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Dancing with Elephants

Track 8 of 8 in the When Helping Hurts series
Running time: 1 hour, 12 minutes
We need to be more aware and better prepared for the culture of those we seek to help. If we don't, the work and effort we go through on behalf of the poor might do more harm than good.

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Mike Nobis Speaker: Mike Nobis
Sunday School Teacher, Former Elder at Madison Park Christian Church. Mike is President of JK Creative Printers & Mailing in Quincy, IL. He is married to Pam and has three children, Tom, Tyler and Jennifer. Mike has three grandchildren: Ryne, Ivy and Alicia.

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Dancing with Elephants
Doing Short Term Missions without Doing Long-Term Harm

In our final lesson on alleviating poverty without hurting the poor, I want to focus on short term mission trips. MPCC is a church with a long and rich history for helping to spread the Gospel to all the world by supporting missionaries and by sending our own people out into the mission field. My two sons Tom and Tyler have been on a number of trips and have gained great experience from their visits. I think today the reason why both are in ministry is directly due to the exposure they had from going overseas and helping. Many from MPCC support several missionaries and have also gone on short term trips. There is great value in this experience.

But I want us to be very aware of what we have learned these past 7 weeks and to apply those principles when we consider leaving our known environment and move into someone else be it across town or across the world. We need to be more aware and better prepared for the culture of those we seek to help. If we don’t, the work and effort we go through on behalf of the poor might do more harm than good.

The statistics on how many short term mission trips there have been over the years is staggering. In 1989 120,000 Americans went on a short term trip.10 years later in 1998, over 450,000 Americans visited missionaries. The 1 million mark was reached in 2003 and in 2006, there were over 2.2 million Americans going on a short term trip . These figures represent a tsunami of epic proportions, a tidal wave of American short-term trips. Any idea of the cost? In 2006 alone, Americans spent over 1.6 billion dollars to experience a STM.

Any idea why this phenomenal growth took place over the past decade? According to the American press which shows a very positive light on such activities, STM accomplish much in the host community and have a positive impact on those who go there. These trips help those who go to become further engaged in missions through giving and becoming long-term missionaries. Even though some of this is true, what many are finding out that a different storyline is emerging.

Several groups today such as CIY are seriously reconsidering their use of STM. The reason, often times the effect is more harmful than the effort. Miriam Adeney relates a story told to her by an African Christian friend:

Elephant and Mouse were best friends. One day Elephant said, "Mouse, let's have a party!" Animals gathered from far and near. They ate, and drank, and sang, and danced. And nobody celebrated more exuberantly than the Elephant. After it was over, Elephant exclaimed, "Mouse, did you ever go to a better party? What a blast!" But Mouse didn't answer. "Where are you?" Elephant called. Then he shrank back in horror. There at his feet lay the Mouse, his body ground into the dirt -- smashed by the exuberance of his friend, the Elephant. “Sometimes that is what it is like to do mission with you Americans," the African friend concluded. "It is like dancing with an Elephant."

The elephant did not mean to do harm, but he did not understand the effects he was having on the mouse. Ths same can be true for many STM trips, particularly those to poor communities.

The question is this; can elephants and mice dance together?

The focus of this lesson will be on trips of two weeks or less, the length experienced by more than 50% of the 2.2 million participants in 2006. The focus is also on those trips to the materially poor weather in a foreign country or in our own backyard.

What happens when cultures collide?

Too often we focus on differences like dress, food, architecture, art, literature, etc. I remember when taking a foreign language in high school. All the different language classes would participate in a week long fair when we would have to display the culture of the people whose language we were learning. We called them culture fairs and these were done to help us understand the differences in the cultures.

But where the problem comes in is in the differences in the value systems that silently drive people to respond in predictable patterns. These involve things like people’s views of who or what is in control of their lives, the nature of risk and uncertainty, their views of authority, the nature of time and the role of individuals versus groups.

An example: What is your point of view on the use of time?

There are two perspectives:

Monochronic perspective: Time is limited and valuable. Time can be saved and lost. Good stewardship of time means getting the most out of every second. The monochromic proverb is “Time is money”.

Polychronic perspective: Time is an unlimited resource. There is always more time. Schedules and plans are mere guidelines that have little authority in shaping how one spends the day. Tasks are secondary to forming and deepening relationships.

Which perspective produces more goods and services? Which produces a deeper sense of community and belonging?

The same is true when it comes to understanding the role of the individual and the group in shaping life.

Individualistic Cultures: The focus is on the intrinsic value and uniqueness of each human being. All people should be treated equal as possible. This culture teaches that we are to strive to be all we can be, IE, Employee of the Month, the MVP. The church in these cultures stress one person’s calling and we keep track of spiritual gifts and personality tests.

