by Aaron Palmatier
Most visiting US churches will never know the reality of what happens within the Mexican church because they will have little or no contact until their return trip the following year.
I am a missionary with Mission to the Americas, formerly the Conservative Baptist Home Mission Society. I live in Tijuana, Mexico with my wife Nancy and my two children Manuel and Karina. I serve as a church planter in the state of Baja California and oversee the Mission’s church planting ministry in the states of Sonora, Sinaloa, Jalisco and Guanajuato. My first short-term mission trip was in 1981 when I was asked to serve as an interpreter. I have been involved with these week or two-week-long trips ever since. I was first involved as a student, then as a pastor and now as a missionary. Twenty years ago the Mexican border was an exciting opportunity for outreach for the handful of church groups and organizations that came down.
Today it remains an exciting opportunity but it has transformed into a million-dollar industry. In the last twenty years the spirit of the visiting groups has changed also. Today they are much less concerned about the impact they will have in Mexico and more concerned about the impact Mexico will have on them. The growing number of organizations that bring groups to the border combined with the shift in focus has begun to have a negative effect on the Mexican churches. It is my hope that this article will serve to guide future short-term missions in a way that will limit the damage to Mexico and help them accomplish the goals they have for their church.
In theory, short-term mission trips to the border of Mexico are a great opportunity for everyone involved. For the US church it can be an authentic cross-cultural experience. Trips like this always involve a time of learning and evaluating one’s lifestyle in light of the new knowledge. For the Mexican church it can be a boost in attendance because the visiting Americans will attract a crowd that wouldn’t normally come to church. It can also mean the arrival of much needed economic resources to help with ongoing ministry needs or special needs such as the acquisition of land or construction.
The intent for the visiting US church concerning evangelism is to attract new people into the Mexican church in order that they may hear the Gospel and "get saved." The bigger the spectacle or program the more people they will attract and thereby the more that will get saved. The pastor and church members will follow up on the people who respond to the Gospel in the weeks to come and integrate them into the church. The same idea carries over to the ever so popular Vacation Bible School. The visiting North Americans will put on a VBS and draw many children to the church and win them to the Lord. The children will continue to come to the church to grow and invite their parents. Because of the limited economic resources of the Mexican churches they will greatly appreciate a first class VBS for their children.
Economic aid and construction projects can also be a real blessing for both the visiting church and the Mexican church. A building project, for example, can give the visiting North Americans an opportunity to share their expertise in construction as well as put their faith in action. The economic help for the Mexican church can also be a real blessing. It can mean additional funds to pay their pastor, the acquisition of land upon which to build their church building, or even the building of the sanctuary itself. Most Mexican churches struggle to pay their pastor and meet the week-to-week ministry costs. There are usually no extra funds for buying land or construction of a church building. At the end of such a week, the Mexican church might have a new building and the US church will have the satisfaction of knowing they made it all possible through their financial giving. Everyone wins. Or do they?
However great the theory may sound; it is far from the reality that actually occurs. Most visiting US churches will never know the reality of what happens within the Mexican church because they will have little or no contact until their return trip the following year. I live here year around and see what happens after everyone leaves. Let me share with you the reality.
The reality concerning evangelism activities is that genuine conversion does not usually happen in a week. In the weeks following a short-term mission trip-after the US church has left-the pastor and the Mexican church people go out to follow up on new converts. When they do, they hear the same story from house to house. The people thank the pastor for coming and express their interest in God but never come back to the church until the following year when the North Americans return. When the North Americans come back the following year they are impressed to see the same faces as last year. What they don’t realize is that these people haven’t attended church since last year. Mexican people are a relational people and they will pray the prayer out of courtesy to the North Americans, but this is far from a genuine conversion. A true conversion comes through a relationship with another believer and can take months or years to be realized.
The reality concerning the Vacation Bible Schools is also not so pretty. The week of outreach put on by the visiting US church is a high-powered week with often time expensive props. Take for example a puppet show. Everyone loves a puppet show and many children will respond to an invitation to give their hearts to Christ. The following week when the children come back, if they do, they find no North Americans and no puppets.
This sudden change of scenery is enough to cause the children not to return. This leaves the Mexican church feeling defeated because they don’t have the resources to reproduce the activities which drew the children in the first place.
The reality concerning economic help can be just as destructive. There is a genuine need for economic help in Mexico. It is also true that we, as the wealthier brother in the Lord, have a certain biblical responsibility to give to those in. need. The problem comes in how we give. Giving makes people feel good and the more one gives the better he or she can feel. This often plays out in giving that is counter-productive to the desired outcome.
