Sunday, April 1, 2012

Handing out cash and evangelistic short-term trips

I finally, finally finished When Helping Hurts. Nearly a full year ago I joined a group of people on here reading through chapter by chapter and blogging about it. And then it sort of stopped and I, as usual, took forever to finish reading it. You can read my old posts on the book here.

It has actually been helpful, not because it's introduced any groundbreaking information for me, but because they provide a framework of how to analyze a problem to know what sort of help is needed. I used the framework to think about how to help with refugee friends. There's a post coming in which I use the same framework to analyze intervention for us a couple of years ago. It's humbling to have yourself as the example of the "problem" that others are "solving".

Nicaragua | March '08For today, though, I want to wrestle with one of the last chapters, which absolutely roasted the concept of short-term trips and offered tips of how to do them better. Actually, the trips described were all sort of "trips to help poor people" where the team builds a building or paints walls or does other sort of band-aid or unneeded things from a perspective of superiority and pity. While I've made no secret of my suspicion of short-term trips, I have no experience with this type of trip. The ones that I've been exposed to are all evangelistic trips that aren't wrestling with local poverty (though it certainly still hits them in the face). I wondered what the authors would say about this type of trip?

Many of the lessons carry over.

- Are you, the trip participant, taking over a job that the local church should be doing and keeping them from taking responsibility? Will they learn to rely on outsiders to talk to strangers about Jesus instead of learning to live outward-focused lives?

- Are our short-term trips doing more good for the participants and sending organizations than they are overseas? Yes, it's true that powerful lessons are taught to participants, but if we bill the trip as something beneficial for the world when in actuality they are for ourselves, we are lying to our donors and probably over-spending on ourselves. We MUST test the long-term local effect of the trips we send overseas. Is the church strengthened or grown?

- Are we working through and with the local church, with their leaders guiding our actions, or are we going in and imposing our view of how things should be done in the culture? They know better than us. If we try to do it our way we are showing our sense of cultural superiority and should stay home and learn some humility!

- Sometimes the evangelical view of an evangelistic presentation can be the spiritual equivalent of the economically simplistic (and probably harmful) act of handing cash to those we perceive as poor overseas. Where poverty is present, complex social and economic systems are at play and our cash isn't always helpful. The same goes for overly simplistic gospel presentation. We want to build disciples, not people that have nodded their head or raised their hand after some American gave a speech. Are we truly presenting what we think we're presenting? If not, we might actually be hurting instead of helping.

In the end, though, I think it's important not to see complexity and give up trying to help. Instead, we need to dig into the problem of spiritual poverty both here and overseas and grapple with how to provide lasting, long-term solutions. Usually this requires much more effort and difficulty on our part, as well as increasing humility.

That's my transfer of the ideas taught in When Helping Hurts to the problem of short-term evangelistic missions trips.

Also, I just have to refer you to a fantastic series of posts on short-term trips from Jaimie at The Very Worst Missionary.

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