LivServ 07-08-82

Serving with Eyes Wide Open

Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence



David A. Livermore

BakerBooks, 2006, 188 pp., ISBN 0-8010-6616-6



David Livermore is executive director of the Global Learning Center at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and cofounder of Intersect, a ministry that provides leadership training and consulting to emerging leaders in ministries around the world.  "This book is an attempt to open our eyes to existing blind spots in global missions, specifically short-term missions.  I want to change the way we see and therefore do short-term missions." (13) 


The first part provides a big picture of our world and the church.  The second part examines our perspectives and assumptions.  The third part introduces cultural intelligence and applies it to mission trips.  The appendix contains a selected list of short-term resources.


"Some estimate that as many as four million Americans take short-term mission trips out of the country annually; and American churches now spend as much on short-term mission trips as on long-term missionaries." (12, citing Roger Peterson in Maximum Impact, Short Term Mission, STEM, 2003)


Our increased accessibility to the globe hasn't reduced our colonialist tendencies. (13)


"The biggest problems in short-term missions are not technical or administrative.  The biggest challenges lie in communication, misunderstanding, personality conflict, poor leadership, and bad teamwork." (14)


One snapshot of the world shows fundamentalism vs. pluralism.  Fundamentalists declare, "There is one right way to view the world and it's our way."  Pluralists declare, "There's no one right way to view the world.  Discover your own."  "The clash of fundamentalism and pluralism is at the center of most contemporary conflicts and wars facing us today." (28)


"Jihad, in its mildest form, is a kind of Islamic zeal committed to proselytizing the world no matter what it takes."  "Jihad, an Islamic expression of fundamentalism, is simply the absolute confidence in the truth of one's position." (29)


"Globalization is typically seen as an expression and agent of pluralism.  Yet globalization also seems to be based upon … the core value of domination.  Bringing the world a uniform offering of products, services, and entertainment options is assumed to be good for all." (29)


"The 'typical' Christian in the world is a woman living in a village in Nigeria or in a Brazilian flavella."  "The Western church is no longer the trendsetter and center of Christianity…." (31)


"Another reality in the majority world church is their emphasis upon decision making through a community of people rather than individuals." (35)  "The intimacy experienced among Christian faith communities in the majority world is comparable to the intimacy of a large family gathering." (36)


"When 40 percent of the world earns less than two dollars a day and Americans earn more than seventy dollars a day, can there ever be a point where majority world churches support themselves exclusively?"  "The majority world church believes in interdependence and is trying to teach the Western church about it."  (36)


"Our mission trips usually assume we have something to offer the churches and communities we visit, and sometimes we do.  However, we must go beyond mere lip service of saying we need to learn from their churches as well." (37)


"Currently over 3,700 Nigerians are serving as missionaries with a hundred agencies in more than fifty countries."  "For every missionary who now enters Nigeria, five Nigerians go out as missionaries to other fields of service." (40)


"Leaders from every non-Western region say their number-one need is leadership training." But many of them don't want to use Western models to meet the need. And we must keep in mind that national pastors have learned much by life experience. (41) 


"Short-term missions has outpaced long-term missions both in personnel and budget." (43)


Conflicting images prevalent in short-term missions include motivation, urgency, common ground, the Bible, money, and simplicity.  (45) 


"Is my cross-cultural work driven most by my desire to follow Christ or by my sense of adventure?" "When is it mission, when is it 'vacation with a purpose,' and when is it just 'vacation'?" (48)


"Sociologists have consistently found that the way we anticipate a situation will strongly influence how we engage in it." (48)  "If adventure is most what you're after--go for it.  Take a trip there!  Explore the culture. Soak it in.  Experience it fully.  But don't put a 'mission trip' label on it."  "Let's beware of taking what ought to be modus operandi for all of us every day as Christians and suddenly calling it a 'mission project.'" (52)


"The top reason people participate in short-term missions is for the life-changing experience it promises them."  "The response I hear more than any other is 'life changing!'"  "Of the millions of Americans participating in short-term mission projects every year, the majority are teenagers."  (53)


"Parents and leaders who struggle with why we're sending our kids overseas to engage in missions when we aren't doing it right in our own backyards are pacified with the assurance that one leads to the other."  "The purpose isn't just what we'll do for these people, but what these people will do for us…."  (53)


"The emphasis of using short-term mission trips to change the life of the 'missionary' is a drastic change from what we've historically emphasized in missions."  "…investing billions of dollars in mission work that is mostly focused upon the transformation of the missionary is a radical shift from the missions movement throughout church history.  Most mission paradigms throughout the ages have called for long-term sacrifice for the sake of others." (54)


"Meanwhile, a growing number of researchers question the long-term impact of short-term trips upon participants.  Some studies demonstrate that while participants come home with lofty aspirations of buying less, praying more, and sharing Christ more, within six to eight weeks, most resort back to all the same assumptions and behaviors they had prior to the trip." (54)


"Those who have researched the impact of short-term mission upon the receivers aren't convinced that these trips are changing the recipients."  "We need to resist the tendency to overstate the level of impact." (57)


