by Bob Lupton When I was six I heard an advertisement on the radio about how easily and quickly one could learn to play a harmonica. I was captivated. I begged my mother to help me order one. I would pay for it from my allowance savings. She consented.
After impatient weeks of checking the postman’s daily deliveries it finally arrived. It was a colossal disappointment. The harmonica was cheap plastic and the instructions were difficult to read. It was immediately obvious to my six-year-old mind that all my blowing was never going to produce melodious tunes like I had heard on the radio advertisement. My sister snickered.
To ease my wounded spirit (and perhaps to encourage my musical interest) my parents gave me a really nice harmonica for my next birthday. A metal one that sounded harmonious no matter where you blew on its keyboard. And blow I did. I practiced and practiced, mostly on simple church tunes (but also a few faster-moving ones like Turkey in the Straw). My parents seemed pleased. My sister rolled her eyes.
My church was big on revival. That’s what the country really needed – a spiritual outpouring that would save us from all the evil and immorality that was so rampant in our society. We prayed fervently every Sunday for another “great awakening.” To a six-year-old whose reality was defined by his parents’ beliefs, it was clear that a revival was the only thing that would save us from impending doom. How do you start a revival? I innocently inquired. Prayer, lots of prayer, and obedience, my mother counseled me. Do whatever God asks of us, she said.
Six-year-old minds are very active. What could I do to help start a revival and save our land? Then I had an idea. What if I offered God my harmonica playing ability? Could God use that to start a revival? I asked my mother. She said that it was a wonderful idea, that God could use any gift offered to accomplish His purposes. My sister smirked.
Sixty-two years later the lessons I gleaned from my harmonica days are still with me. I remain highly suspicious of anyone selling anything that seems too good to be true. But I do believe what my mother told me – at least the part about God can use any gift offered to accomplish His purposes. And another conviction remains – the belief that everyone, including six-year-olds, has an innate desire to make a difference in the world.
That’s why young people sign up for mission trips. And because we know this, we play to this desire in our recruitment appeals. “You can save the world” is the alluring message. It has enormous heart-appeal. And what parent can resist the impulses of their child’s heart to make a difference in the world? Thus, the funding. But do mission trips over-promise the actual results? Will this quick and easy method of ministry lead to the same kind of colossal disappointment as the deceptive harmonica hype I fell for?
Our desire is to develop inspired and inspiring young leaders, not disillusioned ones. It is certainly important for young people (of all ages) to believe deeply that they can make a difference in their world. It is important for them to know that in God’s economy every act of love counts – every smile, every kind word, every thoughtful deed. “God can use any gift offered to accomplish His purposes.” But it is also important for them to understand how helping can sometimes hurt. Passing out T-shirts and candy to excited village children may seem like pure loving kindness until volunteers learn how the village elders are reacting but are reluctant to reveal – that this only encourages a culture of beggary. Eager to serve, missioners innocently offer to do things for others, not realizing that they have wounded the pride and dignity of people who have more than adequate capability to do it for themselves.
But how can our young people gain these insights? How can they become truly helpful instead of unintentionally hurtful?
Alison from Colorado who coordinates mission trips to Haiti emailed me recently with these very questions. She was painfully aware that the service her volunteers performed was largely make-work and their suitcases stuffed with free gifts only perpetuated a hands-out mentality among Haitians. She asked for my advice.
From: Bob Lupton [email@example.com] Sent: Wednesday, April 25, 2012 12:44 PM To: alisons@٭٭٭٭.org Subject: mission trips
I understand the demand to do mission trips and the pressure you feel to continue planning them. Here are a few suggestions that may make them more redemptive.
Exposing young people (and adults) to the needs of the world and the amazing work of God in harsh environments is important ministry. It opens their eyes, stirs their hearts and draws them into compassionate action. That’s why mission trips can be important in the spiritual development of our youth. And that’s what mission trips should be about – spiritual development, not pretending that they are about saving the world. Not immediately anyway. They are about saving us. Preparing us. Once that is clear, we can venture into Haiti and other places of need with integrity.
We go to learn, not to save. The mindset of learners is very different from that of servers. Learners listen to others, servers do for others. Learners ask questions, servers offer answers. Learners marvel at the faith of the poor, servers pity the poor. Learners see ingenuity, servers see poverty. Learners affirm the worth of people, servers diminish their dignity. You see where I am going with this?
So how do we structure a mission trip that appeals to the innate desire to make a difference in the world, an experience that deepens the spiritual lives of our youth but doesn’t create false expectations? And of course, is truly helpful. First of all, our marketing has to have integrity. The trip is primarily about us, not them. And that’s OK. This is an insight trip to expand our spiritual horizons, see how faith works when resources are severely limited, discover how God is at work among culturally and theologically diverse people. Such insights can be transformative. They can become the very catalysts that ignite a ministry calling.
Secondly, we are not on a mission to help the poor by distributing suitcases full of give-away’s or performing meaningless make-work or assuming roles that can better be handled by locals. We do not promote beggary. We engage in exchange – economic as well as interpersonal. We enjoy the hospitality that is extended by our hosts, and we contribute to their economy by participating in the legitimate enterprise of tourism through fair payment for food, lodging , local transportation and preparation time. And we buy their products.
Thirdly, we prepare our youth for the learning experience by reading books on effective service (like Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts) and articles on the country, the history and contemporary issues. Learning the language honors people, at least some key phrases. “Appreciative inquiry” techniques, note-taking and journaling can also be useful. Regular group reflection times during and following the trip will help youth assimilate and internalize what they are experiencing.
It goes without saying that on-the-ground connections with seasoned, in-country practitioners is essential to understand the context, scope and impact of the work. Visiting with several different ministries will broaden the perspective. They are the ones who can arrange discussions with residents as well as fun – like a soccer game with local teens. They will be relieved that they don’t have to set up work projects for your group. Remember, their mission is not to be tour guides. Generous compensation for the valuable time they spend with your group hosting and coordinating schedules would be most appropriate.
Hope this is useful.
The God-given desire to relieve suffering and come to the aid of victims of hardship should certainly be affirmed and encouraged. But to care well requires preparation. Learning precedes effective helping. And integrity simply must direct our marketing. Just like unscrupulous harmonica hype can make an innocent boy feel ripped off, so over-promised impact of service projects may disillusion enthusiastic young hearts. Mission trips, rightly promoted and structured, can be some of our best training ground for a lifetime of effective service.