In this case, two concrete examples will help in understanding. The first example has been repeated countless times all across the border. Upon the arrival of a US church to a small border town the leaders of the visiting church, after looking around, wanted to meet with me immediately. This visiting US church had come the year before and almost completed a significant building project. To their amazement a year later the project had not been completed. In fact, the hammers and nails were in the exact same place where they had left them the year before. They could not believe that the Mexicans had done nothing at all to complete the project during the year. In talking to the leaders of the Mexican church the picture became clear. The Mexican church never had a vision for the project in the first place. The US church conceived the idea from the start. The project was funded by the visiting church and the construction was designed and done by the US church. Sure the building was on the church property and the Mexican church indicated they would be glad to have the building, but it was not their project and therefore they felt no responsibility to work on it. The Mexican church was equally amazed that the US church expected them to continue their work. This plays out in not only construction but in the maintenance and upkeep of the building as well. The problem is that the Mexican church had no ownership in the building and therefore felt no obligation to work on it.
My parents taught me that if I wanted something I had to work for it so I would appreciate it more and take care of it. This brings up another related issue to building projects. It concerns the amount or percentage of the cost the US church gives. Most of the time they have the resources and desire to pay for the entire project. This leaves no room for the Mexicans to feel the financial responsibility for their own building. If you compound this over many years and many visiting teams you end up with a situation in which many of the Mexican border churches look to North America to service all their building needs. This is destructive because it can kill the motivation of the Mexican church to honor God with their time and finances for the need.
I am convinced that a one- or two-week mission trip can truly be a blessing to both the receiving church and the sending church. A number of years ago I began making adjustments or corrections on the way these trips are done. I have yet to arrive at a point of perfection, nor do I think I will; but, the following are some ways of correcting the errors mentioned above.
Keep in mind that the North American is the visitor. Guests do not go to a neighbor’s house and demand that things be done their way-not if they want to be invited back. The visiting US team should not expect the local Mexican church to "get with their program." Rather, the US team should get with the local church’s program. Many times US groups come down with cookie-cutter programs that entirely miss the needs of the church. Before the US team plans their program they should find out about the mission field and/or church to which they are going. The visiting US team needs to understand the Mexican church’s vision for reaching their community and the future goals of their church and let them guide in the planning. This way the visitors will minister to real needs and will help the Mexican churches accomplish their goals.
Another important correction is to make sure all the outreach, including a VBS (if one is desired), is done together with the Mexican church, not for them. Having the Mexican church members participate is key to having an effective ministry of follow-up. The long-term results are best when a Mexican does the teaching. How the activities are divided up during a VBS, for example, depends on the gifts and resources of both churches, but the Mexicans should initiate the time, do all the teaching and close the time. This makes the activity a Mexican activity and the following week, if the children return, they see many of the same faces they did the week before. Or when they receive a follow-up visitation it is by the same person that taught the lesson. This increases the chances that they will begin attending on a regular basis.
In terms of the type of ministry done it is important to make sure the Mexican church will be able to reproduce it. The idea is not to impress them with US resources but to help their ministry be more effective. For example, if a US church presents a puppet show, then during the course of the week put on a puppet training class and leave some puppets for them. This way the Mexican church will be able to continue the ministry rather than feeling discouraged because they can’t afford such expensive props. This applies to all ministries that the Mexican church is not equipped to do.
The important thing to remember in building projects is ownership. The Mexican people need to have and feel the ownership of the project. This means the idea and design need to come from the Mexican church. The Mexican church also needs to have a financial investment and time investment in the work. This means the US church should not finance the entire project but decide ahead of time what percent they will cover and what percent the Mexican church will be responsible for. The amount will depend on the economic situation of the church. But no matter how limited the resources, the Mexican church needs to contribute. This also applies to the issue of the work itself. I have seen too many US teams come down and push the Mexicans out of the way because they can "do it better." In this case one of two things happen. The Mexican church may wait until the visiting church leaves and then take their construction apart and redo it their way, or they will leave it but feel no ownership in it. Either way is not desirable. It is essential that the Mexicans work on the project alongside the North Americans. It is also important that a Mexican be in charge of the overall project or serve as the foreman. This way it is a Mexican project and the North Americans are helping.
The most important thing to remember is that the emphasis needs to be on relationship. Our relationship with God and with others is the backbone of the Gospel. Why shouldn’t it be the backbone of our mission trips? The Mexicans will forget most of what you do but they will remember you. Put your emphasis on making an international friendship, one in which you and your friend can learn from each other and encourage each other to love and good deeds.
Aaron Palmatier serves as the REgional Ministry Specialist with Mission to the Americas in Mexico and has been involved with short-term missions for the past 20 years. He, his wife, Nancy, and two children Manuel and Karina live in Tijuana, Baja California.
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