"On Short-Term Missions" or "What I Learned at Pine Ridge Part One"

After having the flu (or perhaps a “paraflu,” as diagnosed over the phone by my pediatrician sister) for a few days about a week ago, I got into a GMC Yukon with some classmates and drove to the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota, inhabited by the Lakota Sioux. It was part of an intercultural ministry course for Denver Seminary. The purpose was to learn about serving cross-culturally. Before leaving, I was careful to explain to members of my church that this was not a “mission” trip. We certainly intended to serve wherever we found ourselves, but most of the week was dedicated to being students of the culture by meeting with people on the reservation. We stayed at an Assemblies of God church in Oglala, which is a “Re-Creation” center that is open each afternoon after school to the children and teenagers in the area. Two pastors–Leon and Eric–live on the grounds and have truly left much to be missionaries there.

I have learned much this week and have much to process, so perhaps I can do that out loud here. One thing that our group of about fourteen students, two leaders, and one volunteer cook (a huge blessing to have a fellow student give up his spring break to serve us) constantly discussed was the need to stay as we serve. This was especially highlighted among a culture that is–rightfully so–very distrustful of American culture in general. When we asked Leon and Eric what the biggest obstacles were that they encountered in their ministry, their answer was immediate: churches who visit the reservation on short-term mission trips and end up doing more harm than good. They were careful to say that they were very appreciative of groups who visit to minister alongside them for a week or two. For the most part, they are blessed, because groups help with tasks that need to be done or put on fun week-long VBS programs for kids who have very difficult family lives. However, more than a few groups after spending a few days on the reservation witnessing hardships such as poverty and alcoholism believe they have “the answer” for the various problems facing people living on the reservation or a grand plan for “claiming the reservation for Christ.” Noble goals to be sure, but Leon and Eric laugh and shake their heads recounting such stories. Paraphrasing Eric and Leon: “You need to spend time here, man, and see what it’s like. Then you’ll realize that these people don’t need new programs. They need people to keep promises, and only then will they stop viewing Christianity as a religion from the White Man that keeps them down.”

A native Lakota pastor at another church on the reservation, Leon Matthews (not to be confused with Leon from the Oglala church), told us of a famous American mega church (I will not repeat the name out of respect) who sent a mission team for a week to serve at his church. After the trip, they offered a generous gift to support his ministry. He refused the gift, because he did not believe the gift would come without strings attached. He told us, “You want to help? Come live on the reservation and minister with me.”

Short-term missions I believe can be a fruitful form of ministry, especially with youth. However, we must take a posture of humility while serving in this manner. We cannot simply helicopter into a location, hand out our resources and our ministry, and think that we have done our duty as missionaries. Short-term missions can provide great support and encouragement to missionaries already in the field and can even result in a lot of fruit. But when serving cross-culturally for a short time, we must be careful to realize that the real labor is not in the going but in the staying, and that we are there to support the ministry of the stay-ers the best we can.