Short-term Missions, Learning, and an American Evangelical Weakness

I have a quiz for you.

It’s the same quiz that I gave to my students toward the end of our trip in Kenya.

I told them that I had observed another group of evangelical Americans in a short-term mission situation where they were speaking to very poor people, most of whom did not have jobs and some of whom were homeless.  I told them about a mini-sermon one of the Americans had given and asked them what made this sermon less effective than it could have been.  Here is how it went:  one of the Americans got up with an old bicycle.  He explained that when you get on a bike, you choose where you go.  You decide what path to take.  You decide if you are going to go to work, or to school, or to a friend’s house.  And that is how it is in life, he explained.  We make choices about how we are going to live.  We decide what job we are going to take and what we are going to do with our life….

At this point, several of my students groaned and several others rolled their eyes.

They passed the quiz.  How did you do?

My students groaned because (as they explained to me) the poor women and homeless street boys in places like Maai Mahiu simply don’t have the choices that Americans have.  They can’t choose what job to take, for instance, because in a poor town in a nation with about 40% unemployment and another 30% underemployment, jobs are desperately hard to find.  Yes, poor Kenyans do have choices – moral and spiritual choices, especially — but their choices in so many areas of life are extremely limited.

Would you tell people from the slums of Kibera that they can “be anything they want to be, if they just work hard enough?”

My students were right.  These Kenyans don’t believe that they “can be anything they want to be, if they just work hard enough” (another phrase I heard from an American in that group).  These Kenyans know that this phrase is simply false.  And so, there was a real disconnect between this American way of thinking and the reality of life for these people.

I then asked my students why they knew this and this other team from America did not.  My students had to reflect on this for a few moments.  Someone finally concluded that they listened to the people they met at Maai Mahiu.  My students knew that they should try to understand the situation that these people were in.

But why did these students listen?  Why did they know that they should work to understand the people of Maai Mahiu?  I told them to think about their education.  Excluding the specific class they were taking for this trip to Kenya, where had they learned to listen and understand people who were different from them?  They then discussed a range of classes that they had taken at Malone where they did these sorts of things.  Seven different classes were named specifically.

Why does this matter?  It matters because far too many American evangelicals embark on short term missions trip without a deep sense that, even though they may go to serve, they also need to be learners.  They need to be ready and willing to deepen their understanding of the people they serve.  Far too many evangelicals take the attitude that since they have Christ in their lives, they do not need to learn anything about the people they visit.  They just need to “love on” others and everything will be fine.

But it is not fine.  It is true that God’s grace still works, despite our faults.  It is true that love conquers a multitude of sins.  It is true that this group that I used as an example did some wonderful things.  But it is also true that our efforts can be limited or distorted because of our sins.  It is true that the sin of pride, in assuming we know all we need to know, is a sin that we don’t have to commit.  Many cross-cultural sins can be taken care of through a servant attitude toward learning.  But without a humble attitude toward learning, well-intentioned short-term missions end up with limited effectiveness.  I talked with several Kenyan Christian leaders who, while welcoming and supportive of Americans coming to participate in their ministries, indicated that some groups do not have a good sense of these things.  As my friend Esther said, (in a phrase I find simultaneously telling and painful), she has seen many Americans arrive in Kenya with an attitude that “the Savior has landed!”

These American evangelicals probably would be surprised to find a good number of African Christians whose spiritual maturity is much deeper than their own.

Of course, there are American evangelical leaders who understand these things.  For instance, I know of a famous Baptist preacher who said, in a speech in a missions convention, that we must carry out “our ideas as being ourselves learners.”

But wait.  That Baptist guy was Francis Wayland who was born in 1796.  He gave the speech in 1854.


I mention this because as a historian of these kinds of things, I can find evangelical missionaries saying roughly the same thing to their American audiences in about every decade since the 1850s.  Many evangelicals don’t get it.  They don’t listen.  And they don’t learn.  The result?  We keep on sending people out into cross-cultural situations who do not draw upon the insights from the past.  As a result, every generation has to reinvent the wheel.  It is still happening today, folks.

Here is one small suggestion:  if you belong to a church that sends out short-term missions, see what you can do to help your church prepare for these trips.  I would recommend a book by David Livermore called Serving with Eyes Wide Open:  Doing Short-term Missions with Cultural Intelligence.  It is very thoughtful, accessible, and written with ordinary evangelicals in mind.

Buy this book!