One African leader commented a pastor who came to train them, "He never once asked to see anything that I had done--that just made me feel like nothing we have is worth anything." (58)


The American tendency is to jump into action and take charge.  We are not known for reflection or thinking through long-term consequences.  "Our American obsession with time and urgency leads us to want to schedule and control everything." (60)


One African host commented, "Why must they always meddle?  It's as if you were invited to dinner at someone's house and during your brief visit you insisted on rearranging all the furniture in the house to suit your taste." (61)


A sense of urgency is valuable but we must work in ways that are shaped by the national church that was there when we arrived and will continue after we leave. (66)


Illustration:  They don't fly planes in India when it rains. (68)

"I had just finished speaking at a conference in St. Louis.  Mike, a twenty-two-year-old Christian college student, was elected to drive me to the airport.  It was pouring rain.

       "It's a good thing you aren't in India right now," Mike said.

       "Why?" I asked.

       "Because they don't fly planes in India when it rains," he replied.

       "Really?!" I responded.  "What makes you say that?"

       "Well, I just spent two weeks there.  We had a couple domestic flights, and whenever it was raining, they canceled our flights.  I guess they don't have the technology we do for flying in this kind of stuff."


We tend to search for common ground by looking for similarities and generalize an event or trait to an entire culture.  (68) "Finding common ground is the coping mechanism most often used in the first several weeks in a new place.  After a couple months of being immersed in a new culture, the emphasis begins to shift toward seeing all the differences rather than the similarities." (70)  The brevity of our experiences leads us to wrong conclusions because we look through our own cultural framework.


"Misreading cross-cultural behavior is one of the most consistent findings of my research.  The most frequent statement made by the North American pastors I studied was, 'These people are so hungry for our training!'" (72)  The observations made by those receiving the trainer--when they were being honest--were quite different.  "While hesitant to be overly critical, more than half of the national pastors studied expressed frustration that North American pastors talked about successful churches in the United States with little awareness of many churches that are far bigger in other parts of the globe." (73)


We should resist stereotyping cultures. (76)


Culture influences the way we understand and interpret Scripture.  "For years I was never struck by the irony of resorting to the authority of extra biblical words and concepts--such as inerrancy and literal interpretation--to justify our belief in the Bible's ultimate authority."  "We've imported far too much Western culture into understanding the purpose of the Scriptures." (79)


"My understanding of the Story is always shaped by my prior assumptions--my culture, my upbringing, my experiences, and more."  I always see it through my thwarted and limited perspective." (80) 


"We must beware of arrogantly thinking we can organize the global church around some strategy we're convinced is 'biblical,' when it might be in fact yet another cultural model." (81)


"One of the greatest benefits that comes from traveling to another part of the world is the chance to see the Bible through the eyes of God-fearing people in another culture." (83)


"Our understanding of God's Word is always skewed by our cultural context, and at the very least, our cultural biases need to be acknowledged up front when teaching from the Word at any time, but especially overseas." (87)


"There are privileges that come with being African and Chinese and Latin.  There are blessings inherent to people living in places all over the world.  Let's bring perspective to realizing not everyone in the world longingly wishes they had been born American.  Not all Africans are starving and waiting for heroic Westerners to come and save them." (92)


An Indian said, "Well, that's nice and all, but I'm so sick of the sympathy of Westerners who think we need more stuff.  Why would that have anything to do with our happiness?  Please don't help import the idol of consumerism into India." (93)


We need to examine our assumptions about the true needs of the world before we act. "There are ways we're poor and ways we're rich.  The same is true in the majority world." (93)


"The assumption that we know what is most needed by people in another place is the assumption that allowed Rome, England, and Spain to say their colonialist domination was not purely self-centered."  "Not only is it colonialist to invite nationals' input on the back end of planning, but we often end up doing irrelevant and costly work.  Local ownership…means letting the local churches actually direct and shape what we do…, they ask us if we want to be involved rather than vice versa." (94)


An African said, "We built buildings before they came, and we will build buildings after they leave.  Unfortunately, while they were here, they though they were the only ones who knew how to build buildings." (95)


Poor people possess amazing wealth in other areas.  How can we see them as equals so we can walk with them and learn from them, each benefiting from the other? (97)


"We can't support the dominance of the 'American dream' for the world." (100)


We tend to simplify complex issues.  This applies to our motivation, our sense of urgency, our use of Scripture and our understanding of money.  Oversimplification, an either/or mentality, is at the core of much short-term mission work by Americans. (100)


The KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle is not a good guideline for short-term work.  We miss too much.  It is important to open our eyes and look beyond the surface.  (102) 


"Ethnocentrism [is] the tendency to define what's normal and best based upon our cultural perspective.  It's the assumption that the world revolves around us." (103)


"While we describe the dissonance we feel as we see our wealth juxtaposed against poverty, it seems to have little influence upon the number of souvenirs we purchase of the choices we make when we get home.  Participants rarely describe a significant change in how they think about God and their faith as a result of trips like these." (107)


"What can we do to make long-term transformation more common among the million or more Americans who do short-term missions overseas every year?" (107)


"Our assumptions about what happens as a result of short-term missions are oversimplified.  As a result our expectations and motivations are inaccurate." (107)


CQ refers to cross-cultural intelligence, our ability to interact effectively when we cross cultures.  CQ consists of four interconnected elements:

(1) Knowledge CQ, understanding about cross-cultural differences,

(2) Interpretive CQ, interpreting the clues we receive,

(3) Perseverance CQ, persevering through cross-cultural conflict, and

(4) Behavioral CQ, acting appropriately. 

