Short-Term Mission Trips Aren’t for “Fixing” People

My wife tells me I’m a “fixer.” You could read that and assume my wife thinks I’m a superhero. As great as that would be, that’s not what she means when she uses the term. In fact, the opposite is true.

As a husband and a father, when problems present themselves my first instinct is to fix them. I unnecessarily diagnose issues as problems that need to be fixed. Then, when I attempt to be the fixer, I often create another issue. In my attempt to help, I actually find myself hurting the situation and inevitably making it worse. However, what I’m still learning is that there are moments to fix and there are moments to listen, learn, and then, if necessary, act.

As a short-term missionary, I have often seen this exact scenario on mission trips. A short-term team takes a cross-cultural trip intending to “fix” perceived problems with the host culture, people, or anything else they see that might need to be “corrected.”

However, when we approach short-term trips in this manner—without any concept of the people to whom we are ministering and the culture with which we are engaging—we risk the possibility of stripping a people of their cultural identity. And their culture makes them unique in God’s creation.

“We should approach the field with humility, ready to learn from the people to whom we are seeking to minister.”

This innate paternalistic instinct often causes issues on the mission field. Missionaries, whether long-term or short-term, have enough barriers as they enter a new cultural context without attempts by others to fix things that may not be issues at all. For example, we can sometimes make attempts to fix clothing or music or maybe even language, when really these are elements of one’s culture that make them uniquely beautiful. As missionaries and followers of Jesus Christ, our desire should not be to see churches that all sound the same, look the same, or even dress the same but rather churches that exalt the name of Jesus. Because at the end of the day, the church of Jesus Christ is a multiethnic work of art.

The following are a few ways we can avoid this instinctive paternalism that often creeps into our missionary efforts.

Listen and Learn

Rather than entering a new culture and presuming we have all the answers, we should approach the field with humility, ready to learn from the people to whom we are seeking to minister. We cannot love a people well if we don’t know them well. We need to understand their culture, starting with simple things like the foods they eat, the clothes they wear, and their history.

A reality I must come to terms with as an American missionary is that I may not have the whole story. Many years working on a Native American reservation have shown me that we cannot expect people to listen to what we have to say when we haven’t taken the time to listen and learn from them as well.

Pray More Than We Plan

As I typed that out, I found myself convicted. Planning is my natural default. I love to see plans take form and accomplished. However, though there is nothing wrong with having a plan, we must not be bound to the plan when we enter the mission field. Anytime I lead short-term teams on the field I also emphasize the word “flexibility.” We need to be ready to adapt to changes in our plans and be flexible every day as we embrace the unique culture around us.

“To avoid the ‘fix it’ mentality on the mission field, we must be people of prayer who acknowledge nothing happens outside of the sovereign will of God.”

While we don’t want to be lackadaisical in our ministry efforts, there is an issue when we only plan and never fall on our knees before the Lord. To avoid the “fix it” mentality on the mission field, we must be people of prayer who acknowledge nothing happens outside of the sovereign will of God. Let us be people who pray first and plan second.

They Need Jesus More Than They Need You

The people to whom you will minister desperately need to be restored to God through repenting and believing in Jesus Christ. That is their greatest need, and only Jesus can meet that need.

When I attempt to fix everything for my wife, I both believe and want her to believe that I can do it all—that she only needs me. The reality is that I will fail her. The same concept is true as we approach the mission field. People need Jesus; they don’t need us. We are mere messengers, spreading the good news of a risen Savior. As we prepare for the work God has for us, let us love and serve people well. Let us be quick to listen, quick to pray, and always point people to the only one who can fix it: the risen Savior, Jesus Christ.

Nick Calhoon is currently the student pastor for Hardin Baptist Church in Kentucky. He and his family will be moving to Sub-Saharan Africa next summer as he will be the director of church planting with Gospel Life Global Missions. He is married to Bethany and they have three kids, Brooks, Ellis, and Atticus.