My name is Rachel Charles, co-founder of 5 Small Loaves. This is the second article in a series that addresses the short-term missions model that typically comes to the Navajo reservation from American churches. I do not speak as one with expertise on missions but as one who is living in a cross-cultural setting and has observed thousands of outside missionaries pass through.
How are people to be sent out to share the gospel?
In Mark 6, Jesus sent out his disciples in pairs to preach, cast out demons, and heal. He also told them to take nothing. No bag, no bread, no money, no extra clothes or shoes. They were to depend completely on God and the people they were going to for housing and food.
By contrast, the most typical model coming from American churches is to teach, build, or give something away. Large teams carefully plan out an agenda ahead of time. They are fully funded and provide everything for themselves. Therefore, they need nothing from the people they are going to.
As I observe the American model in action around me on the Navajo reservation, I see the methods and I also can see the lasting impact on the people and the local churches. And it is because of what I observe that I feel compelled to write to my brothers and sisters in Christ who go out from middle-class urban churches into impoverished communities on short-term mission trips.
How much of what you’re demonstrating is the gospel?
Think about what it would be like to be on the receiving end of your own mission. Often the mission teams come in great number, so large that any given team can often equal half or more of an existing church congregation, especially in rural environments. They bring lots of instruments and sound equipment to play and lead music like they do at home. They teach prepackaged versions of Vacation Bible School and lead activities and games that are common among American urban churches. They take over projects that need to be done at churches or at homes in the community they are visiting. Then they quickly go home and another group comes to replace them. We must consider the effect of the constant repetition of outsiders coming in with their own agenda and a plethora of things.
Can they replicate what you’re demonstrating?
Most mission teams tend to reach out to poorer communities. The needs of these people and places are often great. Therefore, it seems natural, according to the American Christian worldview, to equate serving poorer people with sharing our resources since we are a wealthy nation. But as I have been observing this model in action within the Navajo reservation and I am a part of a reservation church, I do see the ongoing negative effects of relying heavily on the materialistic side of current mission models.
For example, if you come to serve an impoverished people in a very wealthy manner, then the mindset of the people you are serving become ingrained with the images of fully-funded teams, vans, loads of donations, curriculum, sound systems, instruments, service projects, building materials, etc. And then another team comes and does the exact same thing. The same model gets demonstrated repeatedly since this has permeated the American church model. And now the people who have been recipients of missions have a definition of what missions is based on what they have observed.
But many of these people live in survival. Most struggle to have enough resources for their own family on top of all of the other challenges that are present in their community. And if they become inspired to step out in faith to share the gospel locally or much further away, unfortunately, they are stopped by their own perceptions of missions based on what has been modeled to them. They simply can’t replicate what previous mission teams have done because of the wealthy nature of it. No matter how generous and well-meaning it may have been presented, the materialistic side of the missions has not empowered its recipients.
To continually have waves of missions and donations ingrain in the mind, “We are the mission field and cannot do this for ourselves.” This mindset is so obvious in the Navajo churches today, as many expect outsiders to do the simplest things that they often can do themselves, like paint a room, fix a roof, or buy supplies. Many expect outsiders to assume leadership. Additionally, there is little outward focus in the churches here, even in their own nearby communities. Unfortunately, these methods of modern American missions and church-planting have created a local church model that is unhealthy and lacking.
The Mighty Agenda
The other thing we witness that so many mission teams possess in addition to the material things is the agenda. Many teams have agendas that are scheduled down to the details of everyday before they even arrive on site.
There are several dangers when mission teams allow their trips to be dictated by a pre-planned schedule. Primarily, they can lose focus on their original intent of the trip – the people. A jam-packed schedule won’t allow space to learn from the people or the culture. It also puts the team in a position to assume ahead of time what needs to be taught, built, or given away without understanding if these methods are appropriate for each unique setting. Teams can also get distracted with agendas so much that they don’t consider how the people are receiving it or to gauge, “What do you think of this and how we presented it?”
We also need to understand that not every culture values time like we Americans do. Actually very few do. Most cultures highly value the relational aspect of time and completing tasks, rather than adhering to timetables. Therefore, placing value on the strict adherence to schedules ahead of relationships often confuses and offends people of other cultures.
Missionaries need to demonstrate a desire to learn about the people in addition to sharing the gospel. This is time-consuming and relational work that doesn’t easily fit into schedules. It takes moment by moment decisions that allow conversations and social invitations to dictate how they will spend their time. The schedule for the day may not be fully known until bedtime, when one reflects back on the day’s events and realizes, “That’s how the day was supposed to go.”
Going out with nothing
So, if we followed Jesus’ words, what would a short-term mission look like today with no agenda or extra possessions? I believe we will be forced to interact with the people meaningfully because our survival depends on it. Our need for the local people will weigh heavily upon us, so we will tread carefully and lovingly. We will also seek to be learners in our foreign context, so that we will not convolute the gospel message unnecessarily. We will rely on faith and not our possessions.
I know this sounds hard, especially for us Americans. We tend to live in fear of having nothing, so it makes sense that we would reframe Jesus’ model into something more palatable and safe while we attempt to be obedient at the same time. But we must choose to put the needs of the people we go to above our own fears and comfort. Otherwise, we risk modeling church and missions in manners that are culturally-inappropriate and unattainable. I pray that God will raise up missionaries of faith who are willing to try this adventure for God’s glory.
If you are part of a mission or church team that is exploring or planning missions, and you would like more information about how to approach missions in a more culturally-sensitive manner, 5 Small Loaves can provide consultation and cross-cultural training. Click here to contact us.
For more on the series of Mission Models That Empower, see the following links: