Missions teams from the perspective of the hosts
by Peter Bunton
There we were. Northeastern Thailand, near the border with Laos. Our short-term mission team was working with a missionary to some of the unreached people of the area. There was no church in this village. It’s possible that no one had ever preached the gospel there before. Many turned up to hear us preach. People came forward for prayer. God touched people’s lives. It felt like something from a classic missionary biography. And, here we were, a bunch of young people, only in the nation for a few weeks. We experienced the excitement and satisfaction of participating in a short-term missions team. However, this was not just us appearing briefly. This was supporting the work of the long-term missionary.
Many of us have participated in short-term missions teams in various nations of the world. Within the DOVE network of churches, teams have gone from various nations to assist churches or missionaries in many other nations including Brazil, Colombia, Uganda, Zambia, Bulgaria, Scotland, India, and Myanmar, to name just a few. The recent lull in world travel gives pause for us to reflect on this phenomenon afresh. As part of this reflection, this article addresses teams not from the perspective of those going on a team, but from those receiving teams. Why do churches request a team? What, from the perspective of the hosts, makes a team successful?
Why Do People Want to Receive a Team?
There are a number of answers to this, but fundamentally there is often the fact that a local church or mission work carries a vision for outreach ministry and feels the need for some extra assistance to achieve their goals. This, of course, raises the notion of strategy. What is the church trying to do long-term, and how are they trying to do it? A team from another nation might be able to help move that strategy substantially forward toward fulfilling the local objectives. We certainly do not want teams to arrive with their own vision for a location, because after the one week or 10 days of presence and activity, what will then happen? Who will follow up on the work of the team and ensure sustainability and longevity if the local people do not themselves have the same vision? Teams thus function well when they are supporting local vision and strategy.
Further to this point, it is often the case that the local church does not yet have the required skills or resources to move its strategy forward. One example from the history of our teams is that a host nation felt they needed to educate their people to move from a mindset of perpetual poverty to one of economic flourishing. Few in the church understood the principles of business. To address the need, a group of businesspeople went to host seminars and train the church in the principles and practices of business and finances. Skills lacking locally were imparted by those from afar. Businesses were started and prosperity grew.
Sometimes churches or missionaries know they just need some extra spiritual resources to help them tackle what they face. In several countries within the DOVE network, we have had churches with a heart for Kingdom expansion and a strong desire to plant more churches in unreached areas. They have had workers willing to go to those places. Yet, the need for a spiritual breakthrough before beginning the work seemed crucial. In this instance, teams of intercessors have traveled to support this important, local vision, and have joined with their host brothers and sisters in seeking God in prayer and spiritual warfare for the breakthroughs needed.
At other times, teams have helped with spiritual crises or provided a listening ear and encouragement in the face of immense challenges. Whether needing resources, skills, prayer covering, impartation, or collaboration, churches around the world benefit from and request teams to enhance their work.
What Are Hosts Expecting?
We all have expectations. Those receiving teams also, and rightly so, have expectations of those coming. First, they will expect teams to have the skills that they have requested. Secondly, they expect a team to be prepared to work, coming ready to accomplish the agreed objectives. This might mean bringing supplies or resources with them or arranging with the local church to have them ready and waiting. Thirdly, hosts expect that their visitors demonstrate servanthood. This is particularly so in the team’s posture of serving and furthering the vision of the local leaders, not that of the team. Moreover, hosts desire mutuality and partnership, not superiority. This can mean that the visiting teams do not do the work themselves, but that they include the local people and work alongside them. It may mean using local resources rather the importing foreign ones. In construction, for example, this might mean building according to local traditions and methods, rather than those from the home country.
Many of these points can be summed up in the concept of humility. The visitors do not assume a position where they know it all but are willing to be active learners. Indeed, a foreign team should come to give, but also be open to receive just as much in terms of shaping their own ideas and spirituality. This, of course, plays into the idea of cultural sensitivity. We should not assume that our country’s way is right, but be open to understanding and learning from the host culture.
A complicated issue that many hosts and teams may face is that of dependency. This arises when 1) the hosts feel they cannot serve God without constant outside help and resources, and 2) often when the foreigners see this in the same way. Making people depend on you can actually feel good, like you have worth because you are helping others in need. But dependency can keep a people group in an unhealthy relationship with others, making them unable to stand on their own and trust God within their local situation. A crucial matter, therefore, for all hosts and teams is to think in terms of sustainability. Can this work or project continue after the team has departed? Do the local people want this and can they trust God for the goals to be met themselves? Both hosts and teams need to see the difference between mutual help when in crisis or lack and ongoing dependency. Foreigners also need to see the difference between absolute poverty—where people need immediate assistance to survive—and relative poverty, which is when people are poorer but on the whole, they can survive (they have food, water, shelter, medicines, etc.). Foreigners giving to change relative poverty can become an endless pursuit.
It can be healthy when churches request help to plug a gap in skills and to partner in equality for the furthering of God’s Kingdom. We laud such people for envisioning international cooperation. It is wonderful when others respond and go to support that local vision and strategy. We applaud and encourage those who go on short-term teams, but with the boundaries and guidelines set out above. We loudly proclaim that much positive happens through short-term missions teams.
One way to assist healthy teams in their preparation for ministry is the resource Preparing to Go: Your Guide to Short-Term Missions. This is full of advice on practical and spiritual matters such as cultural adaption, dependency, and team unity. It is both a resource as well as a workbook for all team members to take with them as a way of increasing the likelihood of fruitful and enriching collaborations in other nations.
About Peter Bunton
Peter, originally from Great Britain, lives in Pennsylvania. He serves on the DOVE International Apostolic Council and is a member of the DOVE Europe Apostolic Team. His main responsibility is the director of DOVE Mission International, where he helps develop and send missionaries from the USA. He has received a PhD in missiology from the University of Manchester, England, for his research in founders’ succession in international Christian movements and organizations. Read more about Peter.