On this trip home, I was disproportionately excited to be on Asiana Airlines from my Seattle to Incheon leg. The flight was fully enjoyable, the polite service, the leg room, lotions in the bathroom, etc and etc, but there was something on that trip that egged my critical psyche the entire way. A short term mission team.
Observing them in Seattle-Tacoma Airport, I naturally assumed they were headed to China or maybe Japan, but came boarding time, and this mission team ended up sitting two rows behind me headed toward South Korea. This really bothered me. My criticisms of short term mission trips have waned over the years, in part, due to my intentional desire to be less critical and in part, due to hypnotically convincing myself that God can do great things with anything, maybe I erroneously used Philippians 1:18 as proof-text to let go of my critical ways. But the criticisms are back, and I believe it’s warranted.
Darren Carlson writes a TGC blog titled, “Why You Should Consider Cancelling Your Short-Term Mission Trips“, concerning the detrimental effects of massive waves of apocopated short-term mission trips. He begins with an eye opening picture of what really happens:
I have seen with my own eyes or know of houses in Latin America that have been painted 20 times by 20 different short-term teams; fake orphanages in Uganda erected to get Westerners to give money; internet centers in India whose primary purpose is to ask Westerners for money; children in African countries purposefully mutilated by their parents so they would solicit sympathy while they beg; a New England-style church built by a Western team in Cameroon that is never used except when the team comes to visit; and slums filled with big-screen TVs and cell phone towers.
I have seen or know of teams of grandmothers who go to African countries and hold baby orphans for a week every year but don’t send a dime to help them otherwise; teams who build houses that never get used; teams that bring the best vacation Bible school material for evangelism when the national church can never bring people back to church unless they have the expensive Western material; teams that lead evangelistic crusades claiming commitments to Christ topping 5,000 every year in the same location with the same people attending.
And here’s a bit of food for thought he provides by hypothetically switching roles, where a mission trip might desire to come to the States:
Imagine a team from France calls your church and says they want to visit. They want to put on VBS (which you have done for years), but the material is in French. They have heard about how the U.S. church has struggled and want to help you fix it. They want to send 20 people, half of them youth. Only two of them speak English. They need a place to stay for free, with cheap food and warm showers if possible. During the trip half of the group’s energy will be spent on resolving tension between team members. Two people will get sick. They’d like you to arrange some sightseeing for them on their free day. Do you want them to come?
Ever since 2006, I told myself I would not go on a mission trip shorter than a month. The reasons have evolved and been refined, but the conclusion has been the same. This is not to say that we should rid the world of short-term mission trips. There is a place for them, although much of the formatting, I believe, is outdated, ineffective, and in need of much revamping. And then there is that argument that missions is about spirituality and not about poverty, efficiency, earthly development. Possibly, but essentially no, but to get into that argument in detail would have to wait for another time. What we can instead quickly ponder upon concerning this argument is why must spirituality always be conjoined with spontaneity (almost to the point of brashness)? Why does everyone forget spirituality has just as much to do with wisdom and patience?
Normally, I would end with “But I am not saying you should not go on your current mission trip” but I won’t. I think a lot of us should not go. Part of my plane ride to Korea, I tried to calculate how much money it cost to send that Seattle mission team to Korea for two weeks. I let out a huge sigh of frustration further thinking about how those resources could have gone to long-term missionaries. This could be part of the revamping. Raising just as much money and giving it all to longer-term missionaries. Or if you really want to go, go on vacation, out of your own pocket, go, experience, possibly even by yourself without a team, and learn. Instead of initially always trying to do, do, and do, maybe we can first learn to kneel and listen.