Lots of American Christians have been on short-term mission trips. In most of the circles I've run in, these trips have often involved building something or giving people something.
What we don't realize is that we may be doing more harm than good.
For example, I went to a church in Tanzania that was lagging in attendance. Why? Because the church was started by a missionary who gave out gifts every Sunday. But when the gifts stopped coming, so did the people.
I met a Tanzanian pastor who said that some missionaries are harming the church because they’re teaching the Tanzanians to think of themselves as helpless and dependent on outsiders.
I heard stories about unhealthy patterns of relating between missionaries/mission teams and Tanzanian pastors and Christians. Americans are seen as the givers -- with all the money, all the answers, and all the power. Tanzanians are seen as receivers, and only receivers -- with no responsibility and nothing to offer.
In the long run, creating dependency does more harm than good. Doing for others what they can do for themselves is not helping. It's hurting. It humiliates and degrades and does not lead to self sufficiency. It keeps people in poverty.
In the picture above, members of the Masarura United Methodist Church in Tanzania are building a new church building. They're doing it themselves. And they're building it out of bricks they made themselves in ovens like these:
Now, a team from an American church had been there -- but only to work side-by-side with the Tanzanians. And only after the Tanzanians had gotten the project started by making around 5,000 bricks.
In fact, Eric's policy as a missionary is that he does not provide construction money or outside help to churches until after they have reached a similar level of achievement on their own. He's not going to enable dependency.
Masarura UMC is growing. I'm sure the fact that its members feel like it's their church (not a missionary's) has something to do with that.
We need to rethink how we do missions. We don't need to stop doing missions. We don't need to throw out short-term mission trips. But we might need to throw out some of our beliefs and attitudes.
We need to be servants, not heroes.
We need to do a lot of listening.
And we need to form partnerships where both sides give and both sides receive.
For an example of this kind of partnership, check out this Partner Church Covenant from the UMC's "In Mission Together" initiative.
For an article that deals with this subject in more depth, read "Why You Should Consider Canceling Your Short-Term Missions Trip." But be sure to also read the follow-up article, "Toward Better Short-Term Missions" that offers some ways to rethink the way we do missions.