Are you planning a mission trip or service project? Do you want to make sure you are helping rather than hurting? The following questions will help you determine whether your service will be transformative or toxic.
1. Whose needs are you serving on the mission trip?
You want this to be a meaningful experience for your group. But if most of your planning energy is being invested in ensuring that the event will be “a life changing experience” for your members, this may be a clue that it is more about serving your group than serving the poor.
This is a particularly difficult question for mission pastors and youth leaders since they are hired to minister primarily to church members. A well-organized, spiritually motivated, hands-on mission trip can be very satisfying to volunteers and yield moving accounts for back-home reporting. It is doubtful, however, that a “what works best for us” approach will have transformative impact among those on the receiving end who are expected to accommodate the schedules and preferences of their resourced visitors.
2. Is the proposed activity meeting a real need?
An African woman recently told us that as a child she never understood why Americans loved to paint so much. In preparation for the Americans’ arrival in her rural village, her classmates were instructed to deface the school building with mud and stones so their guests would have something to paint. Her entire school building was repainted five times in the four years she was a student there.
Extreme example? Perhaps. But unfortunately it is representative of the make-work projects often created to make compassionate volunteers feel good about serving. If a project is truly important to those being served, they will be the first investors in that effort with their own leadership, labor and resources.
3. Is the proposed mission a top priority?
A group recently returning from Haiti recounted their experience of seeing mothers carrying infants wrapped in dirty rags and newspapers. Moved with compassion, the mission group purchased blankets and distributed them to the mothers. The following day, the blankets appeared in the shops along the street, sold by the mothers to local merchants.
Discovering the babies still swaddled in filth, the missioners were highly incensed—until it was explained to them that the mothers sold the blankets to buy food for their babies. Food, not blankets, was the higher priority.
To determine the true hierarchy of need, enough time must be spent among the needy to understand the daily survival pressures they face. Repairing an inner-city widow’s rotting porch may not be as important as getting her water turned back on. Adapting our mission to the priorities of the poor is key to redemptive service.
4. Are the poor capable of doing this for themselves?
The poor are weakened when well-meaning people deprive them of the incentives and rewards of their own hard won achievements by doing for them what they have the capacity to do for themselves. As one leader of a microlending ministry in Nicaragua lamented when describing the effects of U.S. church partnerships, “They are turning my people into beggars.”
Why get a loan to build their own church, the peasants reason, when the Americans will do it for them? Predictable byproducts of such service include increased dependency, erosion of work ethic and loss of dignity. Conversely, indigenous capacity-building is encouraged by joint efforts like coinvesting, microlending and reciprocal partnerships.