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WORLDVIEW: Doing volunteer missions right

EDITOR’S NOTE: Visit “WorldView Conversation,” the blog related to this column, at http://worldviewconversation.blogspot.com/. Listen to an audio version of this column at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/111/11144/11144-60650.mp3.

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–At least 40 years into the “age of the volunteer” in world missions, debate still rages about whether short termers are a blessing or a curse.

Peruse mission journals or blogs, and you will find articles celebrating or questioning the ongoing volunteer phenomenon, which has seen tens of thousands of lay church members travel abroad to preach the Gospel.

At one end of the philosophical spectrum are those who believe volunteers have transformed and revitalized missions, returned the global mission task to its proper owner — the local church — and mobilized several generations of believers to take the Gospel to the nations. At the other extreme are critics who warn that “amateur missionaries” on vacation with good intentions and poor preparation make little positive impact for the kingdom of God abroad — and do actual harm in some instances.

I don’t pretend to be objective in the debate: I’m pro-volunteer. I’ve been making the case for mission volunteerism since the late 1970s. A week after finishing college, I signed on with Southern Baptists’ new Mission Service Corps program for long-term volunteers and started writing feature stories about other volunteers working throughout America. A few years later I joined the Foreign (now International) Mission Board news staff and began to see volunteers in action overseas.

In those days, some missionaries grumbled about having to take time from their ministries to “baby-sit” visiting volunteers, find something productive for them to do, keep them from causing an international incident, etc. Time passed, however, and more and more lay volunteers came to serve. Open-minded missionaries — and even some of the grouches — began to discover how valuable volunteers could be in evangelism, relief work, launching new ministries, even penetrating new regions and people groups with the Gospel. When they went home, excited volunteers told about their spiritual adventures and got their churches involved in supporting and participating in missions.

Today, most new missionaries point back to experiences they had as volunteers or shorter-term workers as key moments in their journey to a life commitment to missions.

Still, the critics make some valid points about volunteering. There’s a right way — and many wrong ways — to do volunteer missions. Church teams that “parachute” into an overseas location, make no attempt to work with or even contact missionaries and local believers and proceed to do their own thing seldom produce real results. They often claim hundreds or thousands of “converts,” few of whom can be found a week after the volunteer team goes home.

A missionary friend in Southeast Asia has worked for many years in a land that gets many such visitors. They come. They look around. They leave. Few return.

“People come and go by the planeload with great intentions to ‘save'” the nation, he says. “Nearly every plane that lands has one or two mission teams on it. Many mission trips are little more than ‘Christian tourism,’ where you hit a few key sites and bypass thousands of less-prominent locations.”

He calls it “hit-and-run evangelism.”

“I know there are tons of great people who love [this country] and are doing all they can to see change,” he stresses. However, “to see change in culture, to see change in community, requires one very important element. It is not church permits, national strategies, education, money, buildings, infrastructure, good governance, electricity, high-speed Internet, systematic training, dedicated locals, training materials, pioneering missionaries, more mission teams, more preachers, more Bible schools, more NGOs, more parachurch organizations, more churches, more pastors. Nope. All those are good and eventually will be developed, but what is needed is far more mundane: time to exert influence.

“To really see [this nation] changed, we need people who are called of God and willing to commit their lives here. To gain the trust of the people requires time. To build relationships requires time. To learn a language requires time. To develop key strategies requires time. To have influence requires time.”

Besides the love of Christ, time is the most important thing missionaries can give to the people they serve. Day after day, month after month, year after year — but, ideally, not one hour longer than it takes to prepare local believers to take over the work.

Volunteers who want to make a difference are wise if they seek such servants.

“The local church is waking up to its role in the Great Commission, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need God-called, culturally trained, long-term missionaries who passionately love and deeply understand the people groups they are assigned to,” writes Southern Baptist Convention President Johnny Hunt in his new book, “Get Connected: Mobilizing Your Church for God’s Mission” (available at imb.org/GetConnectedBook).

Hunt, pastor since 1987 at First Baptist Church of Woodstock, Ga., led a church that hadn’t produced a missionary in 150 years to be one of the most strategic mission mobilization centers in America. It sends out hundreds of volunteers each year and partners with missionaries in some of the most challenging places on earth. But Woodstock never does “Lone Ranger” missions, if Hunt has anything to do with it.

“I see a lot of churches led by enthusiastic young pastors who ride off to the mission field with no vision, no strategic relationship, no plan,” he observes. “They ‘fire a shot’ here and there and come home with some great stories, but it often ends there. Don’t try to be Indiana Jones, the solo hero who barely makes it back alive. Be a team player, a coach and a mobilizer…. Work with a knowledgeable mission partner who knows his field. You’ll make a much more lasting impact.”

Amen to that.
Erich Bridges is global correspondent for the International Mission Board (imb.org).

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