INTERVIEW, PART TWO: Brian Fikkert on Short-Term Mission Trips

Charity Detox had the opportunity to speak with Brian Fikkert, Founder of the Chalmers Center and author of When Helping Hurts. The interview is posted in two parts. Part One reported on the first half of our conversation, which focused on the process of change for organizations seeking to detoxify their charity. Part Two publishes the remainder of the interview, which focuses on Fikkert's new book, "Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions."

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Shawn Duncan: What resources or materials did you use in the process of researching and writing Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions?

Brian Fikkert: First we depended upon the basic theology and philosophy that is found in When Helping Hurts regarding the true nature of poverty. We intend this resource to be directed to people doing short-term missions (STM) to poor communities in the United States or around the world. (So, if you are going off to Britain to do street evangelism, this book is not for you.) 

WHH says that poverty is rooted in broken relationships and that poverty alleviation is about reconciling broken relationships. We are working to bring this way of thinking to bear on how we do STM.

In addition we did a lot of work to bring together academic research and scholarship in this area along with lots of interviews with churches and organizations involved in STM. 

SD: What are some of the common dangers - both for those who go and the communities that receive them - of STM?

BF: The biggest danger is that people are functioning out of a material definition of poverty, which says that poverty is about a lack of stuff, so let's go give stuff to people. This, as you know, is the most toxic of all charities.

If you can get people to shift out of a material definition of poverty and into a relational understanding of poverty, then the lights can go on and people say, "Oh my, if poverty is about broken relationships and poverty alleviation is about reconciling relationships, then I can't do that in a week!"

Resisting many of the common dangers comes down to getting people to make the paradigm shift about the true causes, effects, and solutions to poverty.

When people are working out of the material definition of poverty, they tend to go around the world giving resources to people or doing things for people. Doing this confirms in the poor the shame they are often feeling, and it can undermine long-term developmental work. The common dangers for the host community in this approach is that is further mars the dignity of the poor and hurts the organizations that are on the ground trying to do long-term work. The danger for those who go is that they think they have actually accomplished something and come back triumphalistic when they have actually done a lot of harm. 

SD: In the book you state that one of the problems is that we measure the success of these trips based on what we see in the weeks and months directly after the trip and not years down the line. 

BF: Exactly! And... the more enthusiastic they are when they come back, the more successful it appears, and the more resources get spent on similar trips down the road. The danger is the perpetuating of a cycle of the misuse of funds when we are not looking at the long-term impact of what we do.

SD: What are some of the characteristics that define a better approach to STM in low-income contexts?

BF: The most important thing is to recalibrate expectations for what a missions trip is about. We have to change the narrative for STM both for those who are going and those who are paying for them to go. It can't be, "We are going to save/change the world" or "We are going to go and alleviate poverty" or some variation of these things. The narrative has to become, "We are going to go and learn."

That shift in expectations and in posture is everything. The need to give something to someone, make a difference, change something, etc. can make us anxious. For example, I know of a STM group that loaded up a van full of stuff to go to New Orleans after Katrina. They got their and couldn't find any poor people to give anything to. They were frantic looking for someone so they could justify going.  

Our expectations either cause us to think we have done more good than we actually did or worry that we did not do enough. This is no good for anyone. 

So, we are working to shift the focus to three things: learning, fellowship, and encouragement. You are going to go learn and fellowship with and encourage those who are there for the long haul. We believe these three things are highly valuable. 

This means that one key factor in planning a healthy STM is to be very intentional about learning. Research is showing that STM do not have transformational impact unless they are embedded with deliberate pre and post trip learning that lasts about a year. We are emphasizing that STM are just one part of a longer learning process that prepares people for the experience, guides them through it, and then reflects on it afterwards in healthy ways.

A second characteristic of good STM are ones that really submit to local leadership. We have to discover if they really want us to come. We really have to work to give them the freedom to say no to us, which is tough.

