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Saying no to parachute missions

South Africa Ministry Network offers model for long-term change through short-term missions

By Aaron Weaver

Parachute missions. Poverty tourism. Vacationary.

These descriptors are frequently invoked to characterize and critique a misguided (western) approach to missions — an approach that many say encourages an unhealthy dependency and paternalism.

In his widely-read 2011 book Toxic Charity responsible for popularizing this critique, Robert Lupton writes: “Contrary to popular belief, most missions trips and service projects do not: empower those being served, engender healthy cross-cultural relationships, improve quality of life, relieve poverty, change the lives of participants [or] increase support for long-term missions work.”

When it comes to most popular approaches to short-term missions (STMs), Chris Ellis agrees.

Ellis, who serves as minister of mission and outreach at Second Baptist Church in downtown Little Rock, Ark., has lived and studied the subject extensively as a key leader in and co-founder of the South Africa Ministry Network, a consortium of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship congregations launched in 2009 to work with and support CBF field personnel who serve and partner with local ministries in South Africa.

“Short-term missions often do more harm than good, especially when the primary purpose of the trip is the fulfillment of the trip itself,” according to Ellis.

With more than 1.6 million Americans over the age of 18 going on a short-term mission trip each year, Ellis, whose recent doctoral dissertation is titled Short-Term Missions — Long Term Change, wishes to see STMs made as “missiologically sound” as possible for both participants and those receiving teams.

“As STM trips are currently being implemented, they often do not lead to changed lives,” Ellis explained. “Research suggests that participants do not sense increased vocational calling, increased connection to mission at one’s home or increased connection to the global missions movement. This lack of ‘changed life’ is often connected to three main factors: lack of in-depth training of participants, learning transfer or the incongruity of the international STM experience with one’s home life and a lack of skilled STM facilitators.

“Grounding the [short-term mission] trip in a correct understanding of the Missio Dei — the mission of God, poverty and power as well as global Christianity changes the narrative of the trip and forces participants to put the trip into proper perspective, allowing it to shape their lives when they arrive home. Focusing on the practical cross-cultural aspects decreases the likelihood that participants will do irreparable harm to local ministries and can give proper perspective on one’s home culture and how to engage it appropriately.”

Together, Ellis and the leaders of the South Africa Ministry Network are offering a reimagined model for short-term missions.

“The South Africa Ministry Network is trying to embed the short-term mission trip in a much larger narrative,” Ellis said. “We’re not going to South Africa this year, Peru next year and somewhere else the year after that and the year after that. We’re going back to the same place over and over and over again, seeing and creating relationships with folks who are on the ground and sharing life with them as much as we can.

“We tell our congregations that short-term mission is not about creating change. It’s not about saving the world. It’s not about a whole bunch of these narratives that we like to use to drive the mission movement. Rather, a short-term mission is a moment in time that we are privileged to have that forces us to ask the question: ‘How is it that we can truly help both make a difference in the places that we’re partnering as well as learn from what our South African friends have to teach us?’”

To prepare his church members for a trip, Ellis leads a five-session discussion and study on the mission of God, global Christianity, the history of South Africa and the present challenges that the post-apartheid “Rainbow Nation” faces. Participants also spend time getting an advance glimpse of the work being done by the network’s partners in South Africa and receiving a devotional guide that begins a week prior to their departure. While on the trip, participants take part in nightly debriefings — opportunities to reflect on God’s work in the world and their place in it.

Stephen Cook, senior pastor of Second Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., a member congregation of the network, says the consortium of CBF churches knows its role is not to “fix” anything, but to take part together in the renewal of God’s world.

“We know we are not going to ‘fix’ anything,” he said. “We are going [on these short-term] trips to come alongside of and be involved with what God is doing in that part of the world. We know our limitations and that we cannot and should not be responsible for determining outcomes. Rather, we are there as ones who believe that God is at work in more places than those we call home. We invest the time, resources and energy we do in order to participate in that which is larger than ourselves.

