The Three Biggest Barriers to Effective Missions and Service #2 – Assumptions

Author’s note: this is part two in a series called: The Three Biggest Barriers to Short-Term Mission. Last week we discussed the first one – Bias. You can read about that one here.

A few weeks ago we took the time to look at the first barrier to reciprocal missions, our biases. We defined bias as an unfair personal opinion that influences your judgment. It is important to understand that this is different than assumptions. 

An assumption is a willingness to accept something as true without question or proof. – Cambridge English Dictionary

Assumptions and biases can look very similar and can have very similar consequences. I believe many times our assumptions if left unchecked can turn into biases that will influence our judgment and our mission.

How often in our lives do we willingly (consciously or sub-consciously) accept something as true without any proof or ask any questions? I know for me I make assumptions often and don’t even realize that I am doing it most of the time. The assumptions we make about the places we go to serve can prove to be barriers in our relationships with those we serve with on our trips and as a result, do damage to those we go to serve. 

Assumptions look a lot like this:

  • Poor people are so happy with so little.
  • People in Ghana do not have running water and live in huts.
  • Everyone in Mexico wants to come to the United States.
  • People in the inner city don’t want to work hard they just want handouts.
  • Central American immigrants and asylum seekers are uneducated and illiterate.

First, our assumptions can cause us to do things that are unneeded or unwanted. A well meaning church group was visiting an orphanage in Mexico. While looking around the property assumed that what the orphanage needed was a stage. This group proceeded to build one of the nicest, sturdiest stage I have ever seen. When they were finished it was one of the best buildings on the campus. Their rationale was that they felt as though the orphanage needed a stage for their VBS’ and Quinceaneras. Never mind that the roof in the kitchen was falling down and there was an abandoned broken down dorm that the orphanage had been slowly working on hoping to complete it in the near future. 

Another story involved chickens. Again, a well-meaning group assumed that the best thing an orphanage could do to be self-sustaining was to have chickens. So this group donated a number of chickens, built chicken coups, and left the staff to maintain the chickens. The leaders of the orphanage never asked for the chickens and nobody on staff wanted to manage coups. The orphanage was struggling to keep food on the table for the children. Within months, the orphanage was so in need of food, they killed the chickens and used the chicken coups for firewood.

The problem with these two groups is that they failed to take time to ask questions and then shut up and listen to the needs of the orphanage. Instead, the group invested money, spent time building, and donated something useless on a false assumption. 

When we assume what a ministry, organization or community needs without asking questions, listening, and asking questions again we are danger of doing damage on the people we desire to help. We need to slow down, take our time and listen to what the real needs are of those we are going to serve. Many times people will not share their deeper needs until they know they can trust you. Trust takes time and developing relationships.

But when we take time and ask questions, dig below the surface something beautiful can happen. I recently heard of a Hope World Wide team visiting a small village in the Philippines. The small village had just been devastated by typhoon Hayian destroying many of their houses. Hope World Wide did not go in and assume what kind of houses they wanted. Instead, they asked, “Can we help you rebuild your houses and what kind of houses would you like?” The local people said, “We want bamboo houses on stilts.” As you can imagine the Hope World Wide team had no idea how to build these types of houses. So over the course of their time there, the local community trained the Hope World Wide team on how to build bamboo houses on stilts. Though these may not be the kind of houses we would build, it was the houses the community knew they needed.

Second, our assumptions can limit our understanding of the deeper pain points of the community. One of the most often heard assumptions I hear on trips is,

”They are happy with so little.”

It is hard to see people living in severe poverty, children playing with sticks and rocks, laughing and playing. Our interaction with them may be brief and not knowing the circumstances and feeling uncomfortable about the situation, we automatically jump to an assumption to help us feel better without sitting in the tension and asking good questions. (Granted this isn’t always the case, but it does happen) How do we know that this person has a happy life and they are ok with having so little? Take a moment and consider life through their eyes on a daily basis. We would only know what is true by spending time with them and building a relationship. During a mission trip to Nicaragua a few years ago, this discussion surfaced about people being happy with so little. The missionary we were with stopped us and said,” Though they might seem happy, don’t think for a moment they would switch spots with you in a heartbeat.”

There are many other examples of assumptions we make about places we go to serve or places we see on the news and on social media that may not be true. If we want to be good, faithful and responsible in the service we do, we need to take time and address our assumptions before we go, while we are on the trip, and after the trip. It must be an ongoing conversation to be sure we see and hear what is really going on in the culture we are visiting. 

A good pre-trip exercise is to do this exercise:

  • People from (Insert country or city) are ______________________________.
  • The first thing that comes to your mind when you think of (Insert country or city)________________________. 

Write these down and bring them up again while on the trip to see how your assumptions match your experience. Maybe even ask some of the people you are serving to educate you on these assumptions.

Assumptions and Biases can be hard to see and pick up on, therefore we need to be vigilant and listen to the words we use and the thoughts that come to our mind and not be afraid of the tension or hard questions because assumptions and biases can do a lot of damage to the community we love and want to serve.


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