If your church group reads this book and takes it seriously, they will go out with greater cultural intelligence.  They are less likely to give off the impression that, now that they have arrived, the Savior has landed.

(And for those of you who are weak on your theology, let me mention that the Savior landed about, oh, two thousand years ago).

Why You Should Know That Child Sponsorship Works

You have probably seen ads for organizations, like Compassion International, whereby a person can donate money regularly to sponsor children who live in poor situations around the world.  Maybe you have sponsored a child.

But does it make a difference?

Consider the following little anecdote.  While our Malone group was in the Kenyan town of Maai Mahiu, my colleague David told me that a young teenage girl was asking about me.  The girl, Salome, had heard that one of us was a history professor and she wanted to talk to this guy because she liked history.

Now, I have to confess that I am always a bit surprised when anybody tells me they like history.  I tend to view history lovers like myself as rare and slightly strange creatures.  Like Rhinos.  Or Miami Marlin fans.

And I can’t recall anyone actually tracking me down to talk to me because they liked history.  (Does this type of thing only happen in Kenya, I am tempted to ask myself?)

Yet I found myself in this rough town in Kenya talking to this girl who was telling me she liked history.  (You’ll find us in the picture below).  Salome’s eyes lit up as she told me how she was interested in the history of economic development in Kenya– the shipping and railroads and growth of towns.  She explained that history helped her understand things better.  We had a wonderful conversation.

Two history buffs having a little chat.

Here is the problem:   at that moment — a Thursday morning, a school day — Salome was not in school studying history.   The nation of Kenya cannot afford to provide everyone in the country with a free education, so each student has to pay school fees.  Salome had dropped out of school because she did not have enough money to pay for her school fees.

This is serious business in Maai Mahiu.  Isaac and Esther Karanja Munji, who have been working with women through their church, Rift Valley Fellowship, understand that there is a connection between dropping out of school and prostitution.  They explained that teenage girls in this town who cannot go to school often end up in prostitution, simply as a means of survival.  Isaac and Esther know of instances in which mothers, who are prostitutes themselves and do not like the business, tell their girls that if they aren’t in school, they should at least be making money.

As they attempt to help women get out of prostitution, Isaac and Esther have realized that they need to do things to try to break the cycle.  So they have set up a sponsorship program where people can donate money to keep teenage girls in school.

It makes sense to me.  And it made sense to the Malone students, who decided that they wanted to give money to help some of these girls stay in school.  $300 will keep Salome in school for the year.

There are no guarantees that things will turn out well, of course.  Stuff happens.  But given Salome’s obvious academic desires (desires that I wish some of my American students displayed), I’m pretty confident that she will stick with it.  That should give her a fighting chance to avoid prostitution.  And that is something.

But do we have evidence, beyond the logic of individual anecdotes, that these kinds of programs have an impact, overall?

We do.  When I arrived back from Kenya I was excited to see an article addressing this very question in the most recent issue of Christianity Today.  The essence of the article:  a recent set of studies by economists have compared children who have been sponsored by organizations like Compassion with those in similar situations who were not sponsored.  They show that these programs have a substantial effect on helping children get out of poverty.  They work.

That should encourage any of you who have ever supported a child.  Maybe it will help you think about doing so if you have not done so already.  It takes an act of faith.  It takes initiative, effort and internal gumption to support children that you have not seen.  You may not ever travel to a place where you can meet these young people face-to-face.  It takes faith to believe that your money is making a difference when you cannot see the results.  And yet, that is part of how faith and the Kingdom of God works.

The people at Rift Valley Fellowship may also be encouraged, though they don’t tend to draw their hope from data derived from recent studies by social scientists.  Instead, they pray.  They pray earnestly and with remarkable confidence that God will deliver them.  That deliverance can take many forms.  One way it happens is if people like us, who have economic resources, will sponsor children.


The Face-to-Face Factor

I have just returned from Kenya, where David Dixon (a colleague of mine) and I took nine Malone students on a service-learning trip.  Since David grew up in Kenya and I lived there for six years, it was like going home for us, in some respects.

This wasn’t exactly like a short-term missions trip because it was tied it to a class on the History of Christianity in East Africa.  We emphasized learning more than most trips that churches sponsor.  But it was similar in several respects:  we visited a number of African ministries, we participated in service activities, and we were there for a limited time.

