Mission Trips vs. Strategic Visits: Nathan Nelson on Transformational International Partnerships for Your Church

Welcome back to the unSeminary podcast. We’re talking with Nathan Nelson, Pastor of Mission and Outreach at Bethany Community Church in the Seattle, Washington region.

Do you ever feel like short-term missions trips actually push against creating deep, lasting change in the communities you serve? Tune in as Nathan shares how to move beyond the trip itself to building lasting relationships with partnerships to make a meaningful, long-term impact.

  • Long-term partnerships. // Rather than engaging in short-term missions trips, Bethany Community Church has chosen to invest in three global strategic partnerships: Agros International in Nicaragua, Roblealto Child Care Association in Costa Rica, and World Relief in Rwanda. These partnerships are rooted in the principals of long term relationships, indigenous leadership, and mutual transformation.
  • Ineffective short-term missions trips. // When considering short-term missions, we have to recognize that they are for a limited amount of time. Often the focus is on the experience rather than the relationships built with a partner organization, so the trip alone doesn’t make much difference. But with the right approach, these trips can be transformative for both the volunteers and the communities they serve.
  • More harm than good. // Nathan shares his experience working with an orphanage at the US-Mexico border where despite well-intentioned support from various church teams over the years, the orphanage’s conditions were decrepit, and there were multiple attempts by children to escape. These children felt trapped and were not prepared for life outside the orphanage. 20% of churches around the United States support some amount of work happening in an orphanage or residential care facility. However, these systems are often broken and short-term missions trips do more harm than good toward these vulnerable children.
  • Family-based care. // God’s design was for children to grow up in the context of the family. Seeking to develop long-term partnerships with organizations that focus on a family-based care model with a goal to reconnect vulnerable children with biological family members have led to beautiful transformations. This requires churches to shift away from the mindset of supporting orphanages and towards empowering families to care for their children. Churches need to be part of God’s work in providing support to families, whether it’s in Rwanda, Seattle, or any other community.
  • Tool kit from Faith to Action. // If your church is ready to find a long-term partnership helping vulnerable children, the Faith to Action Initiative has great resources to help you find organizations that are embodying these best practices. They also offer a tool kit called Short-Term Missions: Guidance to Support Orphans and Vulnerable Children that instructs how to shape a short-term mission trip so that it is effectively doing good.
  • Strategic visits. // Bethany offers strategic visits which are intended to build a long-term relationship with a partner. During these visits, the partner is the one doing the work on the ground and the volunteers offer encouragement and support the ongoing work of the partner organization. Trips range from 7 to 12 days with teams of 5-12 people annually. Teams spend 3-6 months training before they leave to help set their hearts and minds around the core objectives, the most important being to encourage the staff of the partner organization. After they return, the team has a follow-up meeting once a month for six months. The end goal is to summarize what they experienced into a core discipleship theme and communicate the work that God is doing in the partner organization to the rest of the church.

You can learn more about Bethany Community Church at www.churchbcc.org. Plus download the PDF Short-Term Missions: Guidance to Support Orphans and Vulnerable Children from the Faith to Action Initiative and pick up the book, Reimagining Short-Term Missions, here.

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Episode Transcript

Rich Birch — Well hey, friends, welcome to the unSeminary podcast. So glad that you have decided to tune in. I’m really looking forward to today’s conversation. I think this will be one of those ones that’ll be challenging. I know it’s a heart place for so many of us who have served in the church for a long time, but I’m really looking forward to leaning in. I’m going to ask you to lean in on today’s conversation. We’re privileged to have Nathan Nelson with us. He is the Pastor of Mission and Outreach with a fantastic church in Washington called Bethany Christian Church. They’ve got 6 campuses, if I can count correctly, from ah the Seattle region. I love talking to church leaders in parts of the country like Seattle where like, frankly, people lots of people don’t wake up in the morning and say, hey I should go to church today. And we’ve got a lot we can learn from you today, Nathan. So glad that you’re here; welcome to the show.

Nathan Nelson — Thanks so much for having me. It’s a privilege.

Rich Birch — Ah yeah, I’m honored that you would take some time to be with us. Why don’t we start with you kind of telling us a little bit about the church. Kind of fill in the picture there. Help us understand about the church, and then tell us about your role there at Bethany.

Nathan Nelson — Yeah, Bethany Community Church is a 6 location church, at the present moment, here in Seattle, Washington. We have a history of over 100 years in the city. Bethany began as a mission if you will to the indigenous people of Seattle way way back when in a slightly different neighborhood than the one we find ourselves in now. Um, we’ll be talking about mission today so we can assume that some of what was done and some of what wasn’t was not necessarily the best back in those days.

Rich Birch — Sure.

Nathan Nelson — We’ve been reconciling our roots a bit.Um, but fast forward to the present day. Um under the leadership of our former senior pastor, Richard Dahlstrom, the church grew rapidly. And so going from about 200, 300 people to over a couple thousand in just a few years. And so in that time we had a space issue. Ah, and that presented missional opportunity where we said rather than having satellite campuses that would stream one person, one personality, we planted local contextual relational ministry sites, we call them, from the various places that people were commuting in from.

Nathan Nelson — So in our 6 different neighborhoods where we now have locations ranging in size from 50 to 1500, we really seek to be ah the presence of Christ in the neighborhood. And that presents real opportunities for us missionally at a local level, but then over the course of time we’ve developed a pretty robust global mission program. And so that’s where I am privileged to serve.

Nathan Nelson — I oversee all that we do missionally in the church both globally and locally. And have an army of laypeople and other staff that help make the magic happen as well. But um, yeah, we have three global partnerships in different parts of the world um, that range from about 8 to 15 years that we’ve been serving together…

Rich Birch — Wow, that’s great.

Nathan Nelson — …in these different places. And um I’ll talk more about that but a value of ours is this long-term partnership. So I started as a layperson who was in the pews, inspired by the teaching of the church. I went on to become an intern and for my predecessor. And after a season away serving in another capacity, I came back and I’ve been on staff now as the Pastor of Mission and Outreach for about 7 years.

Rich Birch — Very cool. Well we’re going to talk primarily – there’s a lot we could unpack there and there’s like you know there’s a lot even and maybe we’ll have you on in the future to talk about local mission at some point. But today we want to kind of focus the conversation particularly on global, although there’s there’s lots of principles we can apply locally as well. Why don’t you talk to us about ah those partnerships. What do they what do they look like? Kind of how does the what is the framework of those? How does those how does the relationship work with those organizations? Talk us through what that looks like.

Nathan Nelson — Yeah, absolutely. So like many churches, Bethany has ah a history I would say about twenty years ago we did an a self-evaluation, and my predecessor did a lot of the hard work here who now serves that Faith to Action, an organization that we’ll be talking more about today. Um, but Ellie Oswald is her name and she ah took an evaluation. The church and said where is all this money where is all this funding going? And we discovered there was everything from $50 to $5000 um going to different people, organizations, missionaries serving in all different places around the world. If you wrote a letter to the church and asked for money you probably got it at some point. But there was no sort of ongoing relationship of any kind.

Rich Birch — Oh interesting.

Nathan Nelson — And so there was a huge sort of cleaning house process where we had to say, okay, God, what is it that you would uniquely do through Bethany in a strategic sense for the really deep lasting change of communities around the world? And so ah, our partnerships began um, with an initiative that in Uganda that was amazing um, through Living Water. That partnership has come and gone. And now we have these three: one with Agros International in Nicaragua, another one with Roblealto Child Care Association in Costa Rica, and then a third one, World Relief in Rwanda.

Nathan Nelson — And these partnerships are rooted in this principle of long-term relationship. That we lean into the partner organization to be the expert on the ground. It’s of the utmost importance that that organization is led by indigenous people to that region. Um, it’s also super important to us that the shared value above all is mutual transformation. So we’re looking for a long-term relationship with lasting change in the community that has an impact, not only for the community that the organization serves in that we support, but also for our community back home. And so we send teams. We do short-term mission ah like many churches around the world. But it’s our ah, highest value that those trips are simply a means by which we can continue to grow this mutually transformative relationship internationally.

Nathan Nelson — So the way that we do our trips is probably very different than many others around the ah country. And that’s in part because we really seek to take this approach of standing in the back. We want to go and see what God is doing. We want to participate and use our gifts as well in in what Christ is doing in that place. But we really seek to take a posture as learners and enable the local people to show us what God has been up to…

Rich Birch — So good.

Nathan Nelson — …and will continue to be up to in that place. Yeah, so we call all of our our goers and returners ambassadors. They’re ambassadors of Bethany Community Church when they go visit our partners internationally. And then they’re ambassadors to that partnership when they return. And so they spend six months in preparation and six months um following up intentionally as a group before and after their trip um, integrating those themes into their life and communicating them to the rest of the church about what God is doing in that place.

