I suppose my reservations about short-term mission endeavours are known in some missiological circles but not known in YFC, so I will first do some reflection on this topic. The first thing I want to say is that I am not opposed to mission teams and short-term missions as some in the mission community have thought. I see this as a vital missionary tool that has been revived in recent years through a wonderful work of the Holy Spirit. Our experience in YFC/SL with mission teams from abroad has been extremely positive. Our ministry has been greatly enriched through them.
But I have been developing a few new concerns recently. I found them echoed by some key Sri Lankan leaders at a conference of heads of denominations and organisations which I attended a few days ago. So I realise that I am not alone in sensing the concerns. Essentially, the concerns spring from the fact that short-term mission ventures do so much good to those who go in mission to other places. Because of the immense good it does to them, could they ignore hard questions about whether this is the best thing for the receptors of such short-term help?
I have often heard Christian leaders in Sri Lanka complain about having to host foreigners who are coming to help in the work. They are grateful for what these people do. But some feel that they are taken away from their primary work because they have to host these people. Owing to the fact that usually it is only the senior leaders who can speak English, it is the Senior leaders who have to be with these teams, thus resulting in them being taken away from their primary calling. This has not been my experience as we have often told teams that have offered to come to us that it would not be appropriate for them to come at the time they suggest. But I know that many Christian leaders in Sri Lanka see the visits of foreign Christians as a burden. I think the lesson here is for national leaders to be frank when responding to those foreign friends who offer their services. This, of course, is something that is very hard to do in our Asian culture.
Given the poverty and helplessness of many of the churches in receptor countries they will take any help they can get. The question is whether the visits of foreign teams are helping these churches with building long-term healthy churches. Some national leaders are saying that often this is not happening. These teams may help with bringing relief to desperately needy situations, but by creating a sense of dependency, the growth of these churches into healthy, multiplying and financially stable entities may be hampered.
Because the short-term workers usually come with funds, those in receptor churches end up very receptive to the ideas of these short-term workers regarding ministry strategy. In this era of the proliferation of multinational organisations with global strategies, it is easy for Christian donors also to believe that what works in so many countries will work in a given receptor country also. Therefore along with their help may come the expectation that the receptor countries will pattern their ministry according to the successful methods used by the donor country. Yet the Christian model of ministry is the incarnational model. It calls for strategists to become flesh in a given culture before suggesting strategies to the receptor church. This is, of course, a time consuming process—a thing that efficiency-oriented westerners find to be very frustrating.
I believe that today many foreigners who help churches in receptor countries follow the consultant model, which is getting to be very popular in business circles today, rather than the incarnational model. Consultants give of their expertise through their astute observation, expert knowledge and experience of what works elsewhere. I believe that there is an important place for the consultant model in world missions. This is why, for example, I strongly advocate the need for Area Directors in YFC. I believe that my role as a Bible teacher in foreign countries follows this model. I present truths and sometimes advice, which, I believe, will help nationals and expatriate missionaries who have incarnated themselves in a given national situation to develop strategies for their work. I see myself as a servant of the church in the nation where I am ministering with a highly limited, though hopefully important, role.
Those who, through incarnation, know the ground situation must do the final strategizing for a ministry. I am hearing reports of a scenario that is getting so common that it is worth mentioning here. Ministries start off really well and really reach out to unreached people through bold and innovative methods. But soon they find they do not have funds to support their expanding work. So they look for foreign sponsors. It is alleged that often the making of these foreign contacts is the beginning of the decline of these ministries in terms of effectiveness. The ministry takes on a flavour that somehow makes it less penetrative in terms of impact and more foreign in terms of organisational culture. The genius of YFC world-wide has been its sensitivity to local cultural settings. This is something that we must jealously guard in YFC.
What I am saying then is not that we should stop sending short-term missions teams. Rather I want us to make sure that we should never think that they would take the place of long-term incarnational mission workers. Those deciding on ministry strategy in particular should be such incarnational servants of the people. Short-term mission teams and the visits of consultants can help local ministries immensely. But local leaders must be discerning about welcoming such teams and persons. They should ask hard questions whether the positive results of these visits outweigh the negative. Only after this should they decide whether to invite a prospective team that has offered its services.