Short Term Missions: an observation

Hello. If this is your first blog of mine that you are reading, let me fill you in quickly on what in the world I am doing…

I am a part of a Master’s program for Intercultural Studies which allows me to volunteer for a year in another cultural context so that I may observe first hand what I am studying. Some of my favorite classes I have had so far are Ethnographic Research Methods and Cultural Anthropology. For just short of one year I am living in Zagreb, Croatia and volunteering as a part of a non-profit organization and church.

Now that you are caught up… let me tell you a bit about what is on my mind.

I am here for 321 days (I haven’t bought my plane ticket yet so I just count til my birthday, December 16th!).

I have noticed through my conversations that to someone who does not travel much or for very long periods at a time, that seems like a long time. However, to someone who is already living out of their “home” country, to them, it’s just a mere 11 months.

In my undergrad, my colleagues and I would discuss short-term missions and the pro’s and con’s. Truth is, as an Intercultural Studies major back then, I was a bit cynical. I would ask questions like, “Why do these people think they are actually helping after spending thousands of dollars for them to have a missional vacation?” “Don’t they realize that sending a mission field those thousands of dollars would be more helpful practically?” My view is not so cynical these days as I have matured but I do ask still similar questions.

Truth be told, there are many negative effects, if not careful, with short term mission trips. Some can be a dependent relationship between the recipient church and the coming church, superficial relationships, and hearts-broken for children who may not understand why their “new friends” have left them.

This summer our ministry team welcomed a 3-week team from California. Their last hours of quality time with refugee (asylum-seekers and migrants) families was spent at the park where we played games, talked with children and parents, and ate lunch together. Real relationships were being built with trust and genuine care after a week’s time. The moment came when the park day had to come to an end. I will never forget the face of one little Kosovo boy as he cried big tears because he was told everyone was leaving. He looked utterly torn.

Another moment I had that was tough was the week after the team had visited a Roma village in Koprivnica, another part of Croatia. I go weekly with another Croatian family. When I arrived, there was a group of young boys asking me excitedly, “Where is [insert name here]?! Is he coming?!!” With a sorry look I had to say no with a poor excuse (in their eyes) why their friend from the week before would not be coming (or anytime soon).

After some more thoughts, research of my own, and conversations, I began to work through my old cynical questions I had forgotten about.

Me and Vedrana, a daughter of the Croatian family in Koprivnica. We are cuddling some puppies at one of the Roma homes we visit. They are part husky!

Now a new question is emerging: Am I not doing the same in my 11 months? 

This past week I headed again to Koprivnica, where I would join the Croatian family as they hosted a short-term team from Korea. I had seen short-term teams from the United States but never from anywhere else. I was very excited to witness this; I had no idea what to expect! (Turns out, this team used Taekwondo as a way to engage people… they were successful! Even I was intrigued!)

My questions about short-term missions came back again as I watched little children, that I have grown to love myself, hug on and play with these new people from Korea. Because they were new, and honestly may be the first asians these children have ever seen, they were received quickly and well. People of all ages came to see the Koreans and what they were talking/singing about. A woman told her testimony about how God helped her out of a suicidal cloud she was in and that God redeemed her. I saw people crying in response to this translated three times testimony (Korean -> English -> Croatian). There were Roma people here that I had not seen since the last short-term group from California came. That’s when I thought:

>>They were drawn by new people in wonderment.<<

This is how my conversation went later that night with the father of the Croatian family who has been doing this Roma ministry for over 20 years:

Laura: Can I ask you a serious question?
Mario: Of course, ask ask!
L: What do you think of short-term mission groups? Are you ever frustrated with them?
M: Eh, I used to not like them because they would just come when it was convenient for them. Now, I don’t mind it.
L: But, why? They come for one or two days to a family and then never come back..
M: Well… if they come, it’s nice because they gave up their time to learn about others. And maybe, they will go back and tell others and be open to groups of people close to them and help out there.

Diana, the mother of the family, told me about how when short-term missions come, doors are open in a way we, especially Mario and Diana, could not open so quickly. When new people come, there is an expectation that they will immediately talk about God.

In the same village the Korean family had went to, the team from California went to also. The leaders of the California group spent time for hours in one home – the Baka (culturally [roughly] similar to a village chief). They shared testimonies, prayed multiple times, and cried with one another. As a team, we went there twice. It was genuinely, a beautiful time spent. Diana was amazed because she feels she could not have talked about God so boldly and openly with these Roma friends if it was not for the team that came. Everyone was blessed and did not want to part ways.

My thoughts on short-term missions is changing rapidly as I observe another side to them. I did not hate them before but I did and still cringe when I see the popular self-affirming social media posts about short-term missions.

Struggling with questions is exactly what I am meant to be doing here.

I am open and I am a learner. I have questions and am discovering some answers.

Thank you for continuing this journey with me!



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