Thanks to Monday Morning Insight, I found this recent article in the Washington Post questioning the benefits of short-term mission trips.
Fairfax Community Church is repositioning its mission trips “to get away from the vacation-with-a-purpose, large groups going somewhere to build something” focus, said Alan MacDonald, the church’s pastor of global engagement.
The church is sending out smaller teams of experts to work on projects with partner churches. For example, it is sending information technology professionals who are fluent in Spanish to a church in the Dominican Republic to train members in computer skills so they can get better jobs, MacDonald said.
But research has found that the trips tend to have few long-term effects on the local people or on the mission travelers. Some projects take away work from local people, are unnecessary and sometimes dangerous.
…In Monrovia, Liberia, three years ago, tragedy occurred when visitors built a school to their standards instead of Liberian standards. During the monsoon season, the building collapsed, killing two children, Livermore said.
A 2006 study in Honduras found that short-term mission groups spent an average of $30,000 on their trips to build one home that a local group could construct for $2,000.
This reminded me of a 2005 article in Christianity Today I stumbled across a while back. The author cites research that shows that participating in short-term missions does not increase support for missions later in life.
In fact, there was a great series of articles that aired opposing views, strongly suggesting that we need to do these differently or invest in long-term missions instead.
Who Gets ‘Socially Rich’ from Short-Term Missions? | How communities feel about themselves after receiving a group may be more important than the number of latrines dug or homes built. (July 8, 2005)
Mission Trips or Exotic Youth Outings? | Not everything in your church’s missions budget may be about missions. (July 7, 2005)
Do Short-term Missions Change Anyone? | Or do one week’s good intentions fall flat without a concerted effort to follow through? (July 6, 2005)
Are Short-Term Missions Good Stewardship? | More than 2 million teens go on such trips ever year, and giving may exceed that given to long-term missionaries. But is short-term ministry built to last? (July 5, 2005)
Study Questions Whether Short-Term Missions Make a Difference | Missionaries don’t keep giving after they return; hosts prefer money to guests, Calvin sociologist finds. (June 20, 2005)
I make no claim to understanding missions or how to manage a missions program. But I do feel that our churches generally do a poor job of it. After all, who in a given congregation has any expertise or knows where to go for help? And so, purely for lack of training, we manage based on good intentions rather than experience, research, and actual need. We in the Churches of Christ aren’t alone. It appears that lots of churches struggle in this area.
But as I poke around in the area, I’m finding that there are actually quite a few resources and many experts in the field, although the expertise rarely makes it to the congregational level in the Churches of Christ. We’re so very focused on theological questions and on building the local church that precious little gets said in the religious press and books about how to do foreign or domestic missions.
And so, here are a few thoughts to consider asking about your short-term mission efforts —
* Ten years from now, will anything have been changed at the place we’re going to? If so, what?
* Could this be done as well or better by locals?
* Could this be done less expensively by locals?
* Would the money have a bigger impact if invested in long-term missionaries?
* Could we do something similar in our own communities, investing the travel cost in helping people here? I mean, painting houses and churches in a foreign land is truly a good thing, but isn’t painting houses and churches in our hometown or nearby more likely to build the kingdom? To change our community? To make converts? To build a unity that matters?
Now, we’ve at times sent people to the mission field to do Bible studies, often with the many resulting conversions. That’s a long-term impact! But other times, I think we’ve just felt better about ourselves.
Therefore, it’s hardly true that all short-term mission trips are suspect, but it seems wise to me that we think about what we’re doing in light of current research and ask whether we’re truly being the best possible stewards.