Members of the Christian Reformed Church have been participating in short-term mission trips for almost as long as the denomination has supported overseas missions. But the focus of those trips is starting to change, according to people involved in their planning.
“People still tend to think that short-term missions are about what happens when they are there; it needs to be about something more than that,” said Kurt Ver Beek, assistant professor of sociology at Calvin College and director of the Grand Rapids, Mich., school’s Honduras program. Ver Beek has researched short-term missions.
In response to the work of Ver Beek and others, mission teams going out from Christian Reformed congregations are focusing on building relationships, not just on building structures.
“There have been a lot of conversations about ‘service learning’ at [Christian Reformed] World Missions,” said Rev. Steve Van Zanen, the agency’s director for missions mobilization. “There is a movement in that direction. It seems like God’s Spirit is moving along in a new way.”
“Effectiveness depends on how [a trip] is set up and on the follow-through,” advises Ruth Majawa of the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee. Majawa is CRWRC’s service-learning manager. She said that people are coming to CRWRC with requests for mission trips that are as much about learning as service.
Karyl Groeneveld is a regional missions mobilizer for World Missions in the Pacific Northwest, and she was also part of a mission team from Olympia (Wash.) CRC to Honduras in June. “We felt a unity with people that we’d never met before,” she said. “That kind of crosscultural relationship helps us see how big God is.”
Martha and Arturo Isaula from Honduras agreed. “At first we were really worried before their arrival. They had a very good participation in all aspects—our community felt well because of their presence here,” they said.
“Relationship is key,” said Dave De Ridder, family-life and teaching pastor for Third CRC, Denver. In the past 15 years, Third CRC has sent 28 teams to Tijuana, Mexico. “The Denver team has crawled into their hearts,” he said. De Ridder added that the church has also been able to establish a relationship with a team of local experts, whom they work with each year.
What makes a mission trip effective?
Ver Beek advises several things, including picking missionary partners who have experience working with mission trip teams. He also advises setting specific goals for the group as a whole, for each individual, and for the host group overseas. “E-mail back and forth and hold each other accountable,” he said.
Van Zanen offers one further piece of advice: “Introduce a greater degree of humility,” he said of North American groups headed overseas. “We think we are going to benefit them. [But] their vibrancy of faith and commitment to Christ no matter what is something we can learn a great deal from.”
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