Having one without the others may be worse than having none of them! (110-11)


Growing our knowledge CQ includes researching the history of the place you are going, the people's views on religion, their language, and the things that make them different from your culture. (115)


"…culture is the collective fundamental beliefs people hold about how things should be and how one should behave.  It's a way of looking at the values, attitudes, and beliefs shared by a common group of people."  "Think of culture as the software that runs our minds.  It's the mental programming that shapes our habits, beliefs, decision making, and the way we see the world." (116)


"High context refers to places where people have a lot of history together.  Things operate in high-context cultures as if everyone there is an insider and knows how to behave."  Our families are usually like this.  These are difficult places to visit as an outsider because they all know how to act and you don't see any instructions.


"Places such as Western Europe and the United States are categorized as low-context cultures."  There are lots of signs to show visitors what to do--highway and airport signs and restaurant menus, for example. 


The U.S. is an individualistic society in contrast to many that are more collectivist.  The U.S. scores 91 on the individualism scale while Singapore scores 20.  (121)  We tend to put the individual first and make decisions on the basis of what's best for the individual whereas other cultures are programmed to think about the goals and needs of the groups of which they're a part. (122) 


How far removed in status and power the leaders are from followers is referred to as "power distance."  In high power distance societies, titles and status are revered, leaders are unquestioned, and leaders and followers do not socialize. (123)


Uncertainty-avoidance measures the extent to which a culture is ill at ease with uncertainty.  Does the culture need clear instructions and predictable time tables or is it comfortable with unpredictable outcomes and going with the flow?  (124) 


It is helpful to recognize and distinguish these characteristics but it is still hazardous to over simplify and ignore personality differences. (126)


Interpretive CQ includes planning our cross-cultural interactions, for example how to present the content of a presentation in a particular context and how to interact with authority figures, an awareness of the cues we receive, and monitoring what's happening. (132-33)


"Actually reading in and of itself is one of the most powerful ways to nurture our minds to think creatively and reflectively."  (136)


"Successful communication depends upon accurately reading the cues of those with whom we interact." (136)


Journaling our observations, thoughts and reflections is a powerful way to understand our lives and others.  Describe things that make you uncomfortable.  Write down questions and insights about yourself, God, and others. (137)


Don't limit this to overseas.  Cross-cultural encounters are all around us. (138)


"Predeparture training is vitally helpful in developing our knowledge CQ.  When we fail to use it in tandem with interpretive CQ, however, it often results in worsened engagement cross-culturally than if we'd spent no time at all studying the cultural nuances."  "The goal is to grow in our cross-cultural understanding and then combine that with a thoughtful, reflective spirit." (140)


"Perseverance CQ refers to our level of interest, drive, and motivation to adapt cross-culturally." (142)  "[This] is the most important aspect of selecting people for cross-cultural work…." (143)


"Behavioral CQ is being sensitive and appropriate with our actions and behavior as we engage in a new culture."  "The things we actually say and do and the ways we go about our work become the litmus test for whether we're doing short-term missions with cultural intelligence." (154)


Without behavioral CQ, a mission trip looks like a typical tourist experience where the group sticks together and views the culture like spectators rather than participants. (155)


Train yourself in behavioral CQ by exposing yourself to uncomfortable situations.   It's easy to think we will act appropriately but it's another thing to do so when we are tired and stressed.  (159) 


"The whole purpose of enhancing our cultural intelligence is to use it as a way to get better at loving God and loving others.  As we understand the people God has made in cultures all over the world, we're drawn to worship him.  As we persevere through the challenges that come with interacting cross-culturally, we demonstrate a love that reflects God's glory.  As we behave in ways that set others at ease and respect their differences, we give people glimpses of Jesus." (167) 


"Self-serving missions can be described as 'Christian parachuting,' a decontextualized 'dropping in' to a needy situation just long enough to distrubte beneficial goods that sometimes places unwanted stress on a beleaguered community.  These kinds of so-called mission trips are more like sightseeing than genuine service and ministry to a group of people.  We cannot truly serve those we do not know and love." (167)


"Stop petting the poor.  Whenever possible, find a way to connect short-term projects to long-term, interdependent relationships."  "To love people is to get involved in their lives."  (168) 


"Question your assumptions.  Question your assumptions.  Question your assumption." (170)


"Don't go running overseas to do something you aren't already doing in your own neighborhood." (173) 


"More than anything else, 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'" (174) 



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