When our daughter was in the eighth grade, she joined a short-term mission team from her youth group. Working with a ministry dedicated to this type of ministry, the teens built a house for a Mexican family who until then had been living in a cardboard hut.
It was a great experience for her, and a great blessing for the newly-housed family.
Construction projects are very popular among short-term mission teams. You don’t need to learn another language, you can use skills you already have, the project can fit into a short time frame, and you are providing tangible results for appreciative locals. With all the hugs and smiles, you certainly return home feeling as if you have accomplished something worthwhile. Our friends and family have roofed churches, built medical dispensaries, constructed playgrounds, and painted sanctuaries.
But is it always appropriate to travel to another country to build something? Is that the best way to bless the people and encourage the church there? Or is it sometimes just a way to check off “good deed” on our spiritual to-do lists?
Let’s look at one example, taken from When Helping Hurts, by Corbett and Fikkert. (And by the way, I highly recommend reading this book!)
An American church team traveled to Honduras to build houses, hoping to replace a few of the hundreds lost in a recent hurricane. They raised thousands of dollars for airfare, supplies, and shipping. On arrival, they worked hard pouring foundations, laying cinder blocks and hammering nails. When they left for home, they had provided housing for 11 families. The locals smiled a lot, said thank you, and seemed very appreciative.
However, afterwards when the pastor was questioned privately about the project, he expressed his disappointment and frustration. Why?
As he apologetically pointed out, while they appreciated all the hard work the Americans had done, there were many more families who still needed housing. If the church team had merely raised the same amount of money and sent it to Honduras, instead of buying plane tickets and building supplies, the Honduran church could have hired local contractors (who badly needed the work), purchased local building materials (helping the local economy), and built over a hundred houses!
Compare this story with one related by a good friend of mine. She and her husband have been traveling to the Dominican Republic for the past three years to work on construction projects for a local church. Sounds about the same, right?
However, in this case, the American church has built a relationship with the church there. They come with tools but buy their materials locally. Then they enlist the help of the locals. Working together, they offer one another respect, teach job skills, and share the satisfaction of a job well done.
At the same time, other members of the team join the local church in putting together a Vacation Bible School. Neighborhood children, attracted by the construction project, enthusiastically participate. Then their parents come to see what all the excitement is about.
As a result, many of the local men, once unemployed and hopeless, now are working construction jobs and bringing home paychecks. Entire families have heard the gospel and responded, joining the church there. The neighborhood is being transformed.
The Bible contains dozens of verses about doing good deeds. There is little question that Christians are supposed to help others. But in our zeal to be helpful, let’s not rush headlong into the first idea that comes to us. Remember the law of unintended consequences!
We need to humble ourselves, learn from our mistakes, then ask questions and listen to those we want to help. After all, they’re the ones dealing with the situation, now and into the future. Listening is essential if we truly want to serve.
What have been your mission experiences? What did you learn? Would you do anything differently the next time?