One of the most popular posts on my blog is, “10 Questions to Ask Before Embarking on Short Term Mission Work”. I’ve put together this addition stemming from my experience as both a leader in the church and the NGO sector. I think it’s a good thing that more and more people are asking important questions and doing some due diligence before embarking and spending the money on short term missions trips.
Short term mission trips are often maligned because they cost a lot of money, have trouble registering long-term impact, and are predominantly taken for selfish reasons. To me, there are three reasons to consider before a short-term missions trip takes flight.
Short term missions trips coming out of the West are largely an enterprise for people who can afford it. With affluence comes certain cultural prestige and unfortunately baggage as well. In particular, there’s an implicit ‘saviour complex’ exacerbating an already polarized worldview that paints a picture of Westerners parachuting into foreign communities to ‘rescue’ hapless poor people from their affliction (spiritual or otherwise). This thinking, although genuine, is arrogant, and compounds the perspective that those with less need help to begin with and lack capabilities to help themselves without the aid of good intentioned foreigners.
Good intentions and feelings does not equate to good impact.
Short term missions trips devoted to evangelizing the ‘lost’ are perhaps the most dubious reason to embark on a trek. Ignoring the obvious colonial undertones, this kind of ‘evangelism’ not only undermines the wholeness of salvation (a post for another time), but it undermines the power of local, in this case the local church. Assuming a 2-week visit from foreigners will have a lasting impact on a local community is not only tunnel vision, but selfish as well. The very nature of the Gospel is defined by embodiment (presence), and you cannot practice this crucial form of Christianity in short term missions trips. Professional missionaries have an acute understanding that meaningful impact comes only after spending the time (years) to acclimatize to the local cultural context.
Think about this, how would you feel if a bunch of missionaries from, say China, came to your community and showed you how to be a ‘Christian’ while evangelizing to your neighbors? It would be foolish (albeit at this point we’d probably have something to learn from a brand of church that’s growing by leaps and bounds.)
Here are three questions to asl before planning short-termrm mission trip. If you fall under at least one of them, you’re good to go. If not, well….
1. Short term missions for personal experience and education
Before you go ask the question, ‘who?’, as in who does the trip benefit? More often than not it’s the traveller, and not the recipient, and that can be OK.
There is considerable value sending young people (old people too) on trips that grant the privilege of seeing different cultures and countries. Developing worldview is a valuable exercise in personal formation. Seeing profound poverty face-to-face is a paradigm shifting moment that the disconnected social media experience cannot provide. Seeing different parts of the world can catalyze vision, enact change at home, and seeing God at work in a context utterly different from your own.
A purpose to challenge worldview is a good reason to go (just make sure you’re going somewhere where you’re welcomed and not a burden).
Most short term mission work falls within this category. In fact, most of social justice initiatives fall within the personal experience and connection category as well. There’s nothing wrong with is, but we should be honest with the approach and not disguise them under the pre-tense of ‘saving the world’. Consider Samaritan’s Purse and their annual shoebox campaign. There is a little lasting value behind boxes of trinkets sent to children around the world who are largely disconnected from consumerism (and gift giving at Christmas). There’s certainly temporary joy, but to suggest this type of initiative benefits the recipient more than the sender is confirmation bias.
A lot of what we do in terms of helping the less fortunate is to make ourselves feel good first. For example, orphanage tourism wouldn’t be a burgeoning and dubious industry if Westerners didn’t have the desire to hug ‘orphans’ in East Asia. Although intentions are pure, those intentions are only skin deep and display how little the vacationer knows about the complexity of injustice or the solutions to systemic problems. It’s another example of good intentions by the rich foreigner guided by all the wrong reasons.
To be honest, [tweetthis]it doesn’t matter how bad you feel if you are not contributing to a working solution of righting systemic injustice.[/tweetthis] Even if you have a tiny piece in that solution, it’s better to be for something, rather than unknowingly working against it. Contributing to systemic issues at the front lines more than often requires specific expertise. Don’t be the person with no valid expertise, and rather than doing the most useful thing (probably giving money), opt for an experience that makes you feel as though you’re helping at the expense of those you’re trying to help.
As you consider your opportunities examine the impact you may have. Don’t make assumptions or accept popular narrative as canon. For example, is buying TOMS shoes an effective method in solving shoe poverty? An evening reading some research on the subject would produce an informed opinion. Do similar work for your own trip.
So long as we’re honest about the approach of short term trips for personal formation I think we can get away with it. It IS especially important to connect our children and with some kind of exercise that teaches disparity. Shoeboxes can be an effective tool for this. Go on your trip with the expectation God will reveal the things in your own heart you need to repent,. Think less about the ways you’ll loose the binds of bondage for people you don’t know.
2. Short term missions to establish relationship or by invitation
Another category that legitimizes a short term mission trip is the establish and/or develop/deepen existing relationships. Traveling to Cambodia to play with orphaned children is a recipe for abuse. Traveling to Cambodia to support the orphanage your church has been connected with for decades is fantastic. I know many recipients of visits who benefit from the support of Western churches highly value the relational component. They don’t want to merely cash a check, they want to connect narratives and lives.
There’s no shortage of places to visit and join so just ask around and see how you can collaborate.
3. Short term missions for specific expertise
A bunch of teenagers from Wisconsin don’t need to go to Mexico to build a house. They could for reason #1, but I can assure that kind of expertise exists in Mexico. There are, however, specific professional skills that are useful ranging from medicine, engineering, healthcare, and education. Leveraging your existing relationships, it can be an exciting (and exhausting) enterprise to meet a very specific need for a community. Bear in mind, as you offer your expertise, where you can, remember effective development will impart skills locally over the repeated visit from the expert.
A word of caution when the expertise behind shared is leadership/pastoral development. It’s somewhat suspect when Westerners attempt to build churches cross-culturally. Imparting a western style of church/leadership/development/discipleship, (which reeks of colonialism by the way), emanates from a Western church that’s experiencing a disintegrating presence. Ironically, the places where short term missionaries drop tend to be areas where the Gospel is already spreading, and the church is growing by leaps and bounds because it is NOT developed from Western theology or praxis.
Here are the reasons again (and if you have thoughts post them in the comment section):
- Short term missions for personal experience and education,
- Short term missions to establish relationship or by invitation,
- Short term missions for specific expertise
If we are honest with our intentions behind missions work we will experience profound learning while making a difference in the places we’re connected. After all, it should be a joy for all to participate in the unfolding Kingdom of God. Be blessed in your risk to do so.