Why do some find it fashionable to bad-mouth short-term missions?

I heard it again at a recent conference. The American white guy at the microphone implored the roomful of Christian volunteers and donors to cease their spending on mission trips. Citing his own time spent working among the poor, he urged the group to “do the math” with the costs of sending teams on mission trips.

Using a sample cost of $800 per person for an overseas trip, he multiplied that a team of 10 “wastes” $8000 on their “poverty vacation.” He said such trips provide no real benefit to the needy people they target, and often do more harm than good.

His argument has been repeated by a number of American white guys who like to speak and write on this subject. But why? I don’t know. They seem unmoved by actual facts and common sense.

Obviously, spending a week serving in a community crippled by extreme poverty will not reverse a hundred years of oppression. But that was never the intent. The real purpose is to show Christ’s love through service. And, more importantly, short-term service creates life-long servants and passionate followers of Christ.

Gordon College researchers studied these effects among adolescents who engaged in volunteer service. In addition to their own research, they cited others’ studies that found that teenagers who are involved in service projects are much more likely to be involved in service as adults.

The researchers wrote, “These findings suggest that those who want to help young people develop a rigorous, meaningful faith life should involve them in meaningful service.”

I’ve seen the effect of mission trips on youth and adults through my work with the Group Cares organization, which has helped hundreds of thousands of youth and adults serve over the past 35 years. I’ve seen teenagers carry their devotion to Christian service into adulthood and into parenthood of the next generation. I’ve seen how a week of service positively impacts the needy–and ignites those who serve for lifetime service, affecting countless additional needy people.

And I’ve seen the dramatic spiritual impact not only on those who are served, but on those who serve.

Group Magazine surveyed Christian college students at 10 schools around the country. Students were asked to identify a moment in time when their faith in Christ was especially launched or solidified. The number one answer? A mission/service trip.

Short-term missions provide potent life-changing experiences. Yes, they must be not only well-intentioned but well-organized and truly helpful. They must love, engage, involve and respect the needy they serve. And volunteers’ service must be interpreted through scripture, drenched in prayer, and carefully debriefed after they return home.

Then, do the math. And count the real eternal return on investment.