Pros and cons of short term mission trips

The Washington Post had an interesting piece titled Teen missions being retooled.  Here are some snippets. 

WASHINGTON — Not long ago, the families of Fairfax (Va.) Presbyterian Church spent thousands of dollars to fly their teens to Mexico for eight days of doing good. They helped build homes and refurbish churches as part of an army of more than 1 million mostly Christians who annually go on short-term international mission trips to work and evangelize in poverty-stricken lands.

Yet even as those trips have increased in popularity, they have come under increased scrutiny. A growing body of research questions the value of the trips abroad, which are supposed to bring hope and Christianity to the needy of the world, while offering American participants an opportunity to work in disadvantaged communities, develop relationships and charge up their faith.

Critics scornfully call such trips “religious tourism” undertaken by “vacationaries.” Some blunders include a wall built on the children’s soccer field at an orphanage in Brazil that had to be torn down after the visitors left. In Mexico, a church was painted six times during one summer by six different groups. In Ecuador, a church was built but never used because the community said it was not needed.

I don’t see how people serving on mission trips on their vacations is a bad thing.  Of course, non-value added activities like re-painting the same thing or building inadequate or unnecessary structures is ridiculous.  But those things can be prevented with good planning.

I heard of parts of Mexico referred to as the “Methodist ruins” because many churches started projects and didn’t follow through.  Just because you are doing a good deed doesn’t mean you don’t need wisdom, discernment, superior planning and organization.

The church is sending out smaller teams of experts to work on projects with partner churches. For example, it is sending information technology professionals who are fluent in Spanish to a church in the Dominican Republic to train members in computer skills so they can get better jobs, MacDonald said.

Despite the concerns with trips abroad, their popularity is soaring. Some groups go as far away as China, Thailand and Russia. From a few hundred in the 1960s, the trips have proliferated in recent years. A Princeton University study found that 1.6 million people took short-term mission trips — an average of eight days — in 2005. Estimates of the money spent on these trips is upward of $2.4 billion a year. Vacation destinations are especially popular: Recent research has found that the Bahamas receives one short-term missionary for every 15 residents.

At the same time, the number of long-term American missionaries, who go abroad from several years to a lifetime, has fallen, according to a Wheaton College study done last year.

The short-term mission trip is a “huge phenomenon that seems to be gaining in momentum rather than waning,” said David Livermore, executive director of the Global Learning Center at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, who studies the trend.

Participants care for orphans, hold Bible classes, evangelize, paint homes and churches and help AIDS patients, among other tasks.

But research has found that the trips tend to have few long-term effects on the local people or on the mission travelers. Some projects take away work from local people, are unnecessary and sometimes dangerous.

I wonder what groups they researched.  That has not been my experience.   Then again, we typically send teams to the same places over and over so that relationships are built and we can be sure we are making a difference.

“I really don’t think that most people are trying to be ugly Americans,” said Glenn Schwartz, executive director of World Mission Associates and author of When Charity Destroys Dignity. “But they’re misinformed and don’t realize how their good intentions can go awry.”

Mission groups also often bring their own experts and ignore local authorities on the ground.

In Monrovia, Liberia, three years ago, tragedy occurred when visitors built a school to their standards instead of Liberian standards. During the monsoon season, the building collapsed, killing two children, Livermore said.

Understanding the local customs and needs is crucial.  We always defer to local building practices. 

Critics also question the expense involved in sending people long distances. Short-term missionaries pay $1,000 each, or far more, in plane fare and other expenses to get to remote destinations.

A 2006 study in Honduras found that short-term mission groups spent an average of $30,000 on their trips to build one home that a local group could construct for $2,000.

“To spend $30,000 to paint a church or build a house that costs $2,000 doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” said Kurt Ver Beek, a professor of sociology at Calvin College who conducted the research.

I think that misses the point.  Mission trips aren’t just about the physical property being built or repaired.  They are about relationships with the people, helping them in ways that are meaningful and lasting, sharing the Gospel and transforming the lives of those who go.  It changes how you view the world. 

