This is a précis excerpt from Holding the Rope: Short-Term Missions, Long-Term Impact
I felt called to Botswana. Actually I felt called to date this girl, and she was going to Botswana, so for me the call was just as clear. I was a freshman in college, a spiritual neophyte but this opportunity was for an all expenses paid trip—thanks to the widow’s mites and other donations. Ten days of roughing it in Africa, including four days of overland travel in 4×4 Land Rovers. It was a Camel adventure for non-smokers, a way to beef up my passport stamp collection, and a chance to serve God under the gaze of the girl I liked. I was sold. So, armed with four hours of training and the Roman’s Road freshly memorized, I over-packed my knapsack and joined the band of brothers and sisters who would take the gospel to the unreached masses in the Kalahari dessert. Whoever said being a Christian wasn’t fun?
The adventure was not exactly the way I had pictured it. Four dusty days in a Jeep seems a less glamorous journey now that I’ve experienced it. Since none of the vehicles had air conditioning, I selfishly opted for the convertible. I soon discovered that the most under-appreciated tool on my Swiss Army knife is the toothpick. I frequently employed it to exorcise from my teeth the legion of tiny bugs that lodged there as we zipped through the dunes like a brood of determined sidewinders being force fed with fauna all day long.
The six days that we were with the missionaries were even more challenging to my city-slicker constitution. Water took forty minutes to pump manually and transport back to the compound. We bathed in a steel drum, the entire grimy team reusing the same water. During the day under the blazing sun we dug and hoisted, mixed and measured, in order to erect a corrugated tin roof shelter that would function as a gathering place for the six or seven local believers who met weekly with the missionaries. In our prayer letters we labeled that project “building a church” but it was so shoddy that I suspect it cost the missionary some personal funds after we left to improve it.
The missionary family’s workload multiplied exponentially for the duration of our stay. They labored to cook for us, transport us, train and retrain us, and constantly did damage control with the locals as we committed one cultural faux pas after another.
The trip was undeniably a PowerPoint success story. We had secured a cornucopia of colorful photos with pithy captions to document our accomplishments. We delivered a sterling report to our supporters back home who has all been holding vigil, waiting for the bottom line: how many souls from Botswana would will be in heaven because of our cash?
Sadly, I never heard from anyone in the team again. We were not from the same church and so we moved in different ecclesiastical circles. And the missionaries never heard from me. I cannot for the life of me remember their names, or how many kids they had. But I do remember feeling sorry for them that they had to bath in that steel drum, and because they had no friends.
More harm than good?
I couldn’t help feeling that we had got more out of the trip than the missionaries. We had been a burden on them. We didn’t foster deep relationships with them. And there was no talk on the team of going back, or of personally supporters of their ministry financially.
I think we might actually have done some long-term damage. I learned later that a diamond mining corporation regularly delivered food supplies and alcohol to the tribe in exchange for them peacefully relocating and staying off the land that rightfully belonged to them. This crippled their society by removing any incentive to work. The problem was compounded when eager, white college students showed up and erected buildings, did manual labor, and then disappeared, leaving gifts and supplies behind for the missionaries. Just like the diamond mine representatives. The missionaries struggled to set an example that hard work was a virtue. This effort was subverted by teams like ours.
I was plagued by the question, why would the missionary even consent to a team, let alone request one? In later years I discovered how missionaries are often forced to work the system in order to get ministry done.
For example, let us say the missionary needs $5,000 to complete a church building. This money will go to hiring local labor, paying them generously and providing incentive for them to work. It will create a community project where natives will work side-by-side with the missionaries. There is no time limit to the project, so the missionary can use the time to teach the workers how to lay foundations, mix cement, and other skills that they could use to improve their own community. What the missionary needs is cash, and perhaps a skilled builder to help train the locals. What he doesn’t need is ten college students who take a week off between their accounting classes to crank out a project in which they have no experience.
But if the missionary requests $5,000 cash for a building project they will be denied. If, however, the missionary requests a STM team to do the project, the fundraising machine kicks in.
I didn’t realize all this at the time. But after my return from Botswana I knew there had to be a better way to do STM trips than this. After three years of co-ordinating, training, and traveling on STM trips in support of the 60 missionary families of Grace Community Church, I wrote this book as my stab at outlining a different approach, namely that the missionary is the mission.