Rich Birch — I love this. Well, there’s a lot there to unpack, which is good. This is why you’ll see, friends, why we’ve we’re honored to have Nathan with us on today’s podcast. You know, one of the things you said you talked about deep lasting change and that ultimately that is what you’re attempting, you know these partners that you’re you’re working with, that’s what you’re driving for. But you know my experience has been, and let me be the devil’s advocates, probably the wrong word to say on this podcast but the, you know, person may be providing a bit of pushback. My experience is sometimes this idea of short-term teams can really push against deep lasting change. It’s almost like the framework, the the method pushes against what we’re trying to do. Am I wrong on that? Pull that apart for me; help me understand, you know, why is that? Why what’s what’s some of the problems that we might have traditionally with this kind of short term missions approach?

Nathan Nelson — Well you named it. A short-term trip with long-term lasting change.

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Nathan Nelson — That’s a bit of an oxymoron in and of itself, right?

Rich Birch — Yes, yes.

Nathan Nelson — Absolutely, absolutely it is. You know, I think one of the things about short-term missions that we have to recognize is that it’s short. It’s for a specific term of time. And we put this word missions on it. That’s a huge word. To me, mission…

Rich Birch — Yeah, it’s a loaded term, right? Yeah.

Nathan Nelson — Yes, mission in the church means participating with what Christ is doing to redeem all of the world. So we have a short-term trip with that notion in mind, and generally speaking as churches, we kind of entrust the youth pastor, or maybe even a layperson who spent some time abroad with the task of leading a group of volunteers to go and do this thing in another place. And I know this is the unSeminary podcast. I’ve served, before my time at Bethany, at a short-term mission organization for years, came to Bethany… I’ve been doing short-term mission trips since I was sixteen years old. And ah I can tell you not one class I took in seminary talked about the logistics…

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Nathan Nelson — …behind how to do a mission trip effectively.

Rich Birch — Sure, sure.

Nathan Nelson — Not only that, ah you know we we want to believe that these trips matter. But if we look at the trip alone—I hate to say this; I don’t want to burst people’s, you know, bubble here—but they don’t matter.

Rich Birch — Oh wow. Yeah.

Nathan Nelson — A trip in and of itself, if only done for the sake of a mission trip, will do far more harm than good. This is why at Bethany it’s so important that any short-term mission trip that we do is done in the context of long-term relationship with a with a partner.

Rich Birch — Right. Absolutely.

Nathan Nelson — The partner is the one who’s doing the work on the ground. A trip has an opportunity to come in and do something unique, do something special that leverages, contributes to the work of that partner ongoing. But it’s not the work in and of itself.

Rich Birch — Oh that’s good.

Nathan Nelson — It is not a work in and of itself. So we really have to um, if if rooted in a long-term partner, all of a sudden now I’m willing to talk about short-term mission um, um, being about the mission of God right? I really I really think that that can happen. But it has to be in the context of a long-term partnership. And it has to be done in such a way that we are envisioning the limits of what a short-term trip can do, um, being honest about that, and that our training and our activities for the time that we’re in the ground and our debrief is all built around helping the people that participate in the trip have lasting change that impacts their lives ongoing. So what we’ve seen is that people actually are better as a result of their time going on one of these trips, but it doesn’t happen by accident.

Rich Birch — Um, let’s we’re gonna we’re gonna get there. I really do want to unpack, Okay, what you’re doing that’s different. But let’s just take a pause a bit longer there. Ah you know, I think sometimes one of the criticisms of experiences like this is it can feel like subsidized adventure travel. It’s like we go to people and we say, hey, can you give us money because I’d like to go somewhere that normally you don’t go. This isn’t Orlando; this is not New York city – it’s some exotic location. And then we kind of baptize it in this kind of Christian-y thing. And and I think, you know, and there’s it’s… obviously I’m I’m using loaded language there. Obviously I think that’s bad. But you put an even more finer point on it. You said, man, that could actually do more harm than good. Give me some examples of what that looks like. Because, man, I don’t think anybody that even if even if they just see it at that level of like, hey, I want to have this kind of fun experience. They’re they’re probably not processing it at the level of, man, I might actually be doing damage in the community I’m I’m going to. Talk me through what some of that harm can can look like if not done well.

