July 23, 2014

Holding the Rope

by Jesse Johnson

A lifehack is a trick that makes common activities easier and more profitable. With many lifehacks, once you try them they seem common sense, and every other way of doing the same thing—even the way you used to do it until you learned that lifehack—seems so ignorant and strange.

Holding the Rope, by fellow Cripplegate blogger Clint Archer, is an attempt to show that most people do Short Term Missions (STM) wrong. Archer isn’t just content to show that they do it wrong, but he also then gives a better way. Reading this book felt like learning a new lifehack (a missionhack?). Once you understand his point, the other ways of doing STM just seem so outdated.

Here is how most churches do STM: they find a place they want to go, or perhaps a task they want to do. They then look for churches in that area and ask if they can host a STM team. Often the trip itself involves spending way more money on travel than it would have simply cost for the STM to get the job done by sending the cash. Generally there is no lasting relationship between the STM team members and those served—or more likely, those who serve the STM team! In best case scenarios, where a church might go to the same place year after year, even then the relationship looks like “Thanks for letting me crash on your floor…see you next year!”

A basic problem with much of STM today is simply this: it is not wise. Here is a very frequent example: a church might send a team of 10 college students, most of whom have no construction experience, to Africa to “build a church.” They spend $20,000 on travel, a few thousand on supplies, and require the attention and care of missionaries who in-turn have to step away from their normal ministry to host this group. When the group leaves, they likely will never see those people again, and the missionaries will probably have to pay professionals to come fix the building anyway. In the final twist, the local community loses out on the jobs that making the building themselves would have brought in.

Archer points out that this approach turns STM on its head. Those in the mission field are often doing most of the serving. The cost of the trip is not an example of stewardship, and generally the main reason the hosts are even willing to accept a team to begin with is out of hope to get some of a project done and develop some kind of connections with a Western church. In other words, they look to STM teams as foundation for relationships.

There is a better way. Archer demonstrates that STM trips are seen in the NT, and they follow a pattern: They go to both encourage and partner with a missionary who is known by the sending church. Holding the Rope develops this NT model, then explains how STM teams can apply it today.

Archer’s design for an STM team have three basic components: 1. Find a missionary your church supports that wants an STM team (either for encouragement, a project, VBS, etc.). 2. Both the STM team and the receiving missionary have a clear understanding of why this team is valuable and that the STM team is the best way to achieve that end. 3. Choose team-members specifically suitable for that end.

When these basics are followed, there is an inherent long-term connection between the senders, the goers, and the receivers on an STM team. The sending church is strengthening its connection with its missionaries. The goers are getting a long-term understanding of what life in the mission-field is like. And the receivers are getting encouragement from home, as well as some other ministry benefit that is best received in this way.

In some places, there is a genuine need for outsiders to come in for construction projects. In others, there is an open door for Americans to do sports camps or English classes. In many situations the most strategic use of STM is simply to provide encouragement to frazzled missionaries. The only people who would know for sure, Archer argues, is the missionaries themselves.

So rather than the Fire-Aim-Ready approach that marks much of modern STM, Holding the Rope is essentially an argument that churches should send teams to places only when missionaries want them, and for the precise purpose that the missionary needs.

Doesn’t this sound like common-sense?

Sections of Holding the Rope are auto-biographical as Archer explains how he went from being an aspiring seminary student in Africa, to a back-packer through Israel, and eventually how he ended up leading a STM ministry in the United States that sent out dozens of teams every year. Now he is back in Africa where he pastors a church and often hosts STM teams. This unique biography has given him a front row seat to many STM mishaps, and demonstrates his credibility when he talks about problems with what he sees in STM.

The title, Holding the Rope, is taken from William Carrey’s parting words to his sending church before he set out to India as one of the West’s first missionaries. He told his church that he was willing to go into the pit [of India] but only if they would hold the rope. In other words, he would travel around the world to the mission field and devote the rest of his life to the work of the ministry; but only if they would stay connected to him, support him, and be his lifeline back home.

That is real work of STM. This, Archer says, is how STM was seen in the NT, and how it best functions today.

Much of Holding the Rope is inherently practical. Archer explains what kind of teams to suggest, how to communicate with missionaries, how to handle applications for the team, how to raise funds, how to prepare the team, the basics of international travel, and even the debrief. This book functions like a STM101 course—everything you need to know to be a successful STM participant.

If you are planning on leading an STM team, I strongly encourage you to read this book.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • disqus_i49hn6Dtrd


    Also: “…before he set out to Indian as one of…”

  • brad

    Sounds like common sense! As someone who has both been on many short-term missions trips and been a missionary, I honestly have to say that I have never encountered a STM team that was there for no purpose. I guess I have been blessed to be around people who have common sense!

  • 4Commencefiring4

    The economies of STMs, as you said, are often questionable, even as the intent is pure. Sort of reminds me of Butch Cassidy’s incredulity on the train: “If he’d just pay me what he’s spending to make me stop robbing him, I’d stop robbing him!”

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