Monday, November 15, 2010
Are Short-Term Mission Trips the Answer?
Americans spent $1,600,000,000 on short-term missions (STMs) in 2006 alone. The phenomenal growth of STMs over the past decade is accompanied, or fueled, by much positive press. Reports claim that STMs accomplish much in the host community and have a positive impact on those who go, especially in terms of their becoming further engaged in missions through giving and becoming long-term missionaries. While there may be some truth in these reports, a different story line is also emerging, one that is questioning whether STMs are as good as advertised. (When Helping Hurts, 161)
A few years ago, if you would have asked us, "Can mission trips be a bad thing?" our church-going, party-line answer would have been, "No. Never ever. Mission trip, good. Grunt. Grunt." We may have even talked about what a jerk you were to raise such a ridiculous question. Now, we're always a little leery of people who are threatened by questions, and our thoughts on mission trips have morphed a bit.
When Helping Hurts and living in Haiti have both caused us to rethink short term mission trips. We read When Helping Hurts before moving to Haiti so it has also been a great resource for us as we seek God about what ministries to serve alongside and advocate for in this country. The ideas we learned from this book, and several other resources have erased the happy go lucky thoughts we had about missions, and in their place, a lot of fear of God, and humility now reside in our souls as we consider the topic of mission work.
When Helping Hurts does not advocate that all short term mission trips are unhealthy or hurtful. Living in Haiti we see where teams come in and do a lot of good alongside healthy, gospel-centered ministries in this country. Many people who live in Haiti long-term will admit that a short-term trip to Haiti was part of their story that God used to move them to Haiti full-time. Lots of long standing, incredible missions organizations have seen some people come, serve, and then become strong advocates for ministries here, and the first ones to send money or raise it when there is a great need. Not all short term mission trips are bad.
However, we also have a front row seat to a lot of possibly harmful things done in the name of Jesus in this country we love.
With all of those thoughts swimming around in our mind, here's where we have personally landed as a couple:
Do we think STMs are bad? No. But sometimes they are.
Do we think STMs are good? Sure. But not always.
Do STMs need to be rethought? Definitely.
Do we think churches should be better informed and more cautious about how trips are planned, what the goals are, and who they are partnering with when they travel? A very emphatic yes.
We love missions, we believe God's people need to cherish the Great Commission, be willing to go, and that we all need to be better aware of how other people are living (maybe surviving is a better word) in other countries.
But here's what has changed for us...if we lived in the States, and our church was planning a short-term mission trip, we'd definitely not feel bad for approaching the mission trip issue with a lot more caution and prayer. Gone are the days when we'd be guilted into signing up for a mission trip, because gone are the days when we hear the words "mission trip" and immediately assume that means something healthy is automatically about to go down.
"...defenders of STMs argue that such trips should be seen as an investment that yields large returns for the kingdom by producing increased missions giving, more long-term missionaries, and profound, cross-cultural relationships. At first glance this argument seems plausible. Many returning STM team members declare: "My life has been changed, and I will become an active participant in God's mission movement.!" Indeed, it is common to hear long-term missionaries report that an STM experience was part of what led them to pursue a longer commitment. And many STM teams report that the deep relationships they formed with people in the recipient communities were the most significant part of the trip. While no doubt these statements are sincerely made, there is growing evidence that these reports seriously overestimate the long-run impacts of the trips on those who go.
Kurt Ver Beek, an assistant professor of sociology at Calvin College with more than twenty years of experience in Honduras, has conducted research into the long-run impacts of STM trips on team members looking beyond their initial statements to their actual behaviors. Ver Beek's data indicates that there simply is not a significant increase in long-term missions giving for either the team members of the sending churches. It is also hard to support the claim of increase in number of long-term missionaries, given that the number of long-term missionaries is fairly stable despite the explosion of STMs. And as for all those great relationships that get developed, the reality is that only a small percentage of STM team members ever have any contact - at all - with their new "friends" after the trip ends (When Helping Hurts)."
Obviously, we don't think that churches or God's people mean to do harm in the countries where they go to serve and share the gospel. We don't think that churches want to use money to fund a trip or experience, instead of using that money in a more positive, useful, long-reaching, Kingdom building way. After living in Haiti, we simply recognize that serving a country like this is complex. People who have lived here for 20 years are still struggling to understand how best to love and care for the people of Haiti. So obviously, planning a healthy, short-term mission trip, from the States, thinking through all the ramifications, and making sure the trip's end result (for the Americans going, and the people in the country they are serving) is beneficial is also going to be complex. Probably more complex.
