I got an email today from a very sincere, well-intentioned volunteer currently on a 2-week mission trip. Apparently, he had been told not to freely distribute Bibles as he ministered in a Muslim-run refugee camp. Deciding that those long-term servants who live and serve and know the area were trying to prevent him from sharing the Gospel, he did it anyway and now the presence of all the missionaries in the area is in danger of being suspended. This guy is so sold-out for Christ. He’s so very sincere. He is so very godly. However, in this instance, he was so very wrong.
We have never had a volunteer team’s visit go awry, but the missions journals and discussion groups of missionaries are full, FULL, FULL! of horror stories of well-intentioned volunteers who refused to listen to the resident missionary and ended up destroying much, if not all, of a career’s worth of work in just a week or two.
“OH NO!”, you say. “I’m about to go on a volunteer mission trip and I have very sincere intentions. How do I keep from messing up?”
The answer is easy: “Trust the missionary or team leader of your trip.”
Remember that they are a lot more motivated to see this people group come to Christ than you are. They are giving their whole lives for these people. Think of what a sacrifice you’re making of a couple of weeks and a few thousand dollars. Then imagine if it was your whole life and earning potential.
Remember that the missionary on the ground knows a lot more about the people and area than you do. He knows the culture and preconceptions of the people. He also knows the potential dangers around you.
Try to withhold judgment of the missionary, at least until you have more information. Ask questions if you don’t understand the reason for his decisions or behaviors.
One of the first things we tell volunteers is not to distribute candy, toys, or other goodies to children on the street unless we tell them that that’s a good time and place to do so. A few months ago, one lady named Jenna* get absolutely livid with us for this policy. “I love children and NOBODY’S gonna tell me I can’t show the love of Jesus to these children! I came all the way to Brazil to show love to these children and I most CERTAINLY will give them candy!” Actually, Jenna followed the policy all week, but she was not happy about it. During the week, we had an outside worship service and declared it was the time to freely distribute candy and other goodies to the children of the neighborhood. The thing about giving away goodies to large numbers of urban poor children who never get goodies is that they quickly turn into a mob. In just a few short minutes, our shell-shocked volunteers had been stripped bare of any desirable giveaways. As we left, I found Jenna, alone on in a corner, hiding and hugging a bag of candy. I said, “Jenna! What are you doing with candy left? Why didn’t you give it away?” “They mobbed me, they mobbed me . . .” was all she could say. I think she finally “got it.”
Have a great trip. Go ye therefore, heal the sick, cast out demons, baptize, teach, be innocent--but also be wise!
*Details have been modified to protect the well-intentioned.
A good word for us to remember to behave with wisdom in unknown situations, and rely on those who have been there before. Kind of like following in Jesus's footsteps. I think we do find it difficult in this life to rely on other people and really listen to wise counsel. We tend to think we know best. I appreciate the sensitivity with which you wrote this word of warning, I could see your heart was to encourage volunteers to continue in their missions efforts, but to do so with an open mind to the needs of the area.
It was a scary thing to post, because I don't want to discourage anyone from doing missions! But I felt like it needed to be said, and I did love the video!
Sometimes passion that is not tempered with wisdom creates bigger problems than a lack of passion does. It is certainly commendable that volunteers want to do everything that they can to share the gospel and show the love of Jesus to people who need Him (and I wish that more of us had such a desire), but it baffles me to think that someone on a short term volunteer mission trip would think he or she knows more about how to reach out to the people in that area than those who have devoted their lives to being the presence of Christ there. I think many of us from the Bible Belt do not grasp the concept that in many areas of the world conversion is an extended process for people, something more than agreeing with a set of facts and saying a brief prayer. I believe that short term volunteers need to follow the example of career missionaries in adapting themselves to the culture of the area where they are working instead of trying to conform the people in that area to our own pattern.
Hi Cam - It's me again. What's up? We haven't had a post from you in months. I miss your blogging, and I hope all is well.
She's been trying to get Jenna out of shell-shock...
Thanks for the reminder. The teams that I have been around lately seem to be learning this a little better and I hope that is the trend all over.
Loved the post and video!
When you mention the problem of dealing with well-intentioned volunteers who quickly assess, and just as quickly hurt long-term efforts, well, I say welcome to ministry. Your complaint is not limited to the mission field. Churches deal with the same folks. After all, that's where they come from. Highly motivated, evangelisticly charged lay people come in a variety of flavors. But where would we be without them?
If not for those frustrations, we also would miss the opportunity to do ongoing ministry, missions, and all other forms of service. That clumsy candy-distributing lady sounds like the Apostles. But look how that turned out...
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