As a Christian, I’ve done my fair share of short-term mission work…local community projects, hurricane relief in New Orleans, half a year spent in Thailand. And I never once questioned whether I should go.
But now I’m also a student of International Human Rights. And as I research and read and consider the needs that exist in the world and the ways that have proven effective for addressing those needs, I’m not convinced the Church’s current model of short-term missions is the best way to solve the issues.
Before you get upset and wag your Christian finger at me, let me explain.
In my experience, missions are often held up as the “ideal,” as the climactic point of our faith. “Good Christians do mission work,” “If you really loved Jesus you’d go overseas and help.” While I agree missions should be a part of every church’s ministry and a vibrant part of any Christian’s spirituality, I think there are a few flaws within the mainstream Christian conception of mission trips.
- In short-term missions, there is often an underlying assumption that we are going in as saviors. There is a certain ego-satisfaction that comes when we sacrifice our time, our money, and our energy to go help them. We are “going over there” to do something about “those problems.” In this scenario we get to play the role of heroic rescuer. However, this sort of mindset turns people into charities, reduces dignity and can be incredibly offensive to those we are serving.
- We often approach missions with an emphasis on the goer rather than on the people being served. We talk about how this trip is going to change our own lives and faiths and what we’re going to get out of it. While this might be true, and while personal development is a worthy cause, we too often design the trip around our own motives rather than asking what will truly be best for the people we are trying to help.
- The widely practiced model of short-term missions ends up creating a great deal of dependence in developing countries. We rush in with our American mindset: we take charge and try to maximize efficiency. But we don’t usually consider the long-term effects of our actions. What happens when we leave? Urgent responses are appropriate in crisis situations, such as the aftermath of natural disasters. However, years later the focus should be on development rather than one-way giving that creates dependence and stifles local economic and social growth.
- And that brings us to…the money. According to Robert Lupton’s research in his book Toxic Charity, more than a billion dollars is spent on short-term missions each year. It’s worth asking if some of that money could be better spent elsewhere. Could it do greater good when put toward local development causes or simply donated to the projects we’re assisting? Could it be used by the project to hire local workers to build houses or pave roads, and thus create employment opportunities and help the local economy?
- A goal of short-term mission trips is often to “save souls.” As a Christian, I do believe that salvation is a basic need of every human. However, as a student of international human rights, I also know that ethically, we cannot evangelize without also adequately addressing the physical needs of those we are seeking to help. Can religion and faith be a part of international development? Of course. But it be a proxy for taking care of physical needs? No.
Am I saying never go on short-term mission trips? Not necessarily. I have seen the benefit of participating in short-term missions in my own life. However, there are ways to do it correctly and ethically. There are things I wish I would’ve spent time considering before I naïvely jumped into some of my own missions experiences, because in hindsight, I can see I made some of the mistakes I listed above.
How to do it right
- Do with instead of doing for. Empower locals. Never do for the poor what they are capable of doing for themselves. This stifles long-term development. Rather than one-way giving, invest your money into microfinance and encourage local growth and employment. If you give money to charities, do your due diligence and ensure they are using it in an appropriate manner.
- Ask “crisis or chronic need”? In crisis situations, emergency aid is appropriate and even necessary. But in situations of chronic need, time and energy is better spent teaching locals to do what we are doing for them so they are equipped to improve their own community after we leave. We must not simply transfer material goods, but rather transfer knowledge and skills.
- Do more prep and follow-up work. Learn about the language and culture before you go, simply as a matter of respect. Follow-up with those you met when you get home. A mission trip shouldn’t be an isolated experience, but should grow out of a relationship with those you are serving. Relationship-building is vital to any sort of sustainable development or aid work.
- Be willing to be self-critical. Question your assumptions. Ask questions. Don’t assume you’re going to change the world in one week. Don’t use missions as a badge on your spiritual chart. Don’t assume you are going to leave the mission trip an expert. Recognize that the trip is only the beginning. Realize you will probably learn more from the locals than they will learn from you. Seek wisdom from locals and the local church. Be humble. Don’t assume your way (or the American way) is necessarily the best way. Be culturally respectful and aware.
- Turn to your own communities first. Don’t run and do something overseas that you can be doing in your own neighborhood. We must stop seeing short-term missions as a chance to perform, and rather see it as an expression of seamless missional living that starts at home. If you want to go work with girls in brothels in Cambodia, make sure you’re also working to end the human trafficking that occurs in America. Don’t ignore the need for justice and development in your own community.
- Be realistic and honest about what you are and aren’t accomplishing in short-term missions. Are you going to change the world in a week? No. But can you encourage locals in their quest for improvement? Yes. Can you empower local development? Yes. Can you learn more about the world and bring new knowledge home with you? Yes.
- Above all, do no harm. Always consider the long-term effects of your work. The personal benefits the goers receive are not worth inflicting harm (even unintended harm) on the communities we are trying to help. It is vital to subordinate self-interest to the interests of those we’re serving.
Before you peg me as the bad guy, let me acknowledge that I do believe most short-term mission trips are planned with good motives. And I know many short- and long-term missionaries who have navigated these difficult waters with grace and wisdom. We want to help. We want to serve like Jesus. We want to give. But we must do so intelligently, ethically and with consideration of what is truly best for the communities we are serving. Because that is how Jesus served. We must not sacrifice long-term, sustainable development for short-term results or self-gratification. We must empower local communities and involve them in our projects, while also being aware of our own motives and assumptions. We must cultivate lives with a missional focus that begins at home and spills over into the rest of the world.
(Ideas adapted from Toxic Charity by Robert D. Lupton, Serving with Eyes Wide Open by David A. Livermore, and my from my brilliant classmates in INTS 4987: Forced Labour & Human Trafficking, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.)