Lots of ministries in Haiti need money. Orphanages need generators. Children's homes need new roofs. So, sending a team of people to play with orphans, instead of sending money for a generator is a hard call to make. If two team members stayed home and sent the money it would cost them to actually go, an orphanage could have a generator. Complex issues to think through. Sending a team to build a roof on a children's home in a country where local men are in desperate need for work, is again...a hard call to make. How can a short term team pour into Haiti in a sustainable, healthy way?
We believe it's a legitimate question to ask..."Should we send money, or people or both?" We believe STMs should be approached as complex, and that through prayer and information gathering, churches can ask for wisdom from God to know how to wisely lead their congregations to be a part of missions, by either going or sending money. Maybe a short term trip will be the answer to do something like construction work for a missions organization. Or maybe a church will access the situation and decide it would be best to send a foreman and enough cash to employ and train a handful of Haitian men for an entire year while that foreman also disciples Haiti's husbands and fathers as he works alongside them on projects.
We agree that traveling to a third world country (like Haiti) has a way of opening up our eyes to the poor and to issues related to poverty. But after our eyes have been opened, do we always need to sign up for another trip every time the church pulls out a sign-up sheet? Instead, after we've already been on a short-term trip, do we need to ask God to help us to live faithfully and wisely in the States so that we can send more money to organizations already on the ground fighting spiritual and physical poverty? Do we need to become better advocates in our own sphere of influence for ministries that God is using in other countries? Sometimes going on a mission trip is admittedly about us. I don't think that's necessarily bad. Sometimes the person who got the most benefit out of a trip is the person who went, whose eyes were opened. We get on a plane thinking we're going to serve a country and yet we come home realizing the opposite happened. We learned so much from the people we went to serve.
But on the other hand, perhaps becoming a "short term mission trip junky" is a little silly and possibly even detrimental.
When it comes to orphans, I'll get a little more strong in my language. Please forgive me ahead of time. I'm not always sure it's healthiest for team after team to come in, hold babies, semi-connect with children who are living in an orphanage, and then leave. Yes, the American holding the baby may be changed by the experience. The baby or child left in the orphanage? Another rip. Another tear. Another moment when connection was jump-started, only to have the kill switch pulled. Healthy? I'm having a hard time seeing how that could be good for a child. This is a tough situation, because we want hearts to hurt for the orphan, and seeing a child in an orphanage is a sobering moment. But I find myself asking, "Would it be better for churches to fund higher ratios of native nannies in orphanages who will love the kids, every single day, and connect deeply to each child?" Connection. A sense of belonging. Consistency. These are things an orphan is longing to have. So I wonder if it would be better for churches to spend time at an orphanage training nannies about the importance of bonding and child development? To find ways to help orphanages stay small, well-run, and equipped with the tangible items they need to care for Haiti's orphans?
We want hearts to be broken for the orphan, but never at the expense of the orphan.
To sum it up, we think When Helping Hurts is a must-read for church leaders and/or people who plan mission trips. It won't give all the answers, but it raises great questions, and in the least helps churches think through the idea of short term missions with a lot of seriousness, weight, and dependence upon the Lord for wisdom and vision.
After raising some valid concerns, the authors of the book go on to give practical ways to make sure a short term mission trip is healthy and doesn't harm the people being served. They give tangible, clear advice for planning a trip that will be a blessing instead of a burden.
If you are planning to come to Haiti specifically, the authors of When Helping Hurts have made available a webinar about serving in this country. You can access that information here.
Desiring God has an entire series on Rethinking Short-Term Missions. Very helpful and very practical.
We echo what Bill Walsh says in the introduction to the series:
"Please don’t receive these challenging articles as admonitions to drop short-term missions as a strategy. Rather, use them to think carefully and prayerfully about how your team should approach this task in a way that will honor the Lord and serve the cause of expanding the Kingdom."
Since many of you are involved in church leadership, and many more of you are involved in churches, as we continue to humbly and fearfully think through the idea of short term missions as a couple, we'd love for you to share any ideas, approaches, or screening processes your church uses as they make decisions about how and where to lead God's people to be involved in mission trips.
Short Term Missions
When It's About Us
Why You Should Consider Canceling Your Short-term Mission Trip