When I first contemplated the possibility that the way I’d been going about missions had been ineffective, it was a hard thought. The idea of a mission trip – to help those in need – seemed so right, so biblical. And it is. But I’ve heard multiple testimonies from local missionaries, and the believers in their countries, about how the North American mission-team mindset is a hindrance to their ministry.
At first this was a shock to me. How can so many people be going about missions in a way that hinders? In a way that is, dare I say, the wrong way? But when I looked at things from someone else’s point of view, it began to make sense.
I started to think, “Does this mean that I’ve been ineffective as a Christian? If I admit that I need a perspective change, then will I be invalidating the previous missions I’ve participated in?” I was struggling to make sense of it all. But while re-evaluating and listening to different perspectives and experiences, I realized something:
I realized that at times I was that American. The one who asks insensitive questions and holds onto presumptuous judgments about culture. The one who charges in to “save the day” instead of putting more effort into building relationships. The one who wants someone to need me.
Sometimes it feels good to be the one with all the answers. When I rush in and help where there’s a need, I get a sense of validation. When little kids are hanging onto me and don’t want me to leave, it makes me feel important, needed, wanted, and loved. The very thing that I thought I came to give away, I am actually receiving. Or maybe “taking” is a better word. And when I leave, I leave full, but I may leave the people no better off – or even worse off – than when I came.
I found myself going back to the drawing board of what I’d thought missions to be – and starting over. I began asking questions and searching for answers (which I’m still doing). Was I really being a detriment to the Church in other countries? My intentions had been, as much as I could tell, to bring hope where there was no hope and light where there had been darkness. I believe there were moments when God used me to speak encouragement to believers, to pray for them and to offer love where there was a lack of it. But I had to ask myself: Was there a better way to go about it? Probably.
It’s ok to visit orphanages. It’s right to go on mission trips. In fact, the Bible commands us to “go into all the world and preach the Gospel” and to care for orphans and widows. But it must be more about meeting the needs of the receiving ministry and local people than about meeting my felt need for a mission trip.
I recently said to my co-worker, “One of our greatest opportunities is to evaluate what we’re doing, consistently asking ourselves whether we’re being effective. And for us to have a willingness to change what we’re doing for the benefit of the whole.” This self-evaluation is not a choice. In the realm of ministry and missions, it is a necessity. When this is not done at a business, the company or finances might suffer. But when this is not done in missions, people suffer. And nobody with a heart for missions wants to cause that.
Honestly, admitting that I could go about missions in a better way was liberating. It was a lesson for me in learning more about the grace of God. We’re all imperfect people, fumbling through life at times, searching for meaning and significance. God has a life of meaning for every believer – but not at a cost to someone else.
We have the privilege and the responsibility as believers and carriers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to look back on each experience from different perspectives, with humility and openness, to receive honest opinions from others in the body of Christ. How exciting it is to work together without regard for who will get the credit or who has the best idea. To care only about Jesus being recognized – this is freedom. Freedom that allows God to have His way, instead of us insisting on our own.
This is no easy task. It will require time, energy, vulnerability, humility and much prayer from us. With God as the ultimate authority on the human heart and every culture, He knows the best way of reaching the world. And He longs to show us. I believe God will show us an effective path for sharing His love as we look to Him for the answers. We have a mandate to make the Gospel known. Let’s do it together.
Even as I’m writing, I’m unsure of my own role in missions and how I’m supposed to live out this new perspective. I do know, however, that we all have a role to play in the Kingdom of God and what He is doing on the Earth today. Thankfully, my job isn’t to figure it all out. My job is to live in humble obedience to Christ, one day at a time. And sometimes that means confessing I’ve done it wrong and continuing to ask the hard questions.
Heather Newcomer is a registered nurse currently working with I-TEC (Indigenous Peoples Technology and Education Center), located in Dunnellon, FL. She is helping to develop a medical guide that can be used to train local believers to care for the sick in places where hospitals and clinics may be inaccessible. She blogs about her spiritual journey at beyondbelief320. The vision and mission of I-TEC can be explored at www.itecusa.org.