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.
“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.”
I have seen ST trips that were nothing more than sight seeing events where “white folk” handed out junk to needy kids. I have also seen ST trips to the same region that were transformational for everyone who participated, especially the communities that were served.
“Serving” often is the key word. If the trip is intended to serve as a photo op, publicity tour, or feel good experience than it hurts the heart of God. If it intended to seek and to SERVE and to SAVE those who are lost and/or in need, it is world changing.
I know at least one person who is in full-time ministry because of a ST mission trip. (Me) My time in prayer alone for and on the trip was life changing.
Shouldn’t the short-term mission trip be about the poor and their needs? I don’t think that the whole idea should be chucked out but it needs a dramatic overhaul. I totally agree that service should be a part of every Christians walk. However, the recent trend to descend on an area and throw money at every thing that moves needs to be addressed.
We recently had several interns from an International Studies program at a Christian university come to spend some time here in Paraguay. while they were here we did a book study of “When Helping Hurts” by Steve Corbett. It took a different view of poverty alleviation. It framed this conversation very well and gave some practical adjustments to the concept of short-term missions.
I found Holy Soup about a month ago and “could put it down.” I went back and read all of the posts over the following few days. Great stuff. Thanks
Open their eyes and you might open their hearts.
Open their hearts and you might build a servant.
Thanks, Thom. I hear this kind of stuff from time to time, too. My biggest response is pointing them to the young people I’ve served with on Workcamps. Through serving others their lives have been forever transformed by God’s grace.
I recently spent one day,
just one day passing out food boxes in a farm labor trailer park.
Now I could not talk to these folks. I do not speak Spanish But the team I was with could.
My job was to haul the box from the truck to the trailer and pray while doing so.
I was consumed with thoughts about how rich I am in Christ and God’s provision in my life.
Spending a week serving like this would be a delightful experience.
In general I agree with your thoughts – there is value in short-term missions trips if they are done well. The concern I hear often (and particularly from non-Christians, who couldn’t care less about the effect of the trip on the Christian kids who go on it) is: why not spend that $8000 on food and clothing for the homeless in your city, and take those same kids to do a “service project” at the homeless shelter? The answer that is presumed is that the kids wouldn’t be interested in a stay-at-home service project. And there’s some truth in that. Why do our “service projects” need to involve expensive travel? Why not serve at home and send the $8000 to the missionaries to hire local workers and buy local products to distribute as needed? I’m not being antagonistic here – I’ve been on two overseas missions trips and have two kids who have also gone overseas on short-term missions – one of whom is now in her second year of college studying intercultural studies in preparation for full-time missions work. So I’m looking for some genuine answers as to why do we think teens need to go overseas to do a service project, when the majority of the money they raise is spent on travel, not on goods and services for the people they are supposedly serving?
I agree that a well-run short-term mission trip does create a committment to service among the participants and often does make a lasting difference in the community served. Additionally, I would argue that it also produces life-long givers who financially support long-term missions throughout their lives. Would participants of short-term mission trips give at all throughout their lives if they hadn’t seen the need first hand? My husband and I give over and above our tithe each month in support of a variety of ministries, many overseas. Having been in some of these countries even for just a few weeks in high-school, college and early in our marriage certainly was a deep influence on our committment to give. Would we give at the level we do had we not gone? Probably not.
That is a great point, Sarah.
Let’s round up the white guys with the microphones. 🙂 We will GLADLY take them on our next trip with us. I can GUARANTEE they will come home changed. Not only does it change the youth/adults who serve AND those they serve, it changes people back at home!
Thanks Thom…sure glad I am a Christ guy and not a white guy as in the article. I know the impact on youth and adults. I see it all the time. I continue to hear about it from former students.
i was called to ministry during a short term missions project –with YUGO in Mexico, as an adult leader of my church’s high school fellowship. The speaker asked if I would give everything to Jesus…the first year I couldnt, the 2nd year I did.
having said that, I wonder what the experience is like for some of the kids that we send. Too often they come back with pictures and descriptions of how much fun they had and who they met, but don’t often share how God changed them through the experience.
until one visits the place and explore the things He/She will not understand the situation. so whether long/short term please known the details of the place and situation of mission area and know the facts
Is the point that WE be changed through a mission trip? I thought missions was about bringing people to Christ so that THEY would be changed. (I grew up on the mission field and I can tell you we had some people come to “help” us who were more interested in sightseeing than in serving or evangelizing.)
If the point of steering away from short term mission trips is that they waste money (i.e. expensive air fare, expensive hotels, cost of security in third world country, etc.) than we should make sure our students have learned the lessons of service in their own communities. I took a group of teenagers this past summer to an inner-city area near our home instead of the overseas trip that they all wanted to go on. After a week of serving, sweating, praying and loving those who were in need (of love, prayer, and service) the students who were furious that we did not go to a foreign country were in tears confessing the realization that God calls us to mission work in our own town, state, country as well as the rest of the world. Trips that only emphasize what can be done “over there” can lead students to be lazy followers at home.
I think this is a great point. An additional benefit of serving close to home is that the service can continue long-term, making it easier to transition from a transformative week to a lifestyle of sacrificial service.
“Additionally, I would argue that it also produces life-long givers who financially support long-term missions”
There’s an interesting study by Kurt Ver Beek that addresses this argument. You might be surprised at the results.
Most such trips like this are little more than an expensive version of visiting the zoo. “Oh, look, people have less stuff than us! So sad!”
It is highly arrogant and condescending. And yet I would agree that many youths have their viewpoints changed by such a trip. They see how good they have it here at home. Unfortunately I think this is the wrong message to take home. The message should be “Wow. They are people, just like us. They aren’t the _________ the media and our cultural ignorance made them out to be.” This type of observation is difficult, however, when your youth are driving around en masse like tourists. Oh yeah, not to mention learning the language…
Save your money. Like Maureen suggested, find some poor people near you. Help them. Get to know them. It could have the same pronounced effect of service on the youth without the expense wasted on airfare…