Nathan Nelson — Yeah, absolutely. I want to give two quick examples. And then ah but I want to preface it by saying, as a church one of the things that we’ve been mindful of especially in our global work is that anything that you’re doing internationally as a church often is in the space of what the industry calls orphans and vulnerable children.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Nelson — You are working with kids who are very, very vulnerable in their lives, and often are put in situations where if a team comes for a short period of time, we can unintentionally perpetuate the vulnerability of these children. And so I’ll give you two examples. One, um back when I worked in a short-term mission organization I spent ah several weeks receiving mission teams at the border of the United States and Mexico. There was an orphanage there which we would call a “residential care facility”. And so kids were living on site here. There was a small school on site. Most of their life took place on the grounds of this orphanage. I can tell you that the buildings were decrepit. There were tarantulas crawling all over us at night as we’re sleeping in this place. Um, it’s out in the desert. It’s remote. It’s disconnected from the rest of society. And there was a group of young men who’d grown up there.

Nathan Nelson — And in the time that I was there—this was maybe a month receiving 3 or 4 different teams, um, all well intentioned, all supporting this orphanage for many many years. Um some of the people from these churches had gone and they were working as teachers in the school and that kind of thing over the years. These churches are telling their congregations that this is what God called them to do and that God is doing great work here for decades. I know it. I’m sure of it. And it’s and I don’t mean to shame them,

Rich Birch — No.

Nathan Nelson — The reality on the ground is this: there were three separate attempts in just the month that I was there of kids trying to escape the orphanage.

Rich Birch — Wow. Wow.

Nathan Nelson — Kids come back their tail tucked between their legs. I had no I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I didn’t know how to exist outside of here. I don’t know how to survive for myself. Ah, kids were not prepared for the real world. And what they were a part of wasn’t working.

Rich Birch — Okay.

Nathan Nelson — They didn’t want to be there.

Rich Birch — Right, right.

Nathan Nelson — They wanted to escape this place.

Rich Birch — Trapped. Yeah, yeah.

Nathan Nelson — They felt trapped but they did They couldn’t exist outside of it. Heartbreaking situation.

Rich Birch — Heartbreaking. Yep. Absolutely.

Nathan Nelson — I witnessed that at a young age. I was maybe 19 at the time. I said there’s got to be a better way.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Nelson — There has to be that way.

Rich Birch — Yes, yes.

Nathan Nelson — So I want to contrast that with another ah story. I ah one of the organizations we partner with as a church is Roblealto in a Child Care Association in Costa Rica. They’re based in San Jose, the capital city. And Roblealto has been around for over eighty years. And they do what I would consider some of the best work in the care for orphans and vulnerable children.

Nathan Nelson — They have a residential care facility. Um, very very different than the one that I just described.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Nelson — But it is it is only used in the most extreme cases where it is no longer safe for a child to be present in their home and they have to be removed. But they will only admit children in those contexts if the families are willing to commit to the work that it’s going to take to get them back on track. And then they seek to reconcile the family. That that they call that the Bible Home. Um, the Bible Home for Roblealto boasts over a 95% reintegration rate…

Rich Birch — Wow, That’s amazing.

Nathan Nelson — …of children to their biological families. There is no other organization in the world that’s even close.

Rich Birch — Right. Wow.

Nathan Nelson — It’s really really amazing the work that they do in the… And at the end of the day, it’s not rocket science. It is a sold out commitment to the reality that kids grow up better in the context of a family. And they believe the best people for these children are actually their biological family members. It’s an absolute crazy statistic but 80% of children who are in residential care facilities have a biological parent who’s still living. It’s a matter of of belief that that person can be restored. That that person or people can indeed take up their God given calling to care for the child that is their own.

Nathan Nelson — And so the rest of Roblealto is so convicted about this that they have a series of what they call child care centers. And the child care centers um, one of which we’ve supported from the beginning for about a decade now, um are designed as before- and after-school programs that have an interdisciplinary team of child psychologists, social workers and the like…

Rich Birch — Wow.

Nathan Nelson — …who work with the child and with the family who are at the point of kind of breaking, where the typical family would say you know what I’m going to just drop my kid off at an orphanage because they’re probably better there. Um, instead Roblealto intervenes and they say mom, dad, you can go to work. We’ll take care of him before and after school. In Costa Rica, like many other countries around the world, there’s not the capacity to have kids in school all day. So kids go to school half the day and then they’re left in the streets to wander and get into all kinds of trouble the rest of the day if mom or dad goes to work. Or, mom or dad doesn’t go to work…

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Nelson — …because they don’t know how to care for their kid otherwise.

Rich Birch — Right, right.

Nathan Nelson — And so they’re breaking cycles of economic poverty of relational poverty all with this model of of taking care of kids and and intentionally investing in families to help them get on track, to help them get jobs and the things they need to do. And these families are proven to stay together.

Rich Birch — That’s amazing.

Nathan Nelson — So we can talk in a moment about what it looks like for us as a church who supports to send a team, a short-term team. But I introduced that model to say while it’s this… the churches back home are playing videos on Sunday to highlight the work that’s happening. If you’re just sort of a commoner and you’re watching this thing, there’s a way you can tell the first story I told, and the second story, and people will go, job well done. We’re doing it.

Rich Birch — Right, right, right.

Nathan Nelson — We cannot do that. We have to tell the truth about what’s happening.

Rich Birch — Yes. Yeah, well there’s, yeah again, so much there, you know, there’s an unseemly part of particularly the short term experience that, you know, when it comes to orphans, vulnerable children, um, you know it can it can feel like, particularly like in an Instagram world, it can feel like a very strange like why are you really here? Like are you here just to take pictures with kids that don’t look like you? You know as opposed to try to make a difference? So how does a church… So, you know, listen you’ve done a very good job clarifying for us, Okay there’s some real issues here. How do we as church leaders really even think about long-term partnership? How do we how do we investigate or do, you know you know, there’s a lot here. How do we unpack this? What would be some of the initial steps that we would try to figure out best practices. Maybe let’s stay in the kind of orphaned, vulnerable children’s sector. Let’s kind of talk about that. There’s obviously lots of different types of organizations internationally, but let’s kind of keep there. How would we think about that; what does that look like?

Nathan Nelson — Yeah, wonderful question. So Faith to Action, whom I mentioned earlier, has really great resources to help you identify organizations that are embodying these best practices. They have a whole list of organizations that they would recommend to you. In addition to that ah, they have toolkits for how to shape a trip, a short-term mission trip that is doing more good and mitigating a lot of the harm that I’ve sort of alluded to that can happen through trips like this to contexts where there are orphans and vulnerable children being taken care of. So um, that I commend to you all as resources.

Nathan Nelson — But I’ll say for my personal experience um, the reality is there’s about 20% of churches around the United States support some amount of work happening in a residential care facility. And residential care facility, ie. orphanage, is what I would like to um, just kind of say hard stop. Not the ideal. It’s not God’s design. God’s design was for kids to grow up in the context of the family. And so the work that we desire to move ever more towards is to shift that 20% of support towards family-based care solutions that are really seeking to empower the family to be all that it can be for God-given God’s given call to raise and nourish a child to become all that God created that child to become. And so with that in mind, for us World Relief in Rwanda, Roblealto in Costa Rica, are two organizations that work directly with orphans and vulnerable children. However, their approach is very different. I’ve talked about Roblealto.

Nathan Nelson — Ah, one of the things that World Relief has done and we’ve done this in partnership together, actually, is we identified some of the work that was happening on the ground at the time we started was more in support of residential care facilities. And so um, they adapted a curriculum from World Vision ah called ah, Channels of Hope Child Protection. And that curriculum has become integrated as the standard for what they do across all of their work internationally now. And that is all about ah empowering family-based care.

Nathan Nelson — And so I can tell you a quick anecdote from our time in Rwanda the way that this looks. It’s very different than in Costa Rica um but equally is is impactful. There’s a young girl that we met who was a child growing up with AIDS and had been ostracized by the community and so the channels of hope child protection curriculum um, that was implemented seeks to empower local church members in their community to imagine who are the who are those ostracized children? And it’s your responsibility to take them in. And so that shift alone in a cultural context in which AIDS would put someone like a leper on the outside actually go, No, we’re called to go and seek that person out and to bring them in.

Nathan Nelson — So we met this girl in a home. She had a relative—I believe it was her aunt—who who knew of her and she said, Okay, I can be that biological family caregiver for this child. And so she took her in she gave her responsibility. She was raised – the girl was raising chickens at the time, and she said I contribute to my family because I have my chickens and they lay eggs and my family sells the eggs and they’re better because of it. And so this child went from literally not attending school…

Rich Birch — Wow.

Nathan Nelson — …was ah, found in the ditch um to now a child who has a role in a family that loves her. And she’s going to school. And you know has the support that she needs to overcome these insurmountable hurdles in her life.

Rich Birch — Incredible.

Nathan Nelson — So I share that with you to say that’s just another example of this mindset shift that we need its churches internationally to shift our mindset from, Okay I can get my head around an orphanage, right?

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Nathan Nelson — We give money, people… hundreds of kids come. They’re being fed. They’re being taken care of. And those are the statistics we report back home. To shift that mindset and go, Okay, it’s way messier, way more complicated. Not exactly sure how to tell the story ah here. But that’s equipping and empowering families to go and reclaim their God-given role to care for the children in their lives. And and you can share stories like the one that I just shared with you in Rwanda. It’s a beautiful story, but we have to have that mindset shift.