And practically speaking, I’ve found that people who go on short term mission trips write more and bigger checks to help these areas, and they encourage others to do the same.  Who better to tell people of the needs than those who have been there?

All of the objections brought up in the article could be dealt with by applying more wisdom and planning.

19 thoughts on “Pros and cons of short term mission trips

  1. Unrelated comment: I added a new dimension to my moral dilemma question. I am interested in seeing how you will answer it. Now when I get back from my run I will leave a comment of substance on this post.

  2. I think you can find bad examples everywhere, the researcher probably didn’t have to look hard to find them. My initial thought would be to do a scientific poll and determine what percentage match the descriptions and properly evaluate the impact.

    But so what if a few or a lot are bad experiences? Some (I believe most) are good. My son just got back from a Katrina mission trip. Our church has been there more than a dozen times (one man goes about 5 times/year). Some of those helped have bought houses in the last few years, are getting them fixed for free and then will sell them at a nice profit. Others are like the lady they met on one of the first trips. Her family was just about wiped out. The people that went in made a difference in her life.

    The goal of the trip is to share Christ’s love. It’s not heavy evangelism, just helping others.

    The Katrian trips have been mostly managed by Samaritan’s Purse. I think they are now finished with their commitment there. Our church has been to Thailand, the trips are organized by a missionary who is there full time and still a member of our church (he’s absent most Sundays).

    Organization is key. But a few bad experiences shouldn’t taint the rest of the trips.

  3. Hi Neil,
    I have to admit, that a lot of these short-term trips are unnecessary, but a lot of them are. So, with the good, comes the bad, as is the case with everything. I do wish we would concentrate more on supporting long-term missionaries and send few short timers. Remember, the church is more of a vineyard, than a McDonalds. It takes years to produce wonderful fruit, and only a few minutes to get fat.

  4. I think short- term trips can be good and bad. I have never really thought about wanting to do missionary work out of the country. I would like to see more missionary work here in the USA. Groups from the north could go south and west coast people could go to the east coast. There are 37 million poor people in America they need help.

  5. I really like the way my sister’s church does mission trips. She has gone on and planned so many that they send her all over to teach people how to plan them. They recently hired her to organize trips through out the year. They work specifically with long-term missionaries in the area and do work that they need more hands to do. The youth evangelize to the local children by conducting VBS in the native language. When the missionary no longer needs them, they find another site. (Through a company.) Currently, she is setting up full-term missionaries in San Antonio (of all places) for missions teams to visit.

  6. Elisa, that sounds like a great model. I like the part of analyzing when they are no longer needed. If self sufficiency isn’t the goal that is a foundational problem (sort of like the U.S. welfare program).

    “I would like to see more missionary work here in the USA.”

    I wonder if a lot of that is done but just not publicized as much. I know of several churches, ours included, that have been sending teams to Mississippi and East Texas doing Katrina and Rita clean-up / repairs. Everyone knows about New Orleans, but few seem to know about the other areas that never got the publicity and still have problems.

    Also, our youth go on week long trips to poor areas in Texas each year to build wheel chair ramps, paint, repair, etc. for old people.

  7. Don’t want to be too self serving here, but there is a little orginization called Habitat for Humanity that allows people just like you guys to be involved in short term missions either in or out of the US.

    On topic, my experience with short term trips has been good because we are working with an established mission in Haiti, (if you go back every year is it still short term) and are there to provide specific services (eye care) almost entirely unavailable otherwise. We also have opportunities for building feeding etc as well. One upshot of our group is, that an entirely new campus/orphanage is being constructed primarily due to people who have gone with this group.

    As with most things there are good and bad examples, just don’t let the bad examples stop you from going. It will change your life.

    http://www.habitat.org (you can search for local chapters)
    http://www.nwhcm.org

  8. I think the main part of having a good short term mission trip is having contacts- either churches or long-term missionaries -and making yourself servicable to building up their ministries. The sucessful trip i’ve been on we’ve pretty much helped ministries there in the country. And then you know there’s someone to disciple these people.

