Where have we come from?
Experience Mission was founded in 2003 by Executive Director Chris Clum as an outgrowth of the short term mission movement. For centuries, churches of all different denominations and backgrounds have been sending missionaries to reach out to underdeveloped areas of the world. This "Missionary Support Model" provided people the opportunity to be involved through giving money to missionaries who in turn represented their passion for the world.
In the early 1980's, the mainstream emergence of the short term mission movement began to change the face of missions. Starting as a relatively small and novel phenomenon in the late 1950's, by 2003 it was estimated that more than one million individuals were participating in short term mission trips each year, and it is evident that this number has continued to grow. Short term missions have generated millions of dollars and volunteers toward humanitarian projects in underdeveloped communities.
This new model has allowed people to be far more involved in demonstrating their passion for the world by putting them in direct contact with those they serve and support. The short-term mission trip becomes the connecting point that allows for relationships to develop. People still give money, but now they can also participate they can give their time, resources, and skills. Once the connection is made through the short term mission trip, people continue to stay in touch through the EM network and other online social networking sites.
Prior to starting EM, Clum had more than 20 years of experience working within the short term mission movement. He traveled to communities all over the world organizing and leading short-term mission trips. However, during the 4 years leading up to the founding of Experience Mission, Clum was impacted significantly by the work he was leading in the aftermath of the conflicts of the late 1990's in Kosovo.
In September 1999, he was asked to be part of a small team that flew to Macedonia where they travelled and walked for hours alongside KFOR troops and returning Albanian refugees in order to get across the border and into Kosovo.
Using a piece of paper with handwritten names of families and a town they came from, the team travelled throughout Kosovo, trying to find families who had fled the country the previous spring and were now returning from a refugee camp in Sarande, Albania.
Over the next year and a half, Clum heard from hundreds of families about ethnic cleansing, death, torture, rape, loss and the hardships of trying to forgive and find hope. One significant connection was with the Barisha family and their friends from Suva Reka. Their story was featured in Newsweek during the summer of 1999. (See Article)
Heading efforts to bring volunteers into Kosovo, Clum was struck by how the Americans were able to make these emotional connections with the Kosovar Albanians as they ate together and helped work on homes in two towns Semetisht and Suva Reka. This personal touch along with the financial support of donors was a very powerful combination. One very successful businesswoman who joined one of the teams told Clum that she came expecting her primary purpose to be to do as much as she could to help address the practical needs. Although the funds had been able to do so much, she was overwhelmed by what had meant the most to the Albanians she worked alongside. It had been the simple fact that she had come with the money. She had worked beside them and taken the time to look into their eyes. They had become real people and not just victims.
But the resources were still critical in providing opportunities for people. Some resources helped rebuild homes. Other funds were used to help establish an English language school, which in the aftermath of the war meant a job translating for all the NATO and international organizations in the country helping Kosovo rebuild.
The ethnic cleansing and destruction of the war left many people feeling broken. Clum was moved by this, and he wanted to inspire hope and give the people he had built relationships with a sense of confidence that their life and circumstances could dramatically improve. One of many examples was a young Albanian man who had graduated from the newly built English school. He told Clum that he couldnt believe that people cared so much. "All of you have saved my life, my familys life and have helped my country. You have made us all feel big again. You have been a picture of what Gods love really looks like, because in Gods eyes we are all the same."
After accumulating experiences in Kosovo and other places around the world, he began to wonder how powerful short-term mission work could be if more emphasis were placed on building healthy, lasting relationships with people. Thus, taking time to understand the importance of personal dignity has helped shape EM's philosophy. EM is unwaveringly committed to completing meaningful, pragmatic service projects and creating opportunities that might not otherwise be possible. However, building mutual trust and respect with community members is considered an absolutely essential part of that process. EM is constantly aware that the level of trust, respect and personal dignity experienced by all involved has a tremendous impact on both how people see mission work and how they understand what God's love looks like. (See EM Model for Mutual Influence)
Beyond the Experience
At the outset of the short term mission movement, much emphasis was placed on evangelism and practical service. Teams felt they were going because they had something to give (faith and resources). With time the movement became more sensitive to culture and to the issue of imposing faith on those they went to help. However as people talked about how impactful this new experience of service was for their own lives, the emphasis began to shift away from the mission work itself and more on the experience for those that went.
Today, a mission trip has evolved from a relative novelty to an almost requisite coming-of-age experience for young Christians. In many cases, the mission experience has become the primary focus of the trip, and those who receive assistance often appear to feel patronized because they see all too clearly that they have become "targets" intended to facilitate change in those with disposable time and income. Of course, nobody intends to violate the dignity of the people they are serving, but Clum feared that when many teams leave to go home, the community and its people could be left with mixed feelings.
It was largely in response to this issue that Clum decided to start Experience Mission, and from its inception EM has sought to guard peoples dignity by emphasizing relationships and long term community impact. Too often volunteer teams can become so consumed with a particular project that they fail to make the relational connections that create this powerful impact. Therefore EM emphasizes relationship building, and our staff members develop relationships with local community leaders to ensure that the needs of the community are the first priority. The primary focus is on serving the communities, not providing a life-changing trip for volunteers.
This foundational principle is a core component of EM and by its very nature expands our vision beyond short term missions. If mission trips are to be a part of a long term vision, then the trips themselves cannot be the end; they must be part of something much bigger. However, because Clums network and experience was in short term missions, it was the intention of EM from the beginning to develop a self-sustaining short-term mission program to build the organization and raise support for partner communities in order to drive the ministry focus beyond the mission experience. (See EM Model for Sustainable Change)
Growth and Change
In the summer of 2004, EM organized its first mission trips in four different international and domestic rural locations. EM organized 8 trips with about 250 volunteers throughout the course of the summer. Starting in 2005 EM launched its internship program, recruiting 12 college students to lead trips in each community, and the number of summer volunteers more than doubled to over 500 participants. The year 2006 was not one of growth, but of development. That fall EM hired its first full time staff members--a Media Director and an Internship Director--and the following summer EM once again doubled its numbers of volunteers with 1,000 mission trip participants. By 2008, EM was up to 1800 total volunteers for the spring and summer trips. Additionally, 2 more full-time staff members were hired along with 33 summer field staff and 3 office interns, and EM expanded to 5 new communities for a total of 12 communities.
Currently, EM is recruiting teams for 21 partner communities in the US, Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa. EM manages a news site, www.ExperienceMissionNews.com, where staff members and interns post articles, blogs and multimedia about what is going on in each of the partner communities. There are a growing number of fans and followers of EM on Facebook and Twitter, and EM sends out an eNewsletter with more than 9,000 subscribers. EM continues to run a strong internship program, and currently recruits around 2000 volunteers each year for mission trips. Since its humble beginning, EM has grown from a small, one-man operation to one of the leading short-term mission organizations in the United States, and the organization has an excellent foundation from which to pursue its mission and goals in the future.