Nathan Nelson — It’s also true that in communities around the world, even at home, believe me at home here in Seattle we have a homelessness crisis that’s just exploding. And you have so many kids who are orphaned, who are vulnerable. And so many parents who are sitting around who would want nothing more than to be able to care for their child. But they’ve been disenfranchised and they don’t have people believing in them that they can do it. And so we need to, as churches, be a part of what I believe is God’s work in the world, whether it’s in Rwanda, in Seattle or whatever you call home, to shift a mindset both on our own behalf and on behalf of the disenfranchised parents we’re talking about that they can care for their kids

Rich Birch — Um, love it. Yeah so good.

Nathan Nelson — And invest in that.

Rich Birch — Yeah, that’s so good. I love the the focus on family-based care. I think is is critical. I think that’s, you know, you’ve helped us understand that. Let’s loop back to when you talk about then how does… so um, this is probably the prob… or one of the problems with orphanage-based or residential-based care is it’s like easy to get your head around how do we… or it’s easier to get your head around how do how could a short-term experience fit into that? You know how can we… we can feed kids we can do things we can fix walls that are broken. We can paint buildings – all that kind of stuff. Um, So what does a kind of short-term experience look, you know, what does… I liked your language around standing in the back, trying to find mutual transformational experiences. Pull that apart. Help us understand what does that look like for you at Bethany?

Nathan Nelson — Yeah, would love to. It’s been a journey, my friends, let me tell you.

Rich Birch — Love it.

Nathan Nelson — But I’m super super proud of the work that we’ve been able to do. And I will say everything I’m about to say is not ah, something I personally claim. It’s not something that I think our church can claim. It has been a collaborative effort between other churches like us who’ve been asking the questions we’re asking today.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Nelson — It’s been a collaborative work with our partner organizations for sure. Um, but we’ve landed on ah what we call strategic visits to our global partners. We’ve intentionally rebranded short-term missions for this purpose. In part we want to be honest and clear about what it is. Short-term mission trip is loaded language. People come with so much baggage around and expectations honestly about what that should or shouldn’t be. So we say our trips are strategic. We go for a reason. It’s a visit. We are going to be there for a little bit and then we’re going to leave. It is a visit.

Rich Birch — Right. Yes, love it. Love it.

Nathan Nelson — And then to our global partners. So we center our partnership in the name that we use, right?

Rich Birch — So good.

Nathan Nelson — So strategic visits to our global partner. All of our trips like most short-term mission trips range from about a week to ten, twelve days.

Rich Birch — Okay.

Nathan Nelson — Um, all of our teams are much smaller. We’re not sending 50 people to the border to you know, paint a house or build something in four days or whatever. We send teams of 5 to 12 people um, annually to our global partners. We’ve found that less is more. Um, this is the right number of people to accomplish the goals that we have. Um otherwise it’s very easy, especially as foreigners, to be an elephant in the China shop. Um, and it’s hard to be learners, to be present in a community, to really um see what God is doing if you’re walking around like an elephant in a China shop. So 5 to 12 people’s been good.

Nathan Nelson — Um, and in the time that we well I should preface by saying we spend about um, 3 to 6 months ah on the front end training our teams preparing them. We use books like When Helping Hurts. I’ve also contributed to a book called Reimagining Short-Term Missions. We use that in our time together. And really what this is about is setting our our hearts and our minds around our core objectives for the trip. And our core objectives, chief among them is to support and encourage the staff of the organization and the ongoing work that they’re doing. Um one of our objectives as well is to leverage the unique gifts and assets of our teams—and this is important—in alignment with the ongoing work of the organization. So I can give some illustrations of how this this may fit.

Rich Birch — Yeah, yeah.

Nathan Nelson — But um and then and then we spend our time in country and then we spend six months meeting once a month after our return.

Rich Birch — Wow.

Nathan Nelson — There’s a couple key events that we do as a church um, that the teams are integral in communicating—I mentioned this notion of ambassadors—about communicating the work that God is doing in Rwanda or in Costa Rica um to the rest of the church. And we asked them to boil that down and say, why does this matter to everyone in the body at Bethany who will never go to this place? Why does it matter? And so they they distill their experience into a kind of a core discipleship theme, and we allow the global church—Rwanda, the church in Costa Rica—to to be our teacher as a whole church and receive this core message, this core theme. And and we frame a church service around it.

Rich Birch — Hmm, that’s cool.

