Are We Using the Poor for the Benefit of Our Short-Term Mission Trips?

If you are like me, you want to have a successful short-term mission trip where you honor and dignify everyone involved, especially those you are serving.  We want to be useful to those we are serving while being aware of the possible negative impact we are having on the community. It is our hope that short-term mission trips also changes the lives of the people we bring with us. If this is true, then we need to constantly be aware of and wrestle with the tensions these trips bring. Many times we just don’t know what we don’t know. Therefore, we need to ask good, hard, questions about what we are doing and why we are doing it.

One of the hard areas we need to consider is this:  “Are we using the poor solely for our benefit?” If our primary or even the majority of our concern is for the participants, students or what our team gets out of the trip, then we need to seriously consider this question. Too often, we go on these trips because we know what it does to the people we bring. As a result we can easily use poverty, the poor and orphans as a tool to give us the life change we need without considering what it is communicating to the people we say we are serving. We build a house, take a picture with the family, then leave, never to have heard their stories, know their struggles or even remember their names. This does not bring dignity and honor to the poor and they know that they are being used.

God is pretty serious about how we treat the poor.

“One who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth and one who gives gifts to the rich – both come to poverty.” Proverbs 22:16

“Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the LORD will take up their case and will exact life for life.” – Proverbs 22:22-23

This question is an uncomfortable and challenging place for us to sit and consider. I know it is for me. But if we are to be good stewards of what God has called us to do, then we must be willing to step into this tension and messiness and find a way forward.

Again, if you are like me and want to honor and dignify all involved and change the lives for everyone involved let us look at ways we can avoid using the poor for our advantage.

Grow and develop relationships with the people you are serving. People don’t want to be used for the benefit of someone else’s physical, emotional or spiritual gain. But if we all grow together, both trip participants and those we are serving, then we are accomplishing something greater than anything we do on a trip. Just like all good and effective ministry relationships is what matters, even with those we serve with on our trips. We may know poverty or poor people as a result of our trips, but do we know a person who is poor? Know their names their stories their struggles and share your name and stories. People desire relationship over projects and time spent in community over getting the job done.

Develop Shared Goals  If we do have goals and outcomes for the community we are going to serve, are they shared goals where both parties will accomplish their goals? Let us talk with the organization(s) we are going to serve and determine what a good outcome would be of the trip for the community. The best goals and outcomes are ones that are mutually agreed upon before the trip and publicly shared with our team, church, and supporters. Work with the host community well in advance and understand how you can best meet their needs and ask the hard questions of what your group’s presence does in the community.  Begin with the goals of the community we are going to serve and out of that develop our goals for our team. Begin with the “other” first.

Don’t use the poor or poverty as a motivation to be more grateful or grow spiritually. This one bugs me! Have you ever heard or even said yourself, “I just want my kids to be more grateful for what they have.” But, what we are saying is that “We want our students to see poor people so they know how good they have it and that they will stop complaining.” Trust me I want my kids to stop complaining too, but not at the expense of seeing someone else’s poverty. Nowhere in the Bible does it say to be thankful because someone else has less or is living in poverty. Let us be grateful for the gifts God has given us and not in comparison to someone else. A wise person once said, “The only reason we have to look into someone else’s cup is to make sure they have enough not to see if we have more than them.” – Unknown

I believe if we approach short-term missions with the action and mindset of serving others, we will grow spiritually. If we keep our eyes off of ourselves we will discover more about who we are, who God is and how we fit into God’ plan and will grow spiritually. We don’t need to force or manipulate the experience to grow. Be present, be observant and be available and God will do his work in you.

As we begin planning for next years short-term mission trip, let us be honest with ourselves and ask, are we using the poor to our advantage? Let us move forward in a way that honors, respects and brings dignity to those we are serving with on our trips. 

Phil Steiner
Executive Director of Be2Live.org
philsteiner77@gmail.com

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