Most negative missions experiences are due to unrealistic expectations. (This, of course, is a wildly unsubstantiated claim based on my limited experience and no formal research whatsoever.) It usually goes something like this:
“Yay, we’re going to be missionaries! We love the nations! God’s glory! Passion! Finish the task”
Then, “It’s okay to be uncomfortable. Different isn’t necessarily bad. We can do this.”
Finally, “I’m just not cut out for missions. The missionaries here aren’t cut out for missions. I’m never leaving home again.”
Expectations are a funny thing. We use them to motivate people to do missions in the first place- “It’ll change your life,” we tell them. “God has something special for you,” we say. Short-termers, career missionaries, volunteers- we set them up for disappointment by telling them missions will be a great experience. Or hard. Or spiritually significant. Or life-altering. But then, for whatever reason, it’s none of those things.
Environmental expectations are a big one. We had volunteers come through Western Europe and complain that it was too, “developed.” Trippers on “extreme teams” in the remote jungles of countries you’ve never heard of come back feeling like failures for not having used their emergency survival kits. “We were hoping to get to go into holy city…” “We weren’t able to make contact with the imam…” “We thought there was going to be greater opposition…”
Nearly every “missionary” has a change in job/role/purpose over the course of service. “Originally, we were going to work in a medical clinic.” “We went over there to do sports camps, but…” “I was supposed to be the strategy coordinator…” This can have a profound effect on a person’s sense of and the value of his/her contribution.
And then there’s the expectation of numbers. Talk to anyone who’s been on a mission trip, and you’re likely to hear, “We didn’t get to see any churches planted” or “We only saw thirteen people come to faith.”
On the one hand, you don’t want people to go on a trip with low expectations (it is God we’re talking about, after all). But even lowering expectations can hurt the experience. We used to tell volunteers that they were unlikely to see professions of faith. Then, when the volunteers did actually see people get saved, they immediately assumed that we, the missionaries, didn’t know what we were doing. “It was easy,” I remember one young lady saying. “I don’t know why your team has to make it so complicated.” She didn’t come back because she wanted to go somewhere where “the soil might be harder.”
On the other hand, expectations tend to be what get people to spend their vacation time prayerwalking in Bangladesh rather than sitting on the beaches of Hawaii. People expect to help. They expect to see that all of this “missions” stuff isn’t just a waste of time. In order to mobilize people, we tell them that they can make a difference. We promise (directly or indirectly) that they can be part of “God’s global mission.” Then, if they don’t “see it,” they’re disillusioned disappointed, and inoculated against missions in the future. These are the people who say, “But there are lost and needy people in my own neighborhood.” They’re the ones who stop sending money to missions agencies and organizations. The ones who don’t believe in “missions.”
For those who might overspiritualize (William Carey, I’m looking at you), saying “expect great things from God,” I’d remind you even “great things” can be an unrealistic expectation. Though our church culture might discourage it, many people return from the mission field lamenting the fact that they didn’t see God do anything “great.” Sure that’s a matter of perspective, but how can we be sure people aren’t discouraged to the point of (however disobediently) abandoning missions altogether for something they see as “making a difference”?
If you’ve been on a mission trip (or if you’ve been a missionary) and had a bad experience, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that you felt like your participation wasn’t valued. I’m sorry that you felt like time and money were misspent. I apologize for missionaries who didn’t have their acts together, treated you like children, or were just generally clueless. I regret that you didn’t get to see whatever it was you were hoping to see. I feel your pain when you had to report back to your church that your time on the field was unproductive. I can relate to those of you who felt called to mission with a vison for churches being planted and lives being changed, but saw little (if any) of that come to pass.
Don’t be discouraged. Don’t let the pragmatists, the acheivers, or the falsely humble tell you that your contribution didn’t matter. Don’t allow those who think they can quantify and engineer “success” label you a failure. If you had a bad experience, go again. Next time might be different. Or, maybe not. Either way, you’re going because we serve a God who goes and commands us to go as well. We go because it’s what we do, who we are.