At Caleb Project we created a program that trained American college students to do ethnographic research among unreached people groups. This was our response to the ineffective tendency of missionaries to enter a certain culture and attempt to “do church” the way they did it back home. By sending teams of young people into a particular city with the assignment to figure out how to live and develop a deep understanding of the people, we were teaching them to be cultural learners and we were gathering information that was useful to thoughtful church planters.
Part of our training strategy was to place the teams in situations where they were uncomfortable and dependent. Their ability to survive in a place depended on their ability to recruit local help. This was in direct contrast to the way traditional missionaries enter culture. The Caleb Project research teams did not bring a lot of American “stuff” with them. They did not have a lot of money. Often, they did not even have a pre-arranged place to live. They went as dependent learners with the job of figuring out how to survive and in the process learn how the local people viewed themselves.
What we discovered was that people like to help other people. When we allow ourselves to be needy, people are delighted to help. With this humble approach, the teams never failed to learn important insights about the culture and usually were able to suggest credible church planting strategies.
Too often the good intentions of wealthy outsiders have unintended consequences among the people they desire to help that result in them doing more harm than good. Especially, when working in cross-cultural contexts it is critical that we assume a humble, learning posture. We must deliberately put aside our assumptions regarding what is best for the people and allow them to express their real and felt needs. Most people are less interested in handouts and more interested in a level playing field. Change that rises from within a community is sustainable. Helping local risk-takers, entrepreneurs, and change agents succeed is often the most effective contribution outsiders can make.