Excellence and Justice in Short-Term Missions Think Tank

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In the mid 2000’s Christianity Today took notice of research by Calvin College Professor, Kurt Ver Beek, on the lower than expected benefits of sending volunteers out from North America. Ver Beek has lived in Honduras for 30 years and he was there for the duration of Hurricane Mitch (which took 14,000 lives in 1998). The North Americans who flew south to serve in the aftermath of the storm were his case study. The results showed little long term change in Honduran communities or in the lives of the people who invested so heavily to go.

This can be a source of dissonance for mission trip sending churches because, in some sense, they know Ver Beek is right. Church counsels may have even carefully broached the issue prior to ever reading the research — asking that uncomfortable question, “What if, instead of spending $830 per volunteer on plane tickets for 12 people we just send the $10,000 straight to the people who need relief?”

Despite the research people who spend time reading the Bible feel compelled to go or, if they cannot go themselves, to support and send. In scripture God says, “Go!” a lot. It is a theme. Jonah would have probably been happy to simply send $830 to Nineveh but God said, “Go.” God is a sender. He sent Jesus.

What do Christians do with this situation? If sending Jonah was actually about God giving a heart challenge to Jonah and later all of us through the retelling of his story, then what kind of personal transformation should we expect as a result of our mission trips? And if the church in North America is spending millions of dollars on short-term missions what assurance is there that this time and money will actually result in ending poverty?

For members of the newly formed Justice and Excellence in Short-Term Missions Think Tank, these are old questions with no quick fixes. The Think Tank, made up short-term mission staff from the CRC and the Reformed Church, brings over a hundred years of combined experience to the table. The agencies and churches they serve have vision statements that talk about transforming communities, growing with God in the renewal of all things, multiplying believers, doing justice, and being the very presence of Jesus Christ in the World. They value the call to go, justice, equity, and sustainable transformation in impoverished communities.

The Think Tank is taking a long view to increasing the effectiveness of Short Term missions in the CRC and their agencies. They have a two-pronged approach. One: evaluate and expand their own effectiveness in transforming communities and participants with the help of a peer review organization called the Standards of Excellence. Two: invite interested congregations to join them and do the same. They meet over video and telephone conference for about one hour per month and expect to complete the peer review process by the summer of 2014.

For a list of Think Tank participating agencies and the themes, they are using for peer evaluative see below. For more information about the Excellence and Justice in Short Term Missions Think Tank contact Carol Sybenga or Kris Van Engen.

Participating Agencies:

  • World Renew Disaster Response Services
  • World Renew Global Volunteer Program
  • CRC Office of Social Justice
  • CRC World Missions
  • RCA CARE Network
  • Service Link
  • Association For a More Just Society
  • Linked Engagement Action Program–

Themes for peer evaluation:

(Happening in partnership with the Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Mission)

  • God-centeredness
  • Empowering Partnerships
  • Mutual Design
  • Comprehensive Administration
  • Qualified Leadership
  • Appropriate Training
  • Thorough Follow Through
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Community Builder

I am not a language scholar - but I've heard that the word "go" could be translated "as you are going". We don't need to go far away to have cross-cultural and soul transforming experiences. They are all around us "as we are going". There are homeless shelters, places where street people gather, domestic violence shelters, community centers, all kinds of support groups, migrant workers, home health aides, our neighbors, store clerks, etc. I hope that the Excellence and Justice in Short Term Missions Think Tank will think of these opportunities as well.

Participant

I am glad this think tank has been formed. Too often I have seen money raised for short-term mission trips that clearly were not going to benefit either the travellers or the folks in the destination country.  I still remember meeting a Haitian pastor who, suggested that just maybe Haiti would be better off if North America would "just leave us alone."  

That being said, it may be that there is still room for overseas short term missions "done right." For example, one of the focuses of a well-done short term mission trip might be education--learning about other cultures, learning about how our actions in North America have a major impact around the work, etc. I had an experience like this in college during a two-week "mission trip" to the Dominican Republic, where we spent much of our time either learning in a classroom type setting or learning by spending time connecting with the folks in the DR. Yes, we did some painting and some digging, and taught a VBS in a batey, and I don't pretend that our trip was some paragon to be admired or copied, but the focus really was on learning from and connecting with Dominican and Haitian Christians, and it seems there were at least some long-term benefits. 

I don't pretend to have any answers on how we should be doing short-term mission; best wishes to the folks involved in the think tank--I suspect they will make conclusions that will be both challenging and beneficial.

I'm pleased to hear of the "Justice and Excellence in Short Term Missions Think Tank."  I think its high time we consider seriously what we are trying to accomplish with short term missions.  Often such trips when considered thoughtfully will end up doing more harm than good.  I would refer the reader to a book by Brian Fikkert with the title: "When Helping Hurts."  When short term missions sends teams to go and do what the locals should be doing for themselves, that form of helping hurts the locals and creates unhealthy dependeny.  I trust that the "Justice and Excellence in Short Term Missions Think Tank" will give some much needed guidance in this area. 

Community Builder

I think Bob Lupton's book, Toxic Charity, along with When Helping Hurts, from the Chalmer's Center, make very strong cases and compelling arguments for the need to change how we as Christians--at least in the U.S.--have engaged and continue to engage in the work of serving or helping others. Both also show that this change is needed not only because what and how we have engaged in helping or serving has not helped; it's also needed because all too often we have caused more harm than good to those we thought we were helping. What I appreciate about both of these books is that they also provide ideas and suggestions for changing how we help that benefits, improve and transform lives, relationships, and communities in ways that I think advance and more closely reflect God's reign.