I have seen many dimensions to the diverse nation that is Kenya, including the dimensions that include deep poverty.  So it wasn’t much of a stretch for me when, on our second full day, my Kikuyu friends, Isaac and Esther Munji, took our group down to visit a new church they had planted in a poor town called Maai Mahiu.   Twenty years ago the town consisted of a gas station, a half dozen shops, a few homes and an orphanage.  Today Maai Mahiu is like the Wild West.  Situated along the primary highway that runs through East Africa, the town is pretty much a huge truck stop.  5000 people live in a place that is full of, among others, eager shopkeepers, truckers, prostitutes, homeless streetboys, orphans —  in other words, a lot of people who have lost their ties to families and communities.  It is estimated that about 90% of the people in this town are HIV positive.

Maai Mahiu: The Wild West of Central Province, Kenya

If you have traveled to economically-deprived locations outside of the United States, you can probably imagine what our students faced:  dirt streets with fetid water trickling through them, children scampering about in ragged clothes, trash scattered here and there, and a rather powerful cocktail of not-altogether pleasant smells.

We arrived at the church, Rift Valley Fellowship, and met a small gathering of about a dozen women and teenage girls.  Isaac had everyone introduce themselves.  Then we split up into two groups to walk to the houses of these women and pray for them.  So I set off with a group and ended up with about ten of us crowded into a one-room home.

Again, this was not new to me.  I have visited some pretty poor dwellings in Kenya before.  I have prayed in homes with Kenyans.  I’ve walked through some poor neighborhoods.

So why did I find myself crying as we prayed?

It is the face-to-face factor.  The reality of a situation just has a way of hitting a person much deeper if it is witnessed face-to-face, as opposed to reading about it, or watching it on TV, or hearing somebody talk about it.  We can know things in our head, but most of the time they don’t move us to action like the face-to-face factor does.

Several realities of this face-to-face encounter hit me at once:  the difficult poverty of these women, the recognition that prostitution is one of the few options for generating income for women in this town, the personal dimension of meeting, talking to and learning names (Jane, Francis, Marcy) of people in this town, the thankfulness these women expressed that someone would care enough about them to come pray for them in their home, my recognition that our students were at that moment getting overwhelmed by all of this, and a deep sense of gratitude that our students still dove into this overwhelming cross-cultural situation, earnestly praying for these women.

The problem of describing this in a blog is that it is difficult to transfer the power of these

Jane, outside of her home.

realities to those who have not had the face-to-face experience.  I can give you a glimpse, but I cannot fully recapture the reality of that moment in this limited medium.  I have known this for many years.  There have been times during the past two decades that Elisa and I have joked that we just need to take certain people to Kenya so that they can understand things better.  And there are more numerous times when I have been in need being transported myself.

The face-to-face factor is something to ponder carefully.  It is one reason why I believe that the best online classes, though often helpful and necessary, will never be able to match the benefit of a good in-class experience.  It is why we need to spend time with our kids and cannot hope to raise them as effectively from afar or in snippets.  It is tied to the mystery of intimacy, as Philip Yancey points out, for human beings are the only species of animal that commonly has sex face to face.  The face-to-face factor is why we cannot be lone wolf Christians, but must worship, fellowship and pray with others in church.

And the face-to-face factor may serve as the biggest benefit derived from short-term missions trips.  There is a debate within some segments of the American evangelical community about the value of short term missions.  There are good questions to consider in this debate, which I may discuss later.  For now, let me say that I have talked to missionaries and local Christian leaders who say that the face-to-face impact of these trips is a major benefit, for it often spurs Americans to further action.  It connects people across cultural and national boundaries.  And it provokes deeper questions about Christ’s calling for our lives.

I don’t know of any systematic studies that have tried to gauge the impact of the face-to-face factor in short-term missions, though maybe they are out there.  I do know that a trip to Haiti in 1969 had a big impact on my parents.  (How many times did we view slides of Haiti in our living room with visiting friends and family?  About eleventy-bajillion, to my 2nd grade way of thinking).   A short-term trip to the Bahamas when I was in college played a major role in my life decisions.

The Bible speaks a number of times about face-to-face encounters.  Usually it refers to the bright hope of seeing God face to face some day.  I can’t begin to plumb the depths of meaning to this idea, but it does suggest that knowing and being known are more than simply mental processes.  Now we see through a mirror dimly, then we will see face to face.

For a glimpse into the impact of the face-to-face factor on our Malone students, you can check out their final Kenya blog here.