Thailand is a wonderful place to visit, with a generally sweet, welcoming and generous culture but with so much need. Your church or small group can have a key part in transforming through long-term partnership in our goal to train send Thai followers of Jesus who can lead through both example and word.
The Key: Long Term
Ever since When Helping Hurts was released in 2009, churches have been evaluating their involvement in missions, including the trend towards sending groups for one to two-week trips. Indeed, just as it took Jesus three years of full-time teaching and demonstrating to foster complete paradigm change in a small group of people, we have found that here as well folks need years of input to develop into leaders. As a result we have wrestled with the best way to effectively involve short-term visitors.
In our first several years we received numerous teams of all types and ages, from youth to adult. We can say that every team had a generally positive experience, and we enjoyed hosting them. However, when we stepped back to look at what was accomplished through visiting groups, we found ourselves hard-pressed to find notable long-term outcome.
Lower class Thais rarely speak English, and almost none can speak enough to have a meaningful conversation. Thais will try their hardest to make foreigners feel welcome, but after basic introductions, awkward smiling silence ensues. We always have a few people who can translate, but these folks are generally either staff with multiple responsibilities or are part-time volunteers, in an either case are rarely available to serve as full-time translators. Yet the fact is that deep, meaningful conversation is exactly what folks need. Hurts, fears and questions abound, and while kind, visiting foreigners who demonstrate Jesus over a few days can be an encouragement and even provide relief from daily stress, the negatives inevitably return in full force when the visitors leave, while our always overtaxed team struggles to provide assistance.
What about children? Attention-starved kids make for great mission trips, right? Actually it isn’t so simple.
The deep, unfulfilled need for connection in a child creates a generally high stress level that indeed, finds relief in those kind, foreign visitors. But in fact we have seen almost no long-term evidence of children with even extensive mission-team exposure doing better than peers once puberty hits. The temporary love simply temporarily reduces the stress, but does little if anything to actually remove it. In fact, it is possible that the temporary highs and subsequent letdown of those experiences can even be damaging, as their already high sense of abandonment is reinforced by more disappointment.
Another problem, that When Helping Hurts addresses, is the dependency and sense of entitlement that quickly infects folks from poverty culture that receive charity. A brief digression to illustrate: when a new woman joins The Well, she inevitably expresses gratitude. Within a month or so, however, we know she will likely be worriedly presenting us with additional need. This appears to be a simple psychological mechanism not much different from Peter trying to walk on water, not a heightened selfishness. She arrives feeling powerless, but for a short term her excitement tells her that her problems are over. It doesn’t take long before the realization hits that in fact they are not. Entitlement is simply the expression of her continued powerlessness and need for self-protection.
The answer of course is for visitors to provide empowerment, not charity, usually in the form of some type of training or consulting.
“Ah,” you may think. “But I am just a concerned person with no particular expertise. What kind of training can I possibly provide?”
Actually you and many in your church probably have knowledge that could be very useful in working with poverty settings. The fact is, the needs that result from and perpetuate poverty run wide and deep. Even if you only have a high school education and some work experience, you are probably far more knowledgeable than someone who has finished eight grades of low-quality public education. Many with that background have never even read a full chapter book.
But the less obvious