On Short-Term Missions

This is a missionary I can appreciate. Very down-to-earth. No pious smokescreens. She’d probably not get support from most churches in the U.S.

She provides a sharp contrast to the standard short-term mission trip model, which is roughly as follows. A dozen (or so) privileged teen and preteen (but not infrequently adult) Westerners with fanny packs and bandanas traveling to a less-privileged part of the world under the pious presumption that they’re doing their part in fulfilling the Great Commission.

Short term mission trips might, theoretically speaking, possibly be a potentially good thing (translate that into modal logic for extra credit). Yes, there are many good things that can result from a short-term mission trip. But they are the exception to the rule. Most short-term mission trips can be summed up by one word: waste. Wasted money. Wasted time. Wasted resources. President of Center for Student Missions at a Reformed Church in America agrees (though I can’t say I’m totally on board with the platitudinous suggestions for making them better).

Thousands of dollars of airfare, logistical nightmares for the foreign hosts, consumption of already-limited food and shelter, etc. all to have reported first hand the mind-blowing revelation that other people aren’t as rich as we are and that foreign kids are cute. Invariably afterward one always “feels a calling” from God to the very place they visited. Th Lord works in mysterious ways…

missionsBut really, the idea behind the short-term mission trip is genius. It allows one to vacation around the world on someone else’s dime under the ostensibly self-sacrifical pretense of doing the Lord’s hard work. That self-sacrifice and hard work usually consists of sleeping on one mattress instead of two, eating odd but still delicious cuisine, performing a skit or interpretive dance, and maybe hammering some nails or stacking some bricks (because, as we all know, only educated Westerners know how to use a hammer or stack bricks). All of which gets squeezed in between sight-seeing. Of course, no one thinks of mission trips this way. But convincing yourself otherwise is part of the task. If you find yourself on a mission trip and begin to doubt that, just repeat to yourself “We’re not here on vacation” x3 and lo, you’ll be inoculated against reality in due time. That these trips are thought of as mission work is amusing in that sad-but-amusingly-ironic way.

But the most damning feature of short-term missions is not the disasters in stewardship they are. The the most damning feature is that they have ruined the idea of true missions and missionary work. Even apart form avoiding the utterly condescending “savior” image of Westerners stooping low enough to step on foreign soil, just think of all the waste that could be saved if we thought of missions first and foremost in terms of who’s a few feet away from me that needs help. So in addition to being better stewards, true mission work entails being better neighbors. But, thanks in-part to short-term mission work, that’s not what status quo Christianity presents as “missionary work.” “Missionary work,” according to the ridiculous accepted narrative, is all about “leaving your comfort zone” (presumably leaving your comfort zone requires traveling abroad; not coincidentally, so does vacationing). But the narrative gets things exactly backwards: short-term missionary work effectively avoids the much harder, less-comfortable task of true missionary work: that of forming and nurturing long-term relationships. Because that’s not something we can readily abandon in three weeks. That’s not something we can take a picture of and triumphantly display before a congregation of self-congratulating pew potatoes who tell themselves “this wouldn’t be possible without my support.” In short, it’s down-to-earth and cuts through pious smokescreens. But ain’t nobody got time for that.


2 thoughts on “On Short-Term Missions

  1. As someone who works full-time for a Christian overseas relief and development ministry, I appreciate your perspective on this issue. You comment, “Short-term missionary work effectively avoids the much harder, less-comfortable task of true missionary work: that of forming and nurturing long-term relationships,” reminds me of something G.K. Chesterton once wrote about the shallowness of the “metropolitan” lifestyle.

    On the one hand, I fully agree with you that short-term mission trips are, in themselves, not usually very helpful as far as contributing to the poor either spiritually or materially. This is not always the case: I know of one ministry in Nicaragua that REALLY puts those American kids to work – although, I admit, it would possibly be more cost-effective, and more helpful to Nicaragua, if they simply hired local workers.

    On the other hand, although I think you will disagree with me here, I have to say that short-term missions, if done correctly, truly are an effective way of getting American kids to become more grateful for what they have and more aware of global poverty. This goes for adults as well. One thing we do in my ministry is organize “Vision Trips” and “Mission Trips” where our donors and potential donors (usually quite wealthy) travel with us to a particular project. They may provide some token help such as handing out food during the trip, but the main purpose for the trip is for those donors to form a long-term relationship with that ministry and to see first-hand whether or not their monetary contributions are actually helping the poor. But I suppose this is a very different scenario than the typical “short-term mission trip.”

    I myself did a short-term mission trip once as a teenager. I went with my dad, who used to travel once a year to a particular Christian orphanage in Mexico. In all honesty, my presence there was just a waste of space – I had nothing to contribute, short of wrestling and goofing around with the boys. I don’t even speak Spanish. However, it was a good educational experience for me, and I look at it in context of the long-term relationship between that orphanage and my family. My parents supported the orphanage financially for many years (I believe they still do to this day) and used to sponsor one of the children.

    Sorry for the long post. But to briefly express my view: “short-term missions” are a bad way to do overseas ministry, but a possibly effective way to educate, train and open the eyes of our own children. As long as we recognize the difference, such activities can be put in their proper, humble place.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Lyric. And actually, I couldn’t agree with you more!

      Anyone who has been on multiple short-term mission tips (as I have), or has a lot of experience with them, will tell you that they’re “more for those going than those already there.” It can be a truly humbling and mind-expanding experience, and God has a tendency to work with that.But is it worth it? Sometimes, you bet. But other times, I scratch my head and think we could be wiser stewards with our time, money, and effort in advancing the kingdom. Or, at least call them “vision trips.” I like that!

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