    And about poor people in the US- most of those considered “poor” here are rich compared with third world countries. Not that they don’t need help, but its like William Borden said “If ten men are carrying a log — nine of them on the little end and one at the heavy end — and you want to help, which end will you lift on?” Also, on the same note, why do we need to go on a missions trip in the US? This country is covered in churches- theres one on every block. Our churches need to reach out to their communties and in turn if your church is in trouble my church should reach out to help.

  9. Mari, you are absolutely right. I just got back from a Honduras mission trip (posts on that to come) and was very impressed with the local missionaries there. They made the trip so much more effective and helped ensure that we could really make a difference.

  10. Over the wekened, someone reminded me of another kind of “short term mission trips”. A lot of companies have started combining business meetings with these activities. For example, my company had an annual sales meeting in New Orleans and attendees were “encouraged” to stay an extra day to help in Katrina rebuilding.

    Of course, there is no mission work performed as a part of the trip and other than “a good feeling” the workers returned with nothing. I also suspect that a lot of the work that was done had to be redone.

    I see NO value in this kind of short term “mission” work.

  11. I saw that you have a blog on short term missions. Looks great!

    We’re building the blogroll of our short term missions blog on UrbanMinistry.org. We’d like to add your blog to our

    blogroll list, and were wondering if you would do the same for us. You could just call the link short term missions at

    UrbanMinistry.org. The URL is http://www.urbanministry.org/short_term_missions

    It’s good to see others with a passion for short term missions and linking to each other seems like a great way to

    expand the community of people trying to bring social change on this issue.

    Let me know if you have any questions or if you have other ideas on how we might collaborate and connect our

    communities.

  12. I think this article is the tip of the Iceberg. Americans must rethink the way we do short-term missions and how we can be good stewarts. Barna group published a finding that the same amount of people who went on a demestic trip had a life-changing experience as those on foreign trips. Is changing the hearts and lives of the local people group the main focus or is it our own hearts? David Livermore also found that most people who return from short-term mission trips perpetuate stereotypes and racism against the poor and local people groups.

  13. Hi hallas, thanks for your insights. I’ve never heard of Livermore nor seen anything like what he describes. I think mission trips can change the hearts of those we visit and our own.

  14. Being a long term missionary and having many teams of short term missionaries come through, I am going to speak from another perspective. I felt ike many of those that commented after going on short term trips. However, when I was the missionary in the field, I started to see things with new eyes.

    I think there are pros to STMs and they are fine to do but we do need to be honest with ourselves about them. Short term mission trips are about YOU. The purpose behind them is to expand your understanding of other cultures, build in you God’s heart for the poor, soul search about a possible future in missions, give you an opportunity to evangelize, ect. It really irritates me to hear STM talk about how they “made a difference” in 2 weeks! You didn’t- at least not a difference that someone local could not have done for much, much cheaper and could have done far more good with the money you spent to come make that “difference.” And really, isn’t that, even those with the BEST intentions, want from the trip- to feel like they did something good- they helped those less fortunate. This is not a selfless act that we are trying to portray it to be. I am not saying that I agree with the extreme portrayal as “vacationism” – I don’t think are motives are puposefully selfish or self-centered but when we are not transparent, people know and start to question.

    I just took a course on ethics and it talks about weighing the good against the harm. STMs don’t see the harm they create- because they don’t understand the language or culture so they really don’t understand what the locals think/feel, they leave and never see the long term effects, etc. I think leaders have an ETHICAL OBLIGATION to talk to the missionaries in the field and really examine what the pros and cons are not just for those going, but also being a good stewards of our gifts, and what my heart really bleeds for is for the locals we are going to help. You are not there to “serve” them, they are serving you- helping your faith walk, showing you grace with your culture blunders, hosting you in their country. If you walk away feeling you gave more than you took, I would seriously suggest examining yourself and the experience much closer.

