Mission work is supposed to be about the people we are serving. However, as a lifelong missionary, let me let you in on a secret: most missions’ work being done in the world is more about the missionary than the mission field. After most short-term mission trips, our greatest hope is that the individual missionary is changed and has a shift in perspective that helps him or her to know that life is not about creature comforts, but about a life in service to others. Sometimes that happens and we rejoice; other times that doesn’t happen and we mourn. Ironically, hundreds of people go to the field to help the poor and needy, and the leaders of those groups silently hope for the same thing: Lord, let the poor and the needy help these people!
It is not easy to attenuate the thinking that we have so much to offer in order to see what we are actually gaining by the grace of the people we are serving. It is even more difficult at times for us to figure out how to serve them. At best, missionaries can give too much, leading the people to develop a sense of entitlement. It is easy to become welfare for an entire community, and then become frustrated when they come to us with their every need and desire. We can serve in such a way where we become just a resource for meeting a need. At worst, missionaries can start to treat the people we’re supposed to serve like they are the servants and begin to patronize them. We can act like we are better than they are, and that we know the will of God for them even when we are not so sure of God’s will for ourselves. We can act upon a false confidence and treat people like we are not all beloved children of God.
Mission work is about building individuals, families, churches and communities. We encourage individuals to have an authentic, mature relationship with Jesus as a foundation for life and family. Families that are now centered on Christ can come together to establish churches that are stable and focused on the faith and encouraging one another. These churches can develop and influence communities that celebrate Christ and live by Biblical values and principles. We, then, have a system whereby the missionary can effect change and build the nation one community and individual at a time. I have learned that by having this type of personal interaction, we can know exactly when to give and how to give so that it does more good than harm in the end. We have discovered how to help community members look to the Lord and each other as “first responders” to their needs, and not to us as the “wealthy foreigners”.
Missionaries should also allow people the opportunity to give! This is the place missionaries fail most often. When we treat people as if they have nothing to give; they give nothing. Then, it becomes the habit of people to think that what they have to give is not worth having. Nothing could be further from the truth, and oh, how people love you when you are grateful for what they give you. It is the story of the widow’s mite. The Lord blesses and esteems their giving. As missionaries, we should too! People who are poor still have much to give – to each other, to us, and to the church. Let them. Honor them by receiving with a grateful heart. Because the real secret is we are just as needy and poor as they are!