This is the first in a series of articles on the good, bad, why and how of short-term missions.
Missions has changed.
Years ago lack of technology and resources forced well-known missionaries like William Carey, Amy Carmichael, Jim Elliot, Lottie Moon and Hudson Taylor to commit their entire lives to traveling–usually by boat for great lengths of time–to a foreign location for the rest of their lives. Choosing to be an international missionary was an all-or-nothing devotion.
Today elementary school students can access events occurring across the globe through their mobile phones, and strangers living on different continents can become chat buddies via the Internet. Technology has brought the world to our fingertips.
Therefore how people approach missions has adapted. The willing and able take time off from work, temporarily pause from school or simply break from normal routines and travel thousands of miles to work on week-long projects and help meet needs in less fortunate areas of the world. While many may consider this modern reality a fantastic development in declaring the Gospel to every tribe, nation and tongue, others have made a few observations about short-term trips that leave them wondering if these ventures are doing any good at all.
Barna statistics from October 2008 show 9 percent of Americans and 11 percent of church attendees have participated in a short-term trip, with many doing so more than five years ago. This means “8 million of the 228 million adult residents of the U.S. have been on a short-term mission trip in the last five years.”
Those under the age of 25–termed the Mosaic generation due to its members’ eclectic lifestyles and variety–are more likely than members of the Boomer generation to have participated in a short-term trip.
“Mosaics are globally aware and cause-oriented,” according to David Kinnaman, president of The Barna Group. “They relish risk, stimulation and diverse experiences. And they are more sensitive to issues related to justice and poverty. Their craving to take journeys of service could fuel a resurgence of global engagement.”
Some may consider short-term trips to be an agreeable outlet for the Mosaic generation to seize adventure and aid others in a healthy fashion. Yet some disagree.
They look at the money required to send a few people–let alone a team of 10–to a foreign country for a few days or weeks and wonder if the finances could be used more effectively if sent to that location in place of the visitors and their efforts to help. Perhaps projects on the field could be handled more efficiently by a local who needs the work and income. This would also free up those hoping to go on the expensive international trip to meet needs closer to home, in their own city, state or country.
Further arguments include the opinion that those who participate in short-term trips are often unable to effectively evangelize and serve others because they do not speak the native tongue of their destination or understand the culture around them. These travelers also can be more concerned about their own comfort–going to American-style restaurants or spending down time with other teammates instead of with nationals–than impacting those who they came to reach.
Groups may insist on working according to their own methods when conducting service projects during short-term trips, and consequently ignore the advice or suggestions of a national, who then may feel inadequate, frustrated and unappreciated. If a team then leaves a task unfinished, the indigenous individual has to pick up where the foreigners left off, but lacks the experience of laboring along side them and learning the methods of their work.
Those questioning the value of short-term missions also note such trips require valuable time and energy from each group’s on-the-field host–time that could be spent in effective local ministry.
The general argument of those questioning short-term missions seems to revolve around the idea that these trips benefit the travelers more than those to whom they travel. Participants’ hearts are softened as they (at least temporarily) realize how much their lives might not be so bad, after all, when compared to the less fortunate living in third world locations. Yet consistent long-term results may still be lacking for those who make such trips, begging the question of gain for any party involved.
JoAnn Van Engen, missionary in Honduras and contributing writer to Catapult Magazine’s online publication, writes, “Short-term missions as they stand are not the answer. Third world people do not need more rich Christians coming to paint their churches and make them feel inadequate. They do need more humble people willing to share in their lives and struggles.”
Next: What’s right with short-term missions
Written by Natalie Bunch. Natalie is a freelance writer for The Upstream Collective and lives in North Carolina. She served as a missionary writer based out of Prague, Czech Republic, from 2007-2009, and plans to return to full-time international mission work with her husband in a few years.