Don’t Go on Short-Term Missions, Go on Vacation Instead

22 07 2012

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.

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14 responses

22 07 2012
ha256

Since we are wearing our critical thinking caps, your post begs some pretty sharp questions.

Assuming short-term missions trips has a place:
Who should go on a short-term missions trip?
Or better yet, how can we make more of these short-term trips?

Or rather following the general sentiment of your post:
How would people grow a heart for overseas missions?
How would someone who’s never been involved in overseas ministry “get their feet wet” or is it simply divided into those who are called and those who are not?

🙂

22 07 2012
Paul P

Thanks for the comment, Hon!

Well, the whole premise of the post was that short-term mission (STM) trips have less of a place than what we give it and we should make less of them (for our spirituality) than we currently make them out to be.

The whole ‘get our feet wet’ is an important part, but one, we can’t do so at the expense of people getting hurt. And two, how many of us just keep getting ONLY our feet wet? And three, the heart of evangelism essentially is not sprung from going on STM, it comes from seeing the dire need of those who need to hear. The ‘get feet wet’ part is usually a buffer for most to get rid of unknowns and fears of a big commitment. But to be fair, yes, experience helps motivate us, and I think if you voluntarily travel to different countries (on your own or with a couple of friends) with your own resources and visit places, it can grow our hearts.

22 07 2012
ha256

Your reply sounds much more reasonable than your initial post. The post felt very much like a straw-man argument.

I’ve gone on two trips led by two different team leaders and styles/concepts of ministry. I was open to the idea of serving overseas, but honestly, there is no real heart for it. It pretty much got cemented by my first trip. I felt like serving in the city was more up my alley. The second trip pretty much cemented that conviction.

Because of this, I’m very much in favor of STM as a tool for those trying to figure out who & where God wants them to serve/live/love. I think it can mature and help believers flesh out the Word in their lives. This is definitely held in check by the potential damage that STM teams can cause. Years of long-term ministry can be undone by a single careless/ignorant act of a STM team. /facepalm

22 07 2012
Paul P

Well, to begin. It’s not a straw-man argument. History and statistics indicate that large proportion of STM trips are harmful to natives. In a sense there is no argument at all. Something needs to change (again I’m not saying we need to get rid of it altogether).

Although I don’t doubt your calling for the city, and this may sound harsh, but it is unChristian to ‘test our calling at the expense of harming another’ or ‘flesh out the Word at the expense of another’. Again, I’m not saying this is the case for you in particular, but if it is the case that our STM’s are harmful, we have to be aware as Western Christians of that impact, and be honest with ourselves, and stop doing things because that is how things are done. Individually we may not intend that but the TGC article is implying that systematically the effect leans negatively.

And to add, yes we are not all called to long-term overseas missions, but I’ve seen many use the ‘calling’ card as an excuse to choose a more comfortable life. Ultimately, it can be boiled down to this (though I don’t like to simplify too much), whether you are abroad or at home, how much are we willing to give of ourselves so another can benefit?

22 07 2012
ha256

I agree that systematically, STM may be more detrimental than helpful to those that receive them. I guess I just wish that this boiled down to something more easily applicable. Love your overseas neighbor more effectively?

Perhaps the next TGC article will give us that.

22 07 2012
jwseo

I wonder the same question. During my collegiate days and post-grad days, I’ve received handful mission support letters, but those destinations have been Japan, Hawaii, Chile, etc for all less than 10 days. I completely agree about the ineffectiveness and short-term missions are more valuable/blessing to the members than those who were suppose to receive help.

22 07 2012
Paul P

Thanks for the comment, Josh!

23 07 2012
Justin Park

This is a great post! It’s a perspective changing post that’s definitely challenged my thoughts on STM.

I agree with a lot of the things ha256 and I wanted to add to that.

