just that. 

Ryan Brown oversees the Short-term Team Ministry at Food for the Hungry which sends over sixty teams each year to thirteen different countries.