    The local people benefit in only 2 ways: 1) If you go back and become an ambassador for those you worked with by talking to others and raising funds 2) bring supplies to the mission or spiritual support to the missionaries.

    Here is my advice for what it is worth:
    1) Short term mission trips are NOTHING like full time missionary work and can give a very skewed perspective if you are using that experience as the basis for going into full time ministry. If God is truely calling you to the mission field, he can do that with or without short term missions. You know that the number of career missionaries has gone down despite the large increase in the number of STM. I wouldn’t spend 3,000 to decide if I wanted a future career as a nurse, so why would I do that about missions? Read biographies of missionaries, email/call and talk to those in the field, and only if seriously interested, visit- and visit for no less than 3 months to get a real feel.
    2) Why allow the same church members to return year after year on short term missions? You go once and give someone else a turn. If you really “have a heart for missions” and want to go every year (and some people twice a year), then maybe you should “count the cost” and go into the field full time.
    3) Make those that go accountable when they return. Follow up and see if they are being ambassadors for those that are still there- are they financially giving to the missionaries/organization, raising awareness or funds for the organization, being a leader for the next group that goes, ect. I think you all would be surprised by the number of people that serve at our orphanage on STMs that DO NOT become child sponsors after they return home. (30/month – a cup of coffee a day- and they can’t sacrafice that for the kids they have personally seen and held and “made a difference in their lives”)
    4) Leaders of the STMs- You and the whole team need to understand the potential harm you could do to the locals and the missionaries work. Your ONLY agenda should be the one that the local missionary gives you. I have seen many, many STM teams come through and each member has an assignment to give away a Bible (or 3) and share the gospel with a local so they can go home with a story to tell and a number of how many they converted on thier trip to validate them going. Meanwhile, we have newly converted “Christians” walking around proclaiming themselves as Christians but have no discipleship or clear understanding of it and that can negatively impact the work of spreading the gospel- although the intentions were good.

    Lastly, I want to pose a question that I am not even sure what I think the answer is but are these short term trips actually preventing Christians from taking the leap into a more full time committment? Are they taking away from those that are in the field? For example, the thinking “I support missions- I go on a 2 week trip with my church every year.”

    I think one thing that really struck me, and gave me pause to feel somewhat ashamed, was how many Morman missionaries I came in contact with that have given not just 2 weeks- but 2 years of their lives- for short term missions. Think about it- 2 years with the locals to build relationships, spread their “gospel,” and disciple believers. They are willing to give 2 years of their lives for something that isn’t even the Truth.

  15. Hi Carrie,

    Thanks for visiting and commenting. I appreciate your ministry and agree with much of what you said.

    In my experience, returning as a short term missionary is a two-way street. We are making lasting relationships with these people. It isn’t just us helping them out of pity. They love it when we return.

    And keep in mind that some of us who stay here and work full-time do most of the funding for those who go on short or long term missions.

    Having said that, you bring up several legitimate risks.

  16. I am a “tentmaker” missionary so I do not raise funds but I agree with your comment and had written more about it in another post:

  17. sorry- here is the rest of my last post:

    http:trevinwax.com/2008/11/25/are-short-term-mission-trips-worth-the-trouble/

    Again, I do think there is good in STMs. I think the good is mostly for the go’er-but I don’t think that is a bad thing! Growing in your walk with God, seeing His heart for the poor and for justice, expanding your worldview- these are all good reasons for STMs and not the same as taking a vacation (as others have stated about STMs.) I think we just need to be honest about that so when we are making decisions about STMs we are not basing them on false ideas. I also think it will help STMs and LTMs be on the same page about expectations/puposes/roles and in turn will create a more effective relationship and better results for the goal at hand.

    I am working with many sending organizations on an orphanage outreach program so your blog was very timely and helpful. Thank you!

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