I believe that God uses STM to change the lives of, not only the people who are being served but also those who are serving. I think one of the reasons why people choose to go on missions is to gain a better understanding of the world outside of their own and how God is omnipresent and omnipotent. I just came back from a 10 day STM in Aguascallientes, Mexico (actually, it was a vision trip to pave a way for future opportunities for our church) and it was encouraging to hear the various testimonies of members of my missions team. We had a team of 10 people and for half of them, it was their first mission trip. In their testimonies, they shared how their minds were blown by how powerful God was in all the situations they encountered during their trip. They were encouraged by the church in AC, Mexico and their passion and fervor for God as well as their heart to serve each other. Some of the church members actively found opportunities to serve us. For example, there vacated their houses so that some of our team members had a place to stay. (I believe this was an example of God’s work in the lives of these church members to have an opportunity to relay generosity given to them by God) I don’t know if it’s fair to discount many of the awesome works that’s been done during short term missions by making broad generalizations about them.

One thing that I’ve learned from missions is that many times God uses unforeseeable events and situations or even seemingly meaningless actions to change peoples lives more than a thoroughly prepared VBS or perfected presentation. I don’t know if it’s fair to discourage people to participate in STM because of the unfortunate things that happened that you mentioned. To be honest, I think some of the fault should go on the church that sent the team for not properly taking the steps to make sure their works aren’t in vain. Sometimes, I think churches randomly point to where they think is a place in need, find a local church to use as a base, and send them there, hoping God will do great things. I’m not saying that He won’t do great things but I believe churches have to be more cautious in planning their STM. I think it would be a great idea for a few churches (possibly some of our own) to partner up, decide on one mission field that’s been verified to be trustworthy (whether it be through personal contacts or previous trips), and throughout the summer, have each church go for 2 weeks (one after another) for a STM. Churches could keep each other accountable to ensure that proper steps are being taken. It would also create a ongoing opportunity for those living at the mission field to regularly serve and give rather than being a constant recipient. Also this would reduce the number of one-and-done STM (single trips to a particular mission field, expecting that they’ve done a good work and never return).

To be honest, I think the problem we have to address in the realm of STM is this idea of being a “Santa Claus” type of figure to those in need. Going to mission trips for a week with the mentality of, “I’m more fortunate than these people so I’m going to help them by giving them things they don’t have” with it not being the gospel. THIS is definitely not the goal of short term missions; however, it happens. This just perpetuates the problem we have in America–materialism.

I believe God uses STM in ways we can’t imagine. I don’t think the answer is to eradicate STM from the world. I think we just have to correct our Santa Claus mentality to one that Apostle Paul carries throughout his work on earth–I am the worst of sinners, no better than you and I have nothing to offer you but the gospel. This way, everything would focused on the goal of missions. John Piper said that missions exists because worship doesn’t. And i think whether it’s short term missions or long term missions, if properly carried out, it can all be used to bring glory to God.

23 07 2012
Paul P

Great thoughts Justin! Thanks! I thoroughly agree that there needs to be more cooperation between chuches and less competition, we often unconsciously get sucked into this capitalistic mentality.

Just as an aside, I actually still believe personally that STM’s should be more than a month, I think the rest of the trips should be out-of-pocket vision trips, with less ‘doing’ and more ‘listening’ and ‘learning’. I think this may be a step towards making ‘STMs’ a stepping stone for people to transition into long-term missions.

23 07 2012
justin park

I agree with that. We could definitely learn a lot about those we wish to serve and even ourselves by taking some time to listen. Great post Paul Park!

7 08 2012
joonyounglee

Paul, why do you have to write this stuff after my STM trip?
I’ll definitely keep it in mind as I reflect. Good stuff!

8 08 2012
Paul P

Hey Joon, thanks for the comment!

15 08 2012
jessica

Appreciated your post, especially the “go on vacation” bit. I think any missionary loves to have someone swing by while traveling. And those who are using their own resources seem to have a heart to do whatever the missionary needs (at least, that’s been my experience).

But you know, a less-than-1-month STM is how I ended up LTM. And of course that’s not the rule, but it seems rather pessimistic to just write it off as an exception.

15 08 2012
Paul P

Hi Jess! Thanks for the comment. I’m not ruling out STM’s altogether, just saying there needs to be change, programmatically AND expectationally. And it may seem pessimistic, but I would actually categorize you as the minority STM’er who ended up in LTM (and even for you, I’d say you’re MTM? No?). To put it this way, to be optimistic about, let’s say, a “1% success rate” is to be blind to the need for change? (Again, I’m not saying that missions is all about numbers and such, but it’s good to pay attention when the affects harm others in very real ways.)

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