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Doing Short-Terms Missions without Doing Long-Term Harm

I ran across this good article from the Chalmers Center, part of which I excerpt here:Doing Short-Terms Missions without Doing Long-Term Harm by Chalmers Center Staff Given the explosion of Short-Terms Missions (STM) trips to minister to low-income …
By Seth Barnes

I ran across this good article from the Chalmers Center, part of which I excerpt here:

Doing Short-Terms Missions without Doing Long-Term Harm
by Chalmers Center Staff

the explosion of Short-Terms Missions (STM) trips to minister to
low-income communities, it would appear that STM is the most effective
way to minister to poor people. Right? Wrong! In fact, most STM trips
violate basic principles of effective poverty-alleviation and have the
potential to do considerable harm both to low-income people and to
ourselves. However, by being cognizant of these principles and more
intentional about our actions, the downsides of STMs can be reduced and
there can be greater hope of long-term benefit for all involved.

As discussed in the previous issue of Mandate,
one of the key principles for effective ministry in low-income
communities is discerning whether the context calls for
“relief,”—short-term handouts to people in an emergency Woman and Boy on Dirt Bikesituation—or
“development”—walking with people over time in a way that brings
reconciliation of foundational relationships with God, self, others,
and creation. Relief and development are very different sorts of
interventions, requiring different skills, approaches, human and
financial resources, and time. It is not always easy to discern which
intervention is appropriate, but a good rule of thumb is to ask
yourself the following question: Are the people in this community
capable of helping themselves? If the answer is “yes,” then relief is
not the right intervention. For example, the Good Samaritan
appropriately provided relief to the man who was bleeding on the side
of the road and completely helpless. But most low-income people are not
in this situation and are suffering from chronic issues that affect
their self-image and sense of purpose. Such feelings of inferiority,
hopelessness, and meaninglessness cannot be overcome by handouts from a
STM team or anybody else.

Unfortunately, STM trips
often make the serious mistake of providing relief in contexts in which
development is the appropriate intervention. Providing handouts of
goods and services in such a situation can do enormous damage by
undermining the willingness and capacity of low-income communities to
be stewards of their own human and physical assets. Doing relief in a
development context isn’t just ineffective; it’s damaging!

STM trips also tend to use “needs-based” rather than “asset-based” approaches.2
Instead of focusing on the gifts and abilities that God has placed in
low-income communities, the implicit assumption of many STM trips can
be, “We must come in and build houses for you, because you don’t have
the materials or know-how to do so yourselves. You need us to show you
how to run Vacation Bible Schools in your community because we know
more than you do.” This “needs-based” approach exacerbates the feelings
of inferiority that are rampant in many low-income communities and can
inflate the sense of superiority of the STM teams. In addition, these
assumptions are not always true! There really are gifts and assets in
low-income communities that the poor can use to improve both their
lives and ours!

For example, when we send in our
pastors on STMs to train churches in low-income communities, we should
allow the churches in those communities to share with our pastors the
ways they have seen God working in their midst. Churches that are
dealing daily with issues such as witchcraft, demon possession,
starvation, AIDS, and ethnic cleansing have often experienced God’s
work in ways that are different from our experiences, and we need allow
these churches to share with us what they have learned about God so
that the entire body can be built up.

Indeed, the key
asset that God has placed in many low-income communities is His body,
bride, and fullness: the local church! Every STM team should ask
itself: What are we doing to the testimony of the local church that
already exists in this community? The reality is that often the local
churches in poor communities cannot compete on the same stage with U.S.
suburban churches in terms of their ability to put on a glitzy program.
When STM teams come in with an abundance of resources and glossy
Vacation Bible School materials, they look better and are often more
attractive than the local church. STM teams need to ask: How can we be
less on the front stage and more supportive of the local church and its

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