The Shift in Our Missions Strategy We Need to Make in 2021

Brian Mullaney was a stereotypical ad man—a New York yuppie in an Armani suit with a gold Rolex on his wrist. But when he hooked up with Operation Smile everything changed.

The charity sends volunteer medical teams to places like Gaza, China and Vietnam—performing operations on children with cleft palates. For a child doomed to be a social outcast, these operations are simply life-changing.

Mullaney caught the vision and joined their Board. It changed his life too.

But on a typical medical mission trip to Vietnam, Mullaney and the team were playing soccer with local kids every day in their down time. They got to know a boy with a cleft lip. The team came to call him Soccer Boy.

At the end of their mission trip, the team were driving away in their bus. As they looked back towards the village, they saw Soccer Boy, his lip still unrepaired, chasing after them sadly.

“We were in shock—how could he not have been helped?”

From a business perspective, Mullaney was wrecked by the thought of how many kids were not being reached, “What store turns away 80% of its customers?”

Mullaney helped come up with a new business model for Operation Smile. Rather than raise millions of dollars to fly surgeons and their equipment from the Western world, why not equip local doctors to perform cleft surgery year-round?

Interestingly, the leadership of Operation Smile was not too keen on Mullaney’s brilliant new idea.

So Mullaney left to start his own organization—Smile Train. Mullaney’s new charity went on to help provide more than a million surgeries in nearly 90 countries, with one simple tweak—they equipped local doctors to do the surgery.

I meet a lot of would-be world changers in my line of work. In fact, there are few cities with more missionaries, NGO workers, social entrepreneurs and do-gooders than Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

But this crazy year has forced a lot of folks to rethink the way we do mission.

Most of us face the same dilemma that Mullaney and Operation Smile grappled with—we like to be central to the solution, not peripheral. We like to be in the limelight.

But when borders close and crises hit, we suddenly find out whether what we were doing is sustainable or not.

Here’s the reason we often struggle—most of us who make it out of the comfort zone of our home countries, are practical, roll-up-our-sleeves kind of people. We may well have practical training and years of experience as nurses, social workers, pastors or expert potato peelers.

We like doing stuff. We want to be hands on. With the people. And their potatoes.

I’ve seen Angelina Jolie wiping the dirty sweat from her brow as she treats people in a refugee camp, and dang it!—I reckon I’d look pretty sexy doing that kind of work too!

But what if our determination to do stuff, actually undermines the efforts of local people to serve and transform their own communities?

What if using your nursing training to bandage up the wounds of sick people in a cross-cultural setting is hurting more than helping—because you’re doing work a local nurse should be trained up to do?

What if solving people’s problems as a social worker in a cross-cultural setting is hurting more than helping—because you’re doing work a local social worker could be trained up to do?

What if using your giftedness to pastor a local church is hurting more than helping—because you’re doing work an insider ought to be empowered to do?

Would you be willing to lay down your vocation as an expert potato peeler, to step back behind the scenes and train local people to peel their own potatoes?

I’m convinced that we do need more nurses, social workers, engineers, pastors and potato peelers—but not always to roll up your sleeves and use your skills directly.

Instead we need you to use your skills strategically.

To train. Empower. Equip. Encourage. And support local people from behind the scenes.

But sadly, like Operation Smile, this is the one sacrifice many of us are simply unwilling to make.

We love the thrill of using our skills in a place where they are desperately needed.

We’re addicted to the funds that are generated by those who travel on these short term trips.

We’re pulled towards the romantic notion of being hands on – and bored by the notion of working in an office behind the scenes.

So, here’s the challenge …

In 2021, are you willing to do the most boring, behind the scenes, grey desk with a Windows 98 desktop computer job?

In 2021, are you willing to forego the potential Facebook photos, the thrill of the grassroots, and the applause of your friends?

In 2021, are you willing to be more strategic but less cool?

In 2021, are you willing to lay down your romanticized ministry life for your brothers and sisters, who need to be empowered to lead and serve?

If so, I’ll leave the final invitation to Jesus:

“Then Jesus said to his ministry team, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny all these things, and take up their cross and follow me’” (Matt. 16:24).

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This article originally appeared on and is reposted here by permission.

Craig Greenfield
Craig Greenfield

Craig Greenfield (@craigasauros) is the founder of Alongsiders International and author of Subversive Jesus: An Adventure in Justice, Mercy, and Faithfulness in a Broken World (Zondervan). A storyteller and activist living in urban slum communities for the past 15 years, Craig’s passion is to communicate God’s heart for the marginalized around the world.