Nathan Nelson — So that’s some of what they do when they return. But our time in country… So you know, ah let me use Rwanda as an example.

Rich Birch — Okay.

Nathan Nelson — When we when we go on our strategic visit to world relief in Rwanda, we are going to do a lot of time spent in the field, we call it. So what we support are church empowerment zones. A church apartment zone essentially is a geographic region in which local churches have been identified and are committed to um, learning from World Relief for how they can impact their local community.

Nathan Nelson — So for World Relief, the local church is literally the means by which community development happens. They are not… they’re a very small staffed organization. They have just enough people on the ground to train pastors and their laity to be the ones who do the work. So they have a holistic approach to development that includes everything from agriculture to orphans and vulnerable children. Ah you know and the whole swath – sanitation, all of those things. But it’s the laity and pastors who are trained to do the work themselves.

Nathan Nelson — So so churches get united around this purpose. Churches who, if you know the story of Rwanda, were literally killing each other in 1994 and the genocide. And now they’re rebuilding their communities together. It’s beautiful. So when we go, we get to bear witness to that. Um and the United States, I don’t know about you, but um, we have something to learn maybe about unity.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Nelson — Ah the idea of churches actually working together is pretty radical.

Rich Birch — Yep.

Nathan Nelson — And so um, one of the things that we do is is we sort of imagine our teams when they go into the field—um, the region that we partner in is called Musanze—is we get to go and witness all the different programs that World Relief is doing through these local churches. So they have savings groups. We’ll go and we’ll sit and will watch. We’ll participate and we come as Bethany Community Church – the church that supports World Relief that’s supporting you and the work that you’re doing. And we tell that to everybody that we meet. And as soon as we build those bridges they go, Okay, you’re from a church too. You’re supporting this work here. We actually know about you. Because World Relief is very honoring to the people who who donate and and are supporting their work.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Nelson — And we get to hear stories. How has this work impacted you. What was the challenges? What’s the success stories of what’s happening now? We pray together, we celebrate what God is doing. And our teams are sort of taking notes. They’re taking photos. They’re doing video. These different things to sort of capture the stories as they go. Um.

Rich Birch — Love it.

Nathan Nelson — So we do a lot of that with the different programs with the orphans and vulnerable children programming they have on the ground. And there’s some like after school groups of children that meet together. They learn songs that are about sanitation or, you know, how to prevent malaria and that Jesus loves you, and they’re all sort of mixed and integrated together, and they learn these songs and they’re practical and they’re theological and they’re good. And you know so when we go into it in a context like that, our goal is not to go and you know say okay hey we brought a VBS!

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Nelson — We’re going to put it on. It’s going to be awesome.

Rich Birch — Right.

Nathan Nelson — We go and we say, we stand in the back and we say, you know, hey we we support this work. We’re so happy to be here. Thank you for welcoming us. We just would love to meet you and hear a little bit from you and just see kind of how you guys do this thing that you do. And so the kids, they get to tell stories. The staff, they get to be encouraged because because we’re sitting there saying, man, amazing! You guys do this every day of the week; are you kidding me? That’s awesome!

Rich Birch — Yeah, so good. So good.

Nathan Nelson — You know? And we pray together. So it’s that, and and what we’re not doing is picking up a kid and asking someone to take my photo with them, right? Um, yeah, one…

Rich Birch — That’s so good.

Nathan Nelson — …one ah last little piece I’ll mention about that…

Rich Birch — Sure.

Nathan Nelson — …is in in terms of of of leveraging the unique gifts and assets of teams, one of the things with World Relief that we noticed is over about the course of I would say the first seven years that we were partnering together, um doing trips like how I just described, World Relief eventually said—and their staff in Rwanda is all Rwandese—they said, hey, the way that you guys do trips is so different and we really appreciate it. Our staff’s feedback is actually they can’t wait until Bethany comes.

Nathan Nelson — Conversely, there’s a lot of churches that go on mission trips, and I hate to tell you, friends, the organization that you’re going through, they’re not looking forward to you being there.

Rich Birch — Yeah, they’re wincing. Oh no.

Nathan Nelson — [inaudible] work. It’s stressful.

Rich Birch — Yeah, yeah.

Nathan Nelson — They have to mitigate some of the harm that’s happened after you leave. So for World Relief to say so it was super encouraging. And what they said is hey why don’t you guys, your focus has been on our staff. We have a staff retreat every year. Would you want to come and participate?

Rich Birch — That’s cool.

Nathan Nelson — That has become a staple of what we do in our trips every year since.

Rich Birch — That’s so cool.