Collectivist Cultures: Minimize individual identity and focus on the well-being of the group. Loyalty to and self-sacrifice for the sake of the other group members is seen as virtuous. The people in this culture have deep bonds with the various groups of which they are a part. Example: Extended family, tribe, employer, school, etc. For Christians in this culture, the importance of the local church body is much more deeply felt than in individualistic cultures

Which one of these culture differences is correct? What is the point?

The Effects of STM On Poor Communities

What constitutes a successful STM?

The core problem with STM’s to the poor communities is that STM tend to reflect the perspective of “poverty as deficit”, the idea that poverty is due to the poor lacking SOMETHING. Can someone identify what that something is? In most cases North American churches identify the something as material resources, knowledge or spirituality.

With this being true, then what poverty alleviation strategies do most of our STM trips follow when dealing with the materially poor?

The non-poor give something to the materially poor. Since the non-poor have something and the poor don’t have the something, then what develops? 6B: The God-Complex comes to the front hurting the relationship.

So what is the correct approach? How can STM be effective without feeding the God Complex?

Before any STM goes out into the mission field to help the materially poor, there are things we must remember, what are they?

Count from 1-3
Name your ABC’s up to D
Take into consideration the assets the poor have that you plan to serve.
Participation of the poor in the effort is essential.

If the trip’s focus is on the impact the team or the church will get from the trip, then don’t go.

Just like with most individuals we will meet who are materially poor, most STM won’t be dealing with a relief situation. Even when a disaster has happened like Katrina or Haiti, by the time the team gets there, most likely the bleeding will have already been stopped. Most responses will be in the rehabilitation or development stages. The majority of the time STM’s are faced with communities experiencing chronic problems that need long-term development. THE PROBLEM, in 2006, of all the trips that were taken, a huge majority of the trips pursued a relief approach even though that approach was the wrong intervention.

What are the mistakes a STM has to avoid when dealing with situations that require development and not relief or rehabilitation, especially if the team comes from a culture that is monochronic?

• You only have two weeks to get things done
• The STM is looking to “do missions”
• The team wants to use it’s time wisely
• To get as much done as possible
• The team has many expectations, several worship meetings, a building project, health checkups to hundreds of people.

What is the problem? If the STM team in monochronic gear and the recipients are in polychronic mode, then what? What can go wrong and what pitfalls do the team leaders have to deal with and be prepared for?

If a lot of money was donated, spent and used to send the team, what will the response be if nothing is done and all the team could say was, “we just hung out” at the church presentation when the team got back? Is it okay to just make friends and bond a lasting relationship?

True or False: It is okay to just make friends and establish a lasting relationship with those from very different culture. False

Now this is a trick question, why? It is false for a reason different than what is obvious here. This comes from our cultural perspective. Individualist North Americans often think it is easy to develop one-on-one, deep personal relationships simply by hanging out with someone from Thailand for a week. But if the group lives in a Collectivist culture like Thailand, they will perceive this relationship as very superficial compared to what he is used to.

Here is another issue – Dollars and Sense

It is amazing what the missionaries in the field can get done with the monies they raise for personal use and the use in their ministry. The use of indigenous Christian leaders raises some significant stewardship issues that I think we need to consider. For example, a highly respected organization equips and manages national evangelists across the continent of Africa. The total cost of these evangelists is:

$1,540 per year for salary
$250 for a mountain bike
$90 for a backpack, team shirt and bedroll

$1,880 per year

Another organization hires within the community people to do holistic development work for $1,500 - $5,000 per year.

Contrasts these numbers with the expense of doing an STM. The common price for 10 people to experience a two week trip can average 10B: $20,000 - $40,000 total. Imagine how many indigenous workers that money would support for a year to do work that will have a far more lasting affect than the STM. We complain about wasteful government spending when the church often does the same thing.

The argument often times in defense of STM’s and the costs often goes like this, STM’s leads to new mission money. But several studies have proven that STM’s do nothing to increase the giving to missions over the long-term. In most cases, the giving is one time giving and to the person going, not missions itself.

Good Samaritans or Evangelical Tourists?

Here is what concerns me, Kurt Ver Beek, professor of sociology at Calvin College and a long time missionary to Honduras, conducted research looking into the claims that STM’s increase the giving to missions and adds missionaries to the mission field. His research found that there wasn’t any increase in long-term mission giving for either the team members or from the sending churches. In fact, the number of long-term missionaries has remained stable despite the explosion of STM’s. But what is really sad, in most cases when STM team members return home, they don’t continue the personal relationship with the new found friends after the trip is over. In summary, Ver Beek concluded that the returns do not seem to justify the investment.

To read more about Ver Beek's research on STM's, visit: