Review (pt.5): When Helping Hurts

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, Moody, 2009, 230 pages 

Corbett_Helping HurtsFifth Concern: Short-term Missions

The first time I read the chapter on short-term missions, I really liked it. It encourages pre-planning, thoughtful use of money, and training. But the weaknesses became clearer over time. Here are two:

Critiquing Foreign Cultures

It is a healthy exercise to address not only the strengths in other cultures but also the weaknesses. If we agree that the gospel is not only able to transport our souls to heaven but also change everything about us, including the way we do business, family, education, and work, then we must also acknowledge that some cultures have had a greater influx of gospel intrusion within their culture than others. If the culture of Scotland was not superior to the culture of the cannibals on the New Hebrides when John Paton first landed there, then the gospel doesn’t mean much. Of course the Scottish culture was superior and we mustn’t be afraid to point this out. Christians must temper this with humility, prayer, and Scriptural warrant, but the deed itself is noble.

For example, suppose there is a godly Christian professor from the mountains of India who takes his wife and children to visit the US. As they sit in the JFK airport, they discuss the books they read on the plane and the goals they have for the trip. Then he calls his family’s attention to the American culture around them. “Do you see the families hardly speak to each other? He’s glued to the TV. She’s attached to her device. The 35 year-old over there has been playing video games for an hour. Rotten my children.” Who would fault such a scathing yet accurate critique of our culture? Who would deny this is healthy for his family?

The authors cannot bring themselves to point out the weaknesses in poor, foreign cultures. At one point they observe the different ways people view time. The monochronic view—which could just as easily be called the biblical view—“sees time as a limited and valuable resource.” This would be most Western nations. Where I minister, there is such a thing as “African Time” and anyone who has lived or worked in Africa knows about this.

A pastor from Zambia spoke at our church recently and he said: “What is this I hear about African time? Nonsense! You simply do not value time. You are sitting with your friends chatting when your neighbor calls and asks why you haven’t arrived yet with the shovel and you say, ‘Oh, I’m on the way’ when you know very well you are not on the way.’ African Christians should be ashamed of African time.”

It is common for pastors to give the starting time of church an hour before it starts so that people will arrive on time. But how do the authors define the alternative view: the polychronic view means tasks typically take a backseat to forming and deepening relationships.” Right. Can’t we acknowledge that actions take so long in the third world because time is not valuable? Weekly, I have church members slither into church an hour or two late. I guarantee they were not digging deep into their mother’s family tree. They over slept. They weren’t watching. Time is limitless. That is a weakness and we should call it such. There are weaknesses in every culture, some more than others depending on how aligned that culture is with Scripture. It is not judgmental or racist to point these out.

The purpose of STMs

The authors assume that STM trips will be social in nature and they rarely even mention evangelism or other gospel work. They then say, “[the STM trip] is not about us. It is about them!” (172) If the trip is social in nature, I agree. But what if the primary purpose in taking a one month trip to Senegal is to (1) see if you are compatible with the mission team (2) see if you are deft at picking up the language (3) see if the spiritual needs fit your goals (4) see if you are gifted to minister in that area. All of these goals are self-centered in a sense. Churches should keep a watchful eye on gifted young men and push them to STM trips with these goals in mind.

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