Nathan Nelson — It’s become so popular that other churches who are supporting them in other regions say, hey we want to do that too. So I’ve been able to train and equip other churches like Bethany to go and get to be a part of this staff retreat experience. And in that time is where you really are building that mutually transformative relationship in a deeper way with the same people year in and year out who are exhausted, and called, and passionate about the work that they do. And man, those friendships and relationships, relationship is core but you’re not going to build that kind of relationship in in an hour…

Rich Birch — Right, right.

Nathan Nelson — …or in a day with a vulnerable kid. Right? That’s not the point. And so that does matter. But it’s right sizing our expectations, putting it in the correct context, and that enables us then um to have had these experiences, which they’ve changed my life. They’ve changed – I know it’s been a huge impact. So anyway I commend that to you all as just a little bit of ah anecdote towards that idea of what it would look like to stand in the back to support and encourage staff of the organization and the ongoing work they are doing on the ground in the context of a long-term partnership.

Rich Birch — So good. This has been great. Um, you’ve actually shared with us, which we’re going to link to in our show notes, a ah resource from Faith to Action Initiative called “Short-Term Missions: Guidance to Support Orphans and Vulnerable Children”. I know there are folks that are listening in that are like, gosh we are we’re scratching the surface here. We’re just…this will let you kind of help you take the next step. Talk to us about this resource. What is it? Who would it be good for? I feel like this is the kind of thing that could be hey this would be a good resource to kind of share with our leadership team. Hey let’s talk about this together. Let’s think about what we’re doing on this front. To me one of the things that stood out today from today’s conversation was this idea that 20% of US churches support residential, you know, kids care. That’s 70,000 churches that are potentially funding something that’s harmful for kids, and man, we want to think differently about that. And so help us understand this PDF – how can it help us? Give us a sense of that.

Nathan Nelson — Yeah, you know, this this PDF just seeks to consolidate what is a huge breadth of work…

Rich Birch — Yep.

Nathan Nelson — …around both giving people resources on the frontend, and a toolkit who might say, man, we’ve been supporting a certain kind of care for a long time and we’re interested in at least exploring what it would look like to transition um to something more sustainable. And so with that what I would love to do is commend to you, yes, this PDF and really the organization Faith to Action. They will consult with you as a church. They’ll consult with you as an organization if you want to transition towards supporting family-based care.

Rich Birch — Right, right.

Nathan Nelson — Um, and I will tell you, offer myself as a resource. in the short-term mission world. You know the work that we support at Bethany is both with orphans and vulnerable children, and really a whole swath of other Christian community development practices. And with that I mentioned the book that I contributed to Reimagining Short-Term Missions. It’s really in alignment with other books like Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts. And what we’re seeking to do is in the space of [inaudible] orphans and vulnerable children where the stakes are so high, and so so many others that we support in our international kind of mission work as faith-based institutions is bring short-term mission, redeem the opportunity that it can in fact, be hugely transformative. Hugely transformative. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater so to speak.

Rich Birch — Right, right.

Nathan Nelson — But we need to do it totally differently. And so that’s the point of the book Reimagining Short-Term Missions. Can we reimagine this in such a way that it is nothing less than a tool ah by the Lord to further his kingdom work in the world. May it be so.

Rich Birch — Love it. Yeah, that’s amazing. Great. I love the vision you’ve pitched for us today. You’ve really helped us think about this differently. I really really appreciate that. we’ll link to the book as well in our show notes, friends, so you can just scroll down on your phone there and click on that and pick up 10 copies and read it with your team this ah, this fall. You know, I know lots of this is the time of year where we’re thinking about, well what’s going on this winter with our trips and all that. Or if we’re going away in a few months, this would be a great resource for you as you’re thinking differently, you want to think differently about those experiences. Ah well, Nathan, I really appreciate you being here. aAppreciate you being on today’s episode taking time to be with us, opening our eyes a little bit. If people want to get in touch with you or track with the church, where do we want to send them online?

Nathan Nelson — Yeah, man look me up. You can find us at churchbcc.org and just drop me a note directly. My email ah [email protected] – I would love to interface with anybody. I do kind of it’s it’s it’s not formal, but I do consulting with churches and organizations all the time on their short-term mission practices…

Rich Birch — Love it.

Nathan Nelson — …and I’d be more than willing to offer myself as a resource to you.

Rich Birch — So good. That’s really generous of you. I really appreciate you doing that, giving out your email address and offering to help. Thanks so much, Nathan, I really appreciate being on today’s episode. Thanks for being here today.

Nathan Nelson — Yeah.

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.