Before we look at the more specific issues, I think it is essential to set the background for the topic of globalization and short-term teams. Globalization, a natural expansion of capitalism, is commonly used in the context of economics and the social ills it brings. This has led to the well-known demonstrations against the World Trade Organization (WTO), because wealthy countries that emphasize free trade, often at the expense of more sustainable, equitable and democratic growth, dominate it. James Skillen gives a definition in Globalization and the Kingdom of God: "What is globalization? In brief, it features the growing interdependence of people throughout the world. Interdependency is multiplying and intensifying by means of ever more rapid means of communication, which are helping to tie the world's billions of still multiplying people closer and closer together economically, environmentally, technologically and in other ways."
David Lundy calls multiculturalism and pluralism "kissing cousins of globalization." His view is that globalization causes multiculturalism and pluralism and vice versa. While multiculturalism is consistent with biblical values as we see unity in diversity based on passages such as Revelation 5:9 and 7:9, we need to resist pluralism that compromises the absolute truths of our faith. No matter which definition of globalization we subscribe to, there is no question that it impacts economics, politics, technology, communications, culture, religion and almost every facet of life, both for better or worse, depending on what aspect one refers to.
The most common sources of globalization are government bodies, economic agents such as multinational corporations, media such as the internet, Hollywood movies and Korean soaps, cultural agents such as pop music, art and fashion, and cross-cultural workers in all shades and hues. This article focuses on cross-cultural workers and in particular, short-term teams and 2008.
Short-Term Teams and How They See Themselves
By short-term teams we mean a small group, the size of which can be just a few to about 30 or even larger, which seeks to reach out in a cross-cultural context for a period of a few days to a few months. As someone who has participated in, mobilized and organized, as well as deployed and received short-term teams for more than 20 years in various countries, I hope to offer some insights as to how short-term teams see themselves, what their possible influence can be on the hosts, both foreign and national, and requisites or factors that affect the success of a short-term team.
Most teams see themselves as contributing towards the "Great Work," and depending on the nature of the team (e.g. age, purpose, size, country of origin), the organizational affiliation, level of orientation and whether there is partnership with long-term workers on the ground (be they foreign or local) they see themselves as contributors that agencies cannot do without, or as being part of a long process of discipleship.
Most teams are mobilized by organizations or directly by a denomination or church but usually have relationships and/or workers in the host country and therefore have their own set purposes, goals, requirements, programs and networks for recruitment. Some organizations focus on mobilizing short-term teams while others have a mixture of long-term residential and short-term workers. However, the following are common factors that impact the effectiveness and success of short-term teams or programs.
- Clarity of purpose and goals because this then translates into what sort of teams are needed and what they are to accomplish.
- Clarification and convergence of expectations among team members, the sending body (organization or church) and the receiving hosts. (This is especially needed between the short-term teams and the residential long-term workers that will receive them because there is great potential for conflict if there is no convergence or lack of understanding of how short-term teams are part of the long-term impact.)
- Clear guidelines for recruitment, screening and selection of the team leader and membersthis helps to ensure that members have the level of spiritual maturity, character and competence for the purposes of the team.
- Effective orientation, especially cultural (and professional for teams that are there for a professional purpose such as medical teams) and team building before the team sets out so they are as prepared as one can responsibly help them to be.
- Forum for ongoing feedback and care for the team during the program.
- Strong partnerships with the receiving hosts especially if the sending body does not have its own residential workers.
- Length and/or frequency of visits. Generally, longer stays and more regular or repeated visits to the same place, or with the same hosts, will make the team more effective because relationships are established and strengthened with each visit.
- Debriefing so lessons are learned after each team returns to the sending country to avoid making the same mistakes with future teamsthis reflects a learning organization.
- How the teams see themselves depends on the interaction of the above factors as the vision and mission are key in mobilizing like-minded people for the team. Team members are reliant on the organizer and/or team leader to provide information and orientation on how the team fits into the big picture.
In my own experience and observation, as well as through interaction with other organizations, most team members who have received good orientation would not go so far as to think of themselves as change agents but more so as part of a larger change process, as they partner with long-term workers or with nationals. If, on the other hand, they have been hastily recruited, have not been given proper orientation, and have a very gung-ho team leader or members, they may see themselves as being a "great gift to the host country" and overrun both long-term residential workers and nationals. In this instance, they may end up as negative change agents because the residential workers will have to repair the damage caused, be that to the residential workers or to the perception of Christians by the nationals or local hosts. Having said that, they are capable of being positive "change agents." This is especially true when they focus on building genuine relationships while sharing their faith in culturally appropriate ways and do not expect to attain numeric goals like having to "share with at least ten unbelievers a day" whether or not the unbeliever wants to hear!
How Others See Short-Term Teams and Their Influence
Naturally the experience with short-term teams has been mixed, which explains the plethora of articles devoted to this topic just in the Evangelical Missions Quarterly (EMQ) alone! Many residential workers who have had positive experiences with teams would agree that the factors I have mentioned above play a great role in what constitutes good teams. Generally, the greater the number of factors for effectiveness that were present, the more positive the experience that both residential workers and nationals had.
The sacrificial giving of the team's resources, love and humility are often the sources of a positive experience for the residential workers and the nationals. On the other hand, an attitude of cultural superiority and disrespect for the residential workers or nationals are probably the greatest sources of negative impact, especially on the nationals.
Teams, particularly those coming from wealthy countries, need to be mindful that the local culture and nationals are not empty pages, even if they are unbelievers. God has already been at work in their culture and history, and international teams are just God's instruments for more to come to know him and for the local believers to see how God has already been at workto see themselves, their culture and foreign cultures through a biblical lens.
There is some correlation between the view developing nations have of the wealthy nations and the view believers or unbelievers in developing countries have of international cross-cultural workers, be they residential or part of short-term teams. As there has been resistance by groups to the WTO, there can also be resistance to teams, especially if they are perceived as instruments of dominant powers. Since China has a general perception of Christianity as a Western religion and also holds the view that some countries use religion to influence China's politics and culture or to promote their own ideologies, it is even more critical that cross-cultural teams and workers are culturally sensitive and well trained.
For 2008, with its even more diverse opportunities, it would be reasonable to expect an explosion of short-term teams to China, not including the regular teams mobilized by those with ongoing work or experience in China. In particular, one can expect an increase in youth teams in the coming year leading up to the Olympics. It is vital that all organizations and sending bodies be as careful in their selection and have an as up-to-date orientation and training program for their teams as possible. This is critical if we want to improve the public perception of Christians, and if people of all faithsand especially Christianare to have an improved environment to make a positive impact on society after 2008.
Teams from the West can bring about a Westernization of the local culture and influence how the nationals view the world, their own culture and their habits for better or for worse. Likewise, teams from any wealthy or dominant country or region can bring about a similar influence. However, the change may be reciprocal. Hopefully, there will be a globalization of the acculturation process both ways, as teams, team members, nationals and others interact with growing mutual understanding and respect for each other as equals. It is in this atmosphere that there can be a healthy exchange of ideas and sharing of one's faith.
Local believers must belong to a local group and be part of their national body of Christ in order to have sustainability. Ideally, given mature viable churches, they should be discipled by nationals with healthy international input, but given some specific situations, they may be discipled by international groups. Nonetheless, international groups must intentionally plug them into local groups and actively seek local leaders who can disciple or teach them concurrently or subsequently as the situation permits. Far too often, it is not that we cannot find local leaders or groups, but we are myopic and see the "wrong teaching" in the local church but we do not see the potential of our own "wrong teaching" that brings in our subjective views on non-salvation issues, such as style of worship, gender leadership roles or spiritual gifts.
There is always an ongoing tension as to what is cultural and what is biblical as foreign believers interact with nationals, believers or not. This tension should not immobilize us, but should keep us humble, so that we consciously weed out what is merely our own cultural interpretation from biblical absolutes in the sharing of our faith, teaching or discipleship.
As the world becomes more global, so will the church, organizations and sending bodies. In reflecting the multicultural nature and diversity of the international body of Christ, I believe that international teams can be a positive influence but, at the same time, emphasize their need for openness to be positively influenced by national believers, to learn from them, not just teach them. This form of interaction or integration will then reflect unity in diversity in the growing global body of Christ as we learn from one another.
Author's note: For a more detailed academic discourse on globalization and China, see Liu Kang, Globalization and Cultural Trends in China, University of Hawaii Press, 2004.
Image credit: Katie Schuelke