Brian M. Howell is associate professor of anthropology at Wheaton College and author of Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience (IVP Academic, forthcoming).
Churches should not abandon travel, but we should abandon most travel-intensive "projects."
It is good for American Christians to visit Christians in other places to witness what God is doing around the world. It is good for American Christians to visit missionaries, learning firsthand about their work and how to pray for them. The opportunity to learn from all our brothers and sisters living and working around the world is a gift many of us have received due to our relative wealth, access to technology, and leisure time. We should accept this blessing gratefully.
When it comes to projects, however, the good we do is often outweighed by the warped impressions left on both sides. For example, sending high-school students to do construction in front of poor, underemployed adults furthers the humiliation of the poor as they see wealthy North Americans casually doing jobs they would happily accept, while it reinforces the views of many American Christians that poor people cannot help themselves.
Our projects further promote views of poor people as lacking personal agency, as short-term mission teams often spend most of their time interacting with children conducting Vacation Bible School or teaching games. Teams often leave with the impression that the whole country is childlike, vulnerable, and in need of our care. When short-termers do interact with adults, it is often in unequal relationships—cooks, drivers, and other employees of the American missionaries—where true fellowship is difficult. Those ministries run by nationals who host short-term teams frequently adapt their ministry to meet the needs of visiting foreigners first and local residents second. These hosts are reluctant to ask too much of powerful guests or to confront their visitors' views and risk losing material benefits.
Unequal social relationships and a skewed view of poor communities can affect service in the United States too. However, there is a reason why many churches have little problem getting 25 youths to sign up for a project in South Africa, while the trip to a nearby urban community goes unfilled. The dynamics of international travel make it easier to imagine that we in the West have no responsibility for the problems "over there" beyond our occasional charity. We can feel good about our service without being confronted by our responsibility for the injustices we witness. In nearby urban centers, or a local apartment complex, we are more likely to be confronted with the reality that our lives are bound up with theirs, and we cannot so easily turn away from what is going on in front of us when it gets difficult or inconvenient.
We should not abandon international travel, nor should we be less generous with our resources. But if we would spend less time building walls, painting houses, or digging ditches, we could spend our time learning how the problems there are part of the problems here. These trips should serve to teach us how we are bound up together, in our economics, in our politics, and, most importantly, in Christ.
Set Objectives First
David Livermore is president of the Cultural Intelligence Center and author of several books on cultural intelligence and global leadership, including What Can I Do: Making a Global Difference Right Where You Are (Zondervan, 2011).
If you're primarily using a short-term trip to build awareness and engage people in mission, stay local. Research shows that you do not increase understanding about mission and culture more by going abroad than you do by serving nearby in a diverse neighborhood. But if your travel is tied to a larger missions initiative with overseas partners, the trip might be worth thinking about.
One shortcoming in many discussions about short-term missions—sometimes mine included—is the tendency to talk about the trips as a uniform reality. With millions of North Americans traveling each year, it's unfair to make blanket statements about all of them.
But of all the trips I've observed and participated in over the years, the single most important thing that differentiates the "good" from the "bad" short-term missions is the leadership's objective.
If your church is planning a $30,000 trip for 10 people to go to Kenya and paint a church building there, that reeks of poor stewardship. Stay home and help a single parent or local school with some painting. Send a $1,000 check to Kenya, which will more than cover the painting by local labor.
But let's imagine that your $30,000 trip to Kenya is designed to explore with Kenyan church leaders ways to jointly address an area of need. And imagine that what emerges from that discovery leads to you raising $150,000 over the next two years to help address that need. Suddenly that travel-intensive trip seems worth it.
Of course, this isn't all about money. I know there are a lot of intangibles that can come from the "paint-the-building" trip. My point is that the leadership needs to define how the investment of the travel-intensive trip will play into the long-term vision, as well as benefit churches on both sides of the border. Let's get rid of our overspiritualized, "only God knows the results" rhetoric and be good stewards, thoughtfully examining the best use of our limited resources.
Even if you decide to pursue the travel-intensive trip, it's important that you are engaged in local projects as well. There's something wrong with blindly driving by the needs in our own neighborhoods on the way to a short-term missions trip meeting.
Despite the critiques I've raised throughout the years about short-term missions, I believe they can be very effective ways to get all of us more deeply involved in mission. At the same time, I have high respect for churches that have decided to abandon the travel-intensive, short-term missions trips in favor of local projects. You can still be engaged globally by supporting long-term missionaries, and by partnering with local churches in the regions you've been called to support.
Every individual and church needs to view the question of whether or not to participate in short-term missions with an "it depends" mindset. How has God called you to engage in mission, and what's the most effective, faithful way to do so? We can leave the results to God. But the decision in the first place is one we have to own and make carefully.
Both Have Purpose
Robert J. Priest is professor of mission and anthropology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, blogs at MissiologyMatters.com, and is writing a book on short-term missions.
Mission trips and local projects are not competing alternatives. Each follows different temporal rhythms. Christians take advantage of brief slots of discretionary time—a few hours or a day—in the normal daily and weekly rhythms of work and school to volunteer for local projects.
By contrast, Christians utilize vacation blocks of time involving a week or two for dual-purpose mission trips: trips that both serve others and contribute to their own spiritual formation.
Like pilgrimages, retreats, and church camps, the mission trip functions as a sustained and communal time of spiritual formation away from the obligations, distractions, and routines of everyday life in home spaces. As early as Exodus 8:27, we find the ancient idea that a group of people should travel to get away from home for a time of intense spiritual formation, an idea that even Pharaoh was supposed to appreciate. Local projects do not sufficiently cut people off from everyday rhythms, distractions, and commitments of life to serve this function in quite the same way. Unlike campground meetings, retreats, and pilgrimages, the mission trip is "other-oriented," placing witness, service, human need, and relationship with "social others" at the center of spiritual formation.
Local projects and mission trips do not compete for the same blocks of discretionary time. Nor do they compete with each other for money already in church coffers. The travelers themselves cover much of the funding for adult mission trips. The issue is not whether a church should budget resources for a local project instead of a mission trip, but whether prosperous Christians will decide to expend their vacation time and travel money self-indulgently, perhaps at an all-inclusive resort, or to expend that time and money on behalf of others through a mission trip.
Even when mission-trip participants solicit support, they turn to friends, colleagues, relatives, and neighbors rather than church coffers. They activate or "cash in" on their social capital—their networks of mutual obligation and trust—on behalf of distant others who would otherwise not have access to the benefits of this social capital.
Because of residential segregation, American Christians are geographically distant from extremes of human poverty, violence, sex trafficking, famine, AIDS epidemics, and crises associated with earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis. And yet American Christians control a disproportionate share of the world's resources.
In such a context, an exclusive focus on the local is neither helpful to the spiritual formation of Christians, nor an appropriate stewardship of what God has given. We already expend the vast majority of our time and money locally. The mission-trip phenomenon helps ensure that global concerns are also at the core of our spiritual formation. They help to establish global social ties among Christians on behalf of global Christian witness and service. And they help mobilize interest, concern, time, and resources on behalf of kingdom purposes in a wider world.
Copyright © 2012 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous Village Green sections have discussed child placement programs facing requirements to work with same-sex couples, pets in heaven, secular television shows with moral messages, pro-life and pro-death penalty, sports and violence, virtual fellowship, online dating, Muslim-Christian relations, military drones, terminal illness, marijuana morality, credit card debt, tithing during unemployment, illegal immigrants, and giving to street people.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.