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Teachability in Short-Term Missions: Learning from what does and doesn’t work

Bonita Broadnax and Brian Fikkert, with Emily Carminati

There’s something really strange about how the western church does short-term missions. Most of us have probably been part of it without realzing just how weird it is. Of course, this is an audacious claim, but let us offer two anecdotes—true stories that may feel very familiar to those who have participated in short-term missions.

At the time of this writing, I (Bonita) serve as the manager of a Section 8 housing complex in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with more than its share of violence and poverty. Some time ago, I began reaching out to local churches to invite them to come and partner with my complex and bring the love of God to those living under my care in this community. One church finally took me up on the idea and expressed excitement about building relationships and bringing the hope of Christ to our community. And they proposed a plan: they would pitch a tent, and bring food and Christian rap music to make community members feel comfortable. The day came; the church’s outreach team members piled out of cars and set up the tent. They put out a table with water and snacks, set up a portable speaker, and turned on the music. We prayed together, then I left them to begin their ministry. One member of the team went out from the tent, walked through the property, greeted residents, engaged in brief conversation, and returned to the tent. The remaining team members never left the tent or took time to have meaningful conversations with any of the residents. After they packed up and went home, needless to say, no one had been “saved.” No one had been prayed with. No one had even eaten the snacks!

The second story features a short-term team that traveled from three hours away to do service work in the housing complex. They brought their own painting supplies, and worked six-hour days painting the stair railings in every building in the complex. They seemed comfortable in this setting, and were friendly and warm to the residents. Yet they were intent on their work, and even though they worked in close proximity to the community residents, they kept conversations short and shallow. When that team had gone, all the painting was complete—and that was certainly a gift to our community. But were any lives changed? Were any real relationships formed? Sadly, the beautiful paint jobs were the only lasting sign of that team’s presence.

In both of these stories, we witness one of the profound oddities of conventional short-term missions thinking: in the name of sharing love and saving people’s souls, people are nevertheless treated as objects; there is an uncritical assumption that technique and strategy yields personally transformative results among the targets of STM efforts. Snacks, rap music, even service projects and small talk—these are not bad things in themselves, but they don’t actually do anything to meet the basic need of humans with souls: that is, relationship.

The weirdness of this objectifying model of short-term ministry becomes clearer if we flip the script and try to see the situation from the stance of the community (rather than inside the tent). Think about it: if someone from another cultural or religious persuasion pitched a tent in front of your house, put out snacks and drinks, and expected you to show curiosity about their beliefs—or much less, to win you over to their religion—would you even go near them? It would be impossible to interpret their actions as anything like love or authentic relationship. If anything, you might feel like these strangers to the neighborhood saw you as a target, a task, or a potential conquest.

At its core, this problem of western missions is a theological and anthropological one. I (Brian) discuss this in my book, Becoming Whole. There is a tendency in western anthropology to reduce the human being merely to a physical, material creature and to overlook the presence of a soul. If we think the human being is just a physical creature, we can treat our interactions with them like using a candy machine—put a quarter in and something sweet pops out. We engage them in purely material terms. For Christians, there’s a tendency to simply tack on concern for the soul to this framework, without reevaluating the overall approach. So, we pitch the tent, fill it with Bibles and tracts, blast Christian rap, and assume that if we only flash enough “Truth,” the objects of our efforts might somehow get their souls “saved.” And we keep on repeating strategies like this without acknowledging the fact that they rarely get anyone saved, and might even be driving people further away from any engagement with the real truth of the gospel. The “problem” with many of our short-term mission approaches is that humans are not just physical bodies with souls tacked on, and nor are they anything like candy machines; rather, they are created for authentic relationship, and desperately in need of the love of a relational God.

Adapted from “Candy Machine Charity” by Bonita Broadnax and Brian Fikkert.In Re-Imagining Short-Term Missions, ed. Forrest Inslee and Angel Burns. Wipf & Stock, 2022

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