I am tiring of explaining to short term missions agencies and groups that when they say "we want to serve you" what they mean is "we are coming on our terms, our time schedule, our choice of age (often too young) and spiritual maturity (never a consideration -- evidently ministry in our community is viewed as something anyone can do. . . ). I have spoken to at least one group each week over the past 2 months that want to come and "serve". They have money, they have people, they have time. . . but they haven't a clue about how they come off or about our community.
The average group wants to come and save our neighborhood (they say "serve" but I know better). Yet, they have no intention of long term relationship. They have no cultural understanding of the community. At the first sign of trouble they run out of patience because ministry here isn't "efficient". Meanwhile at home their church is vigorously praying for their safety (and NOT for the community they are coming to save, evidenced by the fact that as soon as the students leave, the prayers and concern stop). They appear to think they are better than the residents of our community. They give the impression they think Jesus shows up with them and leaves with them.
They think they are needed to give and have no clue how to receive, nor that they need anything from Christians in our community. They seem to have no clue how much work it is on our end to host them.
Think about this reverse portrait: how about your group stays home and sends us the money you were going to spend coming here? We'll pack up a van and show up with our kids and serve you! We'll run a program for the kids in your church and tell them about Jesus and assume that they've never heard about him before. We'll just ask that you let us go around your neighborhood drawing kids from random homes, we'll use the name of your church to get kids to come out. We will use cultural expressions of music, language, communications style, social mores and others that are from our neighborhood -- making the assumption that to be effective we'll just do what is natural in our neighborhood. And if you have time to tell us a little bit about the people who live in your community before we serve them, that would be great, but we don't really need to know. . we'll just work off of our (mostly negative, patronizing) assumptions.
The amazing thing to me is this: virtually every missionary I have ever spoken to who is honest about short termers feels this way, but for fear of alienating home churches they don't say it out loud.
Another element of the scandal: many short term missions groups MAKE TONS of MONEY off the groups and don't give that money to the communities they are serving! It's gross.
So can short term missions be effective? Yes. First, find a permanent fixture ministry in a specific community and get to know them. Second ask them if they have the time/capacity to teach you about the community. Third, listen a lot (including reading books, watching movies, eating the food, listening to the music). Fourth, through #3, learn! Fifth, fall in love with the community. Six, enter into along term relationship with the community THROUGH the permanent fixture ministry.
Ask them HOW you can serve and WHEN they could use you. And be patient, if they are any good at what they do it will be difficult for them to get you involved!! Only a process like this will work out a way of being effective in service. It is way too easy to serve badly, self-righteously, ignorantly. Those who remain in the community need you, but you need them too -- especially to minister effectively.
I know this probably sounds a bit tough, but as my pastors says, "It's tight, but its right!"