“We participate as a network because we recognize that we are better off together than we are apart. The gifts and passions that come from the various members of the various churches are a significant testimony to the power of collaboration and a commitment to sharing work that matters.”

Cook has embraced the call of South African theologian and pastor Trevor Hudson to make “pilgrimages of pain and hope.”

“The essence of these pilgrimages of pain and hope is that we are not tourists who set out to see the sights of the places we visit,” Cook shared. “Instead, we are pilgrims and we assume a ‘pilgrim posture’ as we approach these experiences. The pilgrim is one who is ready to be present, who is ready to listen and who is ready to notice where, how and with whom God is working.”

CBF Moderator Matt Cook, who serves as senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Wilmington, N.C., another network member, points out that short-term missions have the potential for much good.

“We all think that short-term missions are something that God can use to create a two-fold blessing for those in South Africa and for those travelling to South Africa, but it could easily be mission tourism if we didn’t work hard at keeping our focus on how to make it at least as much of a net positive for the South Africans as it is for the Americans.”

To keep this intentional focus, he notes that the network strives to offer care for the caregivers.

“We can’t really change the world in a week and we know that,” said Matt Cook, who helped birth the network alongside Ellis in 2009 while then senior pastor of Little Rock’s Second Baptist Church. “What we can do is try to be a strong wind in the sails of the very impressive human beings who are doing hard and good work.”

Now in its sixth year, the network has helped provide financial support for four partner-funded CBF field personnel and made significant investments in the ministries of the Refilwe Community Project, a Christian organization in Johannesburg that provides a home for orphaned and neglected children as well as a baby house for abandoned infants. Refilwe also hosts a medical clinic, preschool, kids club and after-school programs for its impoverished community.

The network led a group of just over 70 Baptists in July on a week-long mission experience in Johannesburg as well as at mission sites 250 miles southeast in the Winterton area of the KwaZulu-Natal province, a rural region heavily impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The hands-on trip culminated with the group taking part in the 21st Baptist World Congress in Durban, South Africa, the quinquennial global gathering of the Baptist World Alliance.

The network also looks for opportunities to convert mission trip dollars to ongoing support, Matt Cook said, noting that the network sets aside a portion of trip costs to help pay for the salaries of part-time care workers of the Bophelo Medical Clinic at Refilwe.

“We’ve found that when our members go on these trips they make a connection that leads to ongoing support,” he added. “Over and above the trip costs, we’ve had countless individuals make additional financial contributions to local partners and to CBF field personnel located in South Africa. Going promotes giving.”

“We learn, we grow and we discover that God is bigger than we thought.”

Ryan Clark, church engagement manager for CBF Global Missions, says that the missing ingredient in many short-term missions has been the relationship — and not the kind of relationships where one person or group makes all the decisions.

“What CBF churches in the South Africa Ministry Network have discovered is a beautiful balance of power and resources with an eye on the long-term transformation of communities,” Clark said.

“As Christians we have a responsibility to demonstrate that our mission activity isn’t just for our own (western) kicks that works for our convenience and purposes. The South Africa network has made an investment — spiritually, financially and with their own sweat and tears. Their model is time consuming — so it’s not as popular as parachute missions. It’s an investment that seeks transformation. And that transformation takes time and intentionality.”

group photo

To learn more about the South Africa Ministry Network and how you can get involved, contact Stephen Cook, network organizer and pastor of Second Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., at Stephen.Cook@2ndmemphis.org

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CBF is a Christian Network that helps people put their faith to practice through ministry eff­orts, global missions and a broad community of support.The Fellowship’s mission is to serve Christians and churches as they discover and fulfill their God-given mission.

7 thoughts on “Saying no to parachute missions

  1. Pingback: “It’ll change your life”: A South Africa mission reflection | CBFblog

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  6. When the twin Viking landers became the first spacecraft to set down on Mars in 1976, they relied on parachutes to slow down after punching through the Martian atmosphere. Ever thought about joining us?

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