Monday, September 26, 2011

Discipleship, Stewardship and Missions: A Perspective from Haiti

by Rev. Dr. Larry Hovis

At the CBFNC General Assembly in March at FBC Asheville, the mission offering we collected was designated for the newly formed Haiti Housing Network (HHN). CBF is one of the principal partners in this network, which has the ambitious goal of building one thousand homes in the Grand Goave community over the next three years. At the assembly, we asked Dr. Steve Bissette, a family physician and member of Ardmore Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, to issue the challenge and prayer for the offering. Dr. Bissette, husband of CBFNC moderator Donna Bissette, had taken a group of college students to Haiti to perform medical and construction work the previous summer. During his appeal, Dr. Bissette told the large group of worshippers that if they contributed enough money to build a house (then estimated to be $3,000, it has since been revised to $4,000), he would “personally guarantee that Larry Hovis would go on the trip and help build the house!” At the end of that service, in the euphoria of the moment, I upped the ante and challenged the assembly to contribute enough funds to build two houses, and publicly promised that I would, indeed, make the trip.

The trip was scheduled for the following August, right before the students were return to school. It was the hottest time of the year to visit one of the hottest places I’ve ever been. Prior to undertaking this journey, my daughter, Lauren, a college student for whom this was her third mission trip of 2011, encouraged me to read, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself. I found the book to be extremely thought-provoking and it caused me to question, filter and analyze our mission trip (and all mission work) from a whole new perspective.

Our experience included meeting and worshipping with Haitian Baptists, meeting and learning from CBF global missions field personnel and partners, administering basic medical treatment (Dr. Bissette and a portion of our group for half the week), and working alongside Haitians in building a rubble house. Space limitations don’t permit me to describe the fascinating process of rubble house construction, so I encourage you to visit the following website for more information: I emerged from this week hot, tired, and sore, but also spiritually renewed. After processing this experience, I’ve drawn three conclusions and want to issue a challenge.

CBF is Doing Missions Right

While the situation in Haiti is very discouraging in many ways, including the dysfunctional government and the ineffectiveness of much of the relief effort there, CBF and our primary partner, Conscience International, are functioning with good missiology and a wholistic, sustainable, Christ-centered approach. The field personnel whom we encountered (Mike and Brenda Harwood and Jenny Jenkins) are dedicated, smart individuals who would pass the muster of When Helping Hurts. Our CBF efforts are done with the Haitians, not for them, empowering them ultimately to provide for themselves, rather than perpetuating a culture of dependency.

Benefits of Short-term Mission Engagement

While our team, no doubt, rendered some genuine service to the Haitians we encountered, we were the primary beneficiaries of our trip. As we traveled together, experienced a new culture, prayed together, met and worshipped with Christian brothers and sisters who are materially poor but spiritually rich, and interacted with our CBF missions field personnel who have sacrificed greatly to live and serve in a hard place, our faith was challenged, strengthened and renewed. If we are honest, then we have to admit that in terms of impact, it was more of a discipleship development experience for our group of American Christians than direct ministry to needy Haitians.

Field Personnel More Important, Not Less

It’s been customary, after thirty years of the short-term volunteer missions movement, to pat ourselves on the back for taking a week or two of our lives every year for a mission trip, and call ourselves missionaries. Some Christians and churches have questioned the need for vocational, field-based, full-time missionaries, and their support of such personnel has declined as they devote more and more resources to supporting their members in short-term projects and trips. But I came back from Haiti more convinced than ever of the necessity of “professional” missionaries. Mike, Brenda, Jenny and others built the relationships and prepared the way for us to have a meaningful experience. They remain in place long after we are gone. They get to know the people and the culture and ensure that our brief work is done in a way that helps rather than hurts those we purport to serve. Ironically, the more volunteers we send on short-term mission trips, the more vital our field personnel become.

A Modest (or is it Radical?) Proposal

Because God’s mission to the most neglected and least evangelized people in the world along with the discipleship development of short-term missions volunteers is dependent on the presence, effectiveness and faithfulness of vocational missions field personnel, I propose that CBF Christians and churches make the following pledge: for every dollar we spend to send a team on a short-term mission trip we raise another dollar for the support of the field personnel with whom they work and their colleagues around the globe. For example, I estimate that the Ardmore group spent around $15,000 to send eleven persons to Haiti, not including the $6,000 CBFNC gave to the Haiti Housing Network. This money came from a combination of church funds and the personal funds of team members. Under this proposal, we would raise an additional $15,000 to support our CBF field personnel. If every CBF short-term mission team followed this practice, we would be able to increase the number of our career missionaries and significantly strengthen our mission efforts around the globe.

There was a time in which we outsourced mission engagement to professionals and assumed ordinary Christians had no responsibility for global missions, other than supporting vocational missionaries. Thankfully, that’s no longer the case. But has the pendulum swung too far in the other direction? In our time, have we assumed (by our stewardship, if not our words), that because we can travel all over the world we no longer need vocational missionaries? It’s not either/or, but both/and. Our recent trip to Haiti made that very clear – at least to me.

Larry Hovis is the Executive Coordinator of CBF of North Carolina.

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