Editor’s Note: See also Follow the Leader: How to Serve Those in Charge.
From an experiential educator’s point of view, I am enthusiastic about the life-changing power of short-term missions. From a mission-in-the-world point of view, however, I have this nagging concern that short-term missions have largely become a self-centered venture where the main concern is my life change and my growth. I want to bring us back to the basic Christian value of servanthood.
What Is Servanthood?
Effective short-term missions should transform the way we see ourselves and the way that we are seen in the world. Philippians 2:5-11, the “emptying” passage, describes Jesus coming down to us, identifying with our culture, living as a servant, and dying. Yet often the very way we do short-term missions makes it difficult, if not impossible, to truly imitate Jesus’ servanthood. Consider the following differences between Jesus’ coming to the world and our coming to other cultures (and note that as I make these statements, I realize that I am guilty on all counts):
- Jesus didn’t arrive with fanfare, showing that he came from a world we could never understand. We often do this with our local hosts.
- Jesus didn’t come on a fiery chariot from heaven, using a means of transport that we humans could not aspire to. We come in 747s, using a means of transport that many of our local partners will never use.
- Jesus came in vulnerability as a baby. We come with our schedules fixed, our meals planned, and our projects self-funded.
- Jesus came in poverty. We often spend more money for a short-term mission trip than a local pastor might make in a year.
- Jesus came in humility. We often come proud of our “humility,” acutely aware of the “sacrifices” we are making for the sake of the “poorer” folks.
- When Jesus came, he learned, observed, and listened for thirty years before he started his active ministry. We grow impatient if we cannot start ministering as soon as we are off the plane.
- At the end of his ministry, Jesus put on the towel to identify himself as a servant, someone regarded as a “non-person” in his society. At the start of our ministries, we put on custom-made T-shirts that identify us as special.
- At the end of his ministry, Jesus was crucified. At the end of our trips, we celebrate, pat each other’s backs, and go home to a hero’s welcome at church and with a deep sense of personal satisfaction.
What Do We Do?
So what do we do? The bottom line is this: we must pray for, train for, and work to build true servanthood. In his book Cross-Cultural Servanthood, Dr. Duane Elmer says that we are not servants until those whom we are serving interpret our behavior as servanthood.
I want to highlight two verses that support this point. Luke 17:10 describes “thankless servanthood.” This type of servanthood distinctly contrasts what one short-term-mission critic called “high-reward servanthood.” To practice thankless servanthood, we must make the most out of the times when someone else controls our schedule. As true servants, our agenda will always be determined by others.
In 1 Corinthians 4:1 Paul says, “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.” (NRSV). In general, humility before God generates humility towards others. We need to love people in ways that they recognize as love, not in ways that we might view as loving. Dr. Elmer writes, “Superiority cloaked in the desire to serve is still superiority. It’s not our words that count but the perceptions of the local people who watch our lives and sense our attitudes. He tells the story of a missionary who completely changed the landscape of missions in a certain country by letting the nationals come in his front door, enter his living room, and eat at his table. Like this missionary, we must affirm the dignity of the people we serve.
- Serve before you go overseas. Service opportunities abound at home, yet I have witnessed people who want to go to Africa but are unwilling to serve in urban USA. Before we go overseas, we must be willing to serve at home.
- Frequently remind yourselves that it’s not first about me.
- Listen more. Learn to ask questions and wait patiently for responses. With two ears and one mouth, try to listen twice as much as you speak.
- Train for dialogue rather than monologue. Get your hosts to talk; ask them to share testimonies, lead Bible studies, and train you and your team. Many cultures will defer to the visitors. Remind your hosts that you’re there to learn.
- Build for opportunities to actively affirm the dignity of your hosts rather than belittling them by pointing out their poverty. Affirm the creative ways that they minister to others. Appreciate their generous hospitality. Discipline yourself not to compare everything against your own culture (“Well, in my culture, we…”).
- To the best of your ability, live with and eat with the local people.
- Receive. Let your hosts love you. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you are the answer to their neediness. In spiritual and relational terms, your hosts may be far richer than you.
- Go with a smaller and more diversified team. Research shows that multicultural teams can have a greater long-term impact.
Remember, in short-term missions we preach Christ and ourselves as servants to others for Christ’s sake. The goal is not adventure or work accomplished or self-centered growth, the goal is to join brothers and sisters from other cultures and have them see our attitudes and other-centeredness as true imitations of Jesus.