When our attempts to love our neighbor actually increase harm

Christians from time immemorial place great value in bring the “cup of cold water” mercy to those in need. Contrary to the human tendency to care first for self, Christians are called to take up their cross and follow Christ to love their neighbor as theirself.  At this point in the summer, American Christians are going in droves for short and longer missions trips to their near and far neighbors. My own church has groups in Guatemala, London, North Philly, and several other regions in Africa. Sometimes the project is physical and other times the project is relational and spiritual.

But have you thought about some of the potential dangers in going to our far neighbors? Here’s some potential problems:

1. The wrong help. People who go on missions trips have a high desire to serve and help the other. But if the group going does not fully understand the problem, need, and solution to the problem, it could lead the locals to try dangerous solutions or discourage them from trying since previous group activities weren’t helpful. We need to do our homework first rather than assume we know what they need.  

2. Stereotyping. The helper and helpee tend to play particular roles. One active with power, the other passive and waiting. Even when the helpee knows they need to be active they can become passive because they haven’t been allowed to be part of the decision-making process. Or, the helpee can become suspicious that the primary reason for the outsider is for their own benefit. They can add up the massive amounts of money spent on flying folks there and putting them up and imagine that that sum of money might be better spent if it were just sent without people.

Don’t mistake my raising these two problems as my opinion that we shouldn’t go on foreign missions trips. My life was changed on a summer missions trip in 1983. Lord willing, I hope to be going to Rwanda next May to explore the current needs of that country in regards to the genocide trauma. But, if we aren’t careful we do more damage than good. Our good intentions are not enough. We must learn as much as possible about the life and needs of the other (from their point of view!) and recognize that we do not yet know enough to help without that learning. Further, we must find locals who have dreams and desires for healing that can carry it out and can benefit from what we can offer. Otherwise, it may be better not to go than to go and raise hopes or offer superficial help that only serves to harden hearts from needed help.


Filed under Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, Missional Church

12 responses to “When our attempts to love our neighbor actually increase harm

  1. Tee

    great point- I read the book “serving with eyes wide open” on a plane ride to East Africa last year, it discusses short term missions and made me very aware to serve with humility and in a way that gave the people we were helping dignity.

    P.S I’m loving your blog, I’m in my first year of psych degree in Australia and aiming to work among traumatized children in Africa, I think i’m learning more from your posts than my whole first semester 🙂

  2. Scott Knapp, MS

    J. Vernon McGee, the late Bible teacher with the marked Southern drawl, once stated that he’d given the same advice you advocate in your first point to missionary/adventurer Jim Elliot, just prior to Elliot’s fatal trek to Ecuador to to evangelize the Waodani tribe of Aucans in South America. I was in college at the time I heard this particular broadcast by McGee, and I was a student leader in Campus Crusade for Christ as well. Elizabeth Elliot was a favored speaker at Crusade conventions at the time, and Jim Elliot embodied the characteristics we “campus missionaries” esteemed to have. It was great shock to my system to have Dr. McGee criticize my evangelistic hero like this, at that time. “Through Gates of Splendor” immortalized Elliot and his compatriots for their evangelistic zeal and courage, so it seems sort of sacrilegious to criticize this event or scrutinize it as a learning experience or anything other than a bold act of love, compassion and rescuing heroism….unless McGee was right.

  3. Pam

    Thanks for bringing up these issues. I traveled to Rwanda with 9 others from my church on a helping mission in 2005, and I’ve had the same thoughts. I’ll be interested in hearing your perspective after your trip there.

  4. Ron

    The Chalmers Center (http://www.chalmers.org/ ) has a course, “How to do Short-Term Missions Without Doing Long-Term Harm” (http://www.chalmers.org/site/cedi/short_term_missions.php ). This may be helpful in voicing and dealing with some of the concerns you mentioned.

    From the description:
    This course provides an understanding of the issues surrounding the execution of short-term missions (less than one month) in the context of the socio-economic poor. Short-term missions have the opportunity to produce important benefits, but also have the potential to do significant harm, particularly to the poor. This course presents frameworks for considering these issues so that course participants can strengthen their overall short-term missions program and their individual missions projects. The ultimate goal is that the benefits of short-term missions are maximized and any harm is minimized. The course is designed for: 1) sending churches and denominations, 2) host churches and missionaries, 3) missions project leaders, and 4) missions team members. The training is applicable to missions trips to locations in the U.S./Canada as well as throughout the world.

  5. judi

    one of the things the african folks told us when we were over there was that we did not come in with a set agenda; we asked *them* what *we* could do for them. i really think that helped in letting them determine what we did and how…

    as for rwanda… that sounds like a super trip! who will you be going with? and what are you planning on doing with the information you bring back?
    (once you go to africa, it sort of lingers with you…!)

  6. Amy

    I would love to go to Rwanda. It’s my dream to go to Africa actually. I am very concerned about issues of genocide.

    I agree about some missions trips though. We go to other countries and do things our Anglo-Saxon way and expect everyone to give their lives to Christ like we’re Billy Graham to the “savages.”

    I know that seeds can be planted and amazing things can happen. It just so happens that the people most changed by missions trips are the people who go to save others. Ironic, isn’t it?

    However, churches that go year after year to work at church plants, orphanages, and understand the culture have done amazing things.

    The part that irks me the most is so many people go overseas and miss the opportunities in their every day lives. Oh, the things we could do!

    Take me to Rwanda! 🙂

  7. I am reminded of the phrase ‘pie in the sky’ – when first used it was a line in a song about the salvation army. Today they perform food distribution, but back then their aim was exclusively set on religious conversion. The ‘pie in the sky when you die’ was in reference to the SA promising great luxury after death to people who were more concerned about getting real food while alive.

  8. Amy, you are right about the churches that do work year after year in the same place. My own church has adopted a village in Guatemala. It enables those going to better serve the needs of the people.

    Judi, the plan is to develop appropriate curriculum for counselors there (and pastors) and to return multiple times and to use the internet to train folk to better respond to trauma.

  9. judi

    wow, sounds great! so now that amy and i want to go, what are you going to do with us???!

  10. Amy

    While it is my dream to go to Africa and help communities that have been devastated by genocide, I was only half-serious in my previous post. But then as I thought about it, how heartbreaking a trip like this would be, how much it would cost, and just the extreme trouble of the whole thing, I thought, man, I really, really want to go.

    Judi, maybe if we make puppy faces and pray really hard, he’ll let us go, too. 🙂 Of course, it might be one of those “you have to be certified” in this sort of trips.

  11. Ron

    The Chalmers Center no longer teaches that short-term missions course I mentioned. However, the administrator did send me the titles of the texts they used, if any are interested.

    Serving with Eyes Wide Open by David A. Livermore

    Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development by Bryant Myers

  12. judi

    amy, i’ve been to africa twice, on mission trips. it is a place i think every able bodied american should see. puppy faces aside 🙂 it sounds like it’s something for professional counselors.

    but i do encourage you to go sometime, if you can!

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