Big Backpacks

5 07 2017

bigbackpacks

One of the important things that needs to concern us with regards to short-term missions is the perception that we give to those we are ministering. Most people just naturally tend towards ethnocentricity, so it is easy for one to see the faults of and make fun of the stereotypes of other cultures while completely ignoring one’s own. As believers, we need to be acutely aware of our own culture’s shortcomings and stereotypes in order to be a better witness of the gospel.

One of the stereotypes that many American mission teams live up to all too often is that we are loud and obnoxious in a sarcastic, insider-joking way. We served as missionaries in a country that saw a lot of tourists come through, and it was very interesting to hear from the locals their different stereotypes for each country. Every once in a while, we would head to the big city to eat at a touristy restaurant, and my wife and I would jokingly try to guess the nationalities of the different groups that came through based upon their behavior. It was surprisingly easy. With this in mind, I try to remind all of my short-term teams to not be loud and laugh together as a group leaving our national friends out. I, also, had to learn that not very many nationalities understand sarcasm. There is not even a word in Swahili for sarcasm making it very difficult for one like me that has the spiritual gift of sarcasm. While in East Africa, I would make what I thought was the funniest joke ever and nobody would laugh because it was sarcastic. I finally figured out that they love jokes that we would consider silly or corny.

All over the world, especially in developing countries, there is a perception that Americans are filthy rich. Considering the finances of people in developing countries, we do have a lot of money. While in Tanzania, I regularly had in my wallet the average working man’s yearly salary, but what many Tanzania’s did not understand is that I spent that amount every month on just gas for my vehicle to get to their villages. There is a difference between having money and being filthy rich. Many nationals of developing countries have the perception that all Americans are Bill Gates rich. That perception is simply a reality, but it is a reality that can do harm to the gospel. There are many people that might “pray to receive Christ” simply because of what they might get in material blessings from the American missionary. Because of this very real possibility, our short-term teams need to be extremely careful in how we handle finances and material possessions while on the field.

5 Simple Things Short-Term Mission Team Members Can Do To Better Handle Finances And Material Possessions While On The Field…

  1. Lose the Big Backpacks – Most of us can vividly picture the short-term team walking into the dusty village in their Chacos, carrying their Nalgene water bottle, and lugging a backpack full of everything. Most of these backpacks contain more food in one of them than the entire village. In the backpack, including snacks, are your Bible, devotional book, journal, camera, extra water bottles, sunscreen, headphones, every cable imaginable, an entire medicine cabinet, passport, 23 packets of gum, GoPro video camera, etc. The vast majority of these things are never needed. In every village that I have ever been to I have always found bottled water and plenty to eat. I usually bring my phone that has a camera and my Bible on it, and I carry my passport in a zippered pocket in a plastic baggie to keep my sweat off of it. Instead of passing out my overly processed food as the wealthy benefactor, I eat the food that they give me and not just a small mouthful as a token. We need to think about the perception that we are giving to people with our backpacks full of wealth. In Matthew 10:10 Jesus said, “Don’t take a traveling bag for the road…” This, of course, is not law for us, but it might be a good principle.
  2. Only One Camera – Choose the best photographer in your group, and only let them take the big camera. There will be times where individuals will get to know someone and want to take a picture together with their phone, and this is completely appropriate. Most people now, even in the remotest villages, will reciprocate with their own smart phone camera! What I am talking about, though, is the photographic documenting of the trip. If three or four people walk into the front yard of someone’s home with their big cameras and just start taking pictures of everything, including their children, this can be highly offensive. Only allow one person to do this and only after they have received permission. Most times we do not even think about the roles being reversed. What if someone walked into your home and started immediately taking pictures of the crosses on your wall or the Bible on your shelf or your messy kitchen or your children?
  3. Generous Church Giving – Many short-term mission teams get the life-changing opportunity to experience a local church service. Inevitably, the time for offering comes around, and every head awkwardly turns towards the leader wondering what to do. Of course, by that time it is too late. I always try to remember to tell my team members to give. My general rule of thumb is $10-$20. In most cases this is a generous gift for the church, but not too much. I always ask each team member to pray about their gift, and if God impresses them to give more, they are welcome to do so.
  4. Extra Gifts – It is not uncommon for two things to happen during a mission trip: 1. a team member gets asked by a national for a financial gift and 2. a team member feels the need to give financially to a national. In Tanzania it is culturally appropriate to ask someone else for money. If I was ever in dire straights, as an American, I would find it difficult to even ask my best friend or family for money! Therefore, when someone in Tanzania asked me for money, at first it was difficult to not get offended. I had to learn that it is also culturally alright to say no when someone asked me. The difficulty comes when a compassionate short-term team member sees a great need that they could easily “fix” with a few bucks. This has great danger, though. We could meet that need, but what about the next one? And the next? Creating dependency is a very real possibility and detrimental to the long-term health of not only the individual but the society as a whole. If a team member is asked for a financial gift or feels the need to give one unsolicited, I would suggest that team member to first pray about it seeking the leadership of the Holy Spirit before immediately giving them the gift. They should then consult with the team leader and/or the long-term missionary and a trustworthy national partner, if available. Also, I always have my team members bring small gifts, like devotional books, t-shirts, bracelets, etc. to give to our translators or others who have rendered us some kind of service. I think these are better than cash gifts.
  5. Promises – While in Zambia one time, I met two young men in the market. I was able to share the gospel with them, and we began to talk about life in general. As I was preparing to leave, through the translator, I told them that they ought to come to America with me. What I meant by that statement was that I really liked those two guys. What they heard was a promise that I would take them to America with me. They literally began packing their things on the spot! This taught me that our words hold great weight with others. When we come as believers from America to another country, for whatever reasons, we come with authority in the eyes of many nationals. If we even hint that we are going to help them, they expect it and are hurt when we do not follow through.
  6. Souvenirs – Buying souvenirs is something that every team does and should do. We just should not do it excessively in front of the nationals that we are working with. When with nationals, I keep a small amount of money in my front pocket to purchase things like small souvenirs or other things. This way I am not pulling out a large stack of bills every time to buy a bottle of water. This would cause a bad perception and is potentially a safety issue. On every trip, I usually plan one time on the tail end to go somewhere the team can purchase all of their souvenirs by ourselves.







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