A final one I'd say is that we have to be prepared to engage for the long-term. Individuals that go on a STM have a stewardship responsibility. A lot is invested for them to go as a learner. When they get back, how are they going to steward that? How are they going to be an advocate for those who are on the ground doing the work? What are they going to do to make that investment in them worthwhile?

SD: Your book makes the point in a number of places to be cautious about the language we use expressing concern about words like "missionary." Tell me more about that and other creative language you've found in this regard.

BF: Yeah, this is all a part of how you reset people's expectations. How you talk about STM will have a big part in creating the expectations of both those who go and those who fund the experiences. 

I like the language of "vision" trips or "cross-cultural engagement" trips. So, rather than saying that we are going to go change the world or make a difference, we say that we are going to go and learn about what our brothers and sisters are doing around the world about what God is doing among them. This requires consistent languaging and marketing as we go about the work of reframing STM in the local church. 

SD: I have heard of calling STMs "pilgrimages" so that one would prepare in ways like going on an actual pilgrimage, like on the Camino. There is a lot of physical, financial, logistical, emotional, and spiritual preparation one would do to be ready to submit to something that will change them. No one goes on pilgrimage to fix/do for/save others. With EIRO we talk about "Immersion Experiences" to tell groups that visit us they are not missionaries and this is not their mission field. We tell them they are here to learn from the missionaries already at work here so that they can be better able to be about God's work in their own community.

BF: That's excellent. We need these kinds of changes. My co-author, Steve Corbett, sits with college students that have signed up for a STM and asks them, "Why do you want to go?" They will say, "I want to go and help poor  people." He replies, "You are not going to help poor people in a week." So after he shocks them a bit he says, "But, you know what, going and learning is really wonderful and really important." And many times students will then express concern and discomfort in asking people to put money in the collection plate so that they can go and learn.

I'm not opposed to using offering money for these experiences, but when you reframe the value proposition or the costs and benefits of STM, you start to see things very differently. You become capable of asking new and better - and more challenging - questions about the role of the STM.

SD: What have you seen is the hardest part for people who are making changes to their STM program?

BF: After doing a workshop on this one time, a guy stood up and said, "I just took a new job as a Missions Pastor, and I oversee STM. Everything you have just said undermines my entire job. What should I do?"

That guy's boss has got to change. They all have to embrace a different trajectory for their church and the role STM will play. This has to be done as a part of that larger conversation of the true definition of poverty, of an examination of the church's role in dealing with poverty, and how to change STM program in light of that. The Missions Pastor is in real trouble if changes are attempted outside of this broader conversation.

When the collective leadership of a church can lead the congregation as a whole - top to bottom and across the board - to go in a different direction, change is possible and can work.

SD: How does your Helping Without Hurting in STM help with this process of change?

BF: The book walks leaders through the narrative and process of change. There is a Leader's Guide and a Participant's Guide as well (see below). It shows how this is a discipleship process which leads to doing STM well. There are online videos to help as well. It gets the group prepared on the front end, helps them participate well during the STM, and offers material for processing after the fact. 

SD: I love the phrase in your book "Posture Formation as Discipleship" because I've learned that even a healthier model of STM can be done by people with harmful postures. We know that it is not just the models of STM that are toxic but the postures we carry as we go on them. How would you define the "posture" of someone who can help without hurting in STM?

BF: Someone that understands that they stink.  

It is really understanding the Gospel. I am still personally wrestling all the time with implications from When Helping Hurts that says I am wired for relationships. God is humbling me all the time that my own sin and brokenness is hindering relationships. My brokenness can do and does harm to others. At the end of the day, I just need Jesus to save me from myself. I bring nothing to the table but my filth, and Jesus is loving me and transforming me into him image.

And it is all grace.

On our own we stink. And as God begins to give us a new aroma we often start to think we conjured up this new smell on our own. And this leads to pride. The posture is about reminding ourselves of the gospel every day: remembering that left to our own devises we stink. This can keep us from the pride and superiority that can crush the materially poor when we are with them. 


Posted on December 4, 2014 .