When my Facebook friends share the posts from this blog on their walls, it's always interesting (and sometimes horrible) to read the comments under a link to something I've written. Yesterday, in response to the short-term mission trip post, someone left a comment that I think sums up one of the mindsets we have when talking about short-term missions within the church. Her comment was lengthy and pointed out how she was changed. What she saw on her trips. What she thinks about missions even after reading what long-term missionaries and poverty/charity studies are sharing on the subject. She claimed that mission trips can be eye openers for the typical 16 year old American high schooler - or adult. She wrote about her own heart, her own experience, and how the many mission trips she has been a part of have impacted her personally.
I really appreciate anyone who is willing to engage in this conversation, even if I don't agree with what they are saying. Deciding to engage in any discussion when we're being asked to reconsider ideas we're passionate about or "the way it's always been" is commendable and takes humility. Although I highlighted a few phrases that I feel need to be explored from her comment, I commend this person for their honesty, their love for people, their desire to understand other cultures, and serve other people.
Can I reiterate a few things before moving on? 1. We don't think all short-term missions are harmful. We're simply pointing out some ideas and questions to consider as we decide how to engage in short-term missions. That said, we are uncomfortable with the sacred cow status short term mission trips seem to have in the American church. For whatever reason, this seems to be a topic we're rarely allowed to question or reexamine without church leaders getting angry and defensive. 2. We believe the American church should be involved in missions - our time lived in Haiti simply makes us less confident than most people about which methods are actually helpful and respectful towards the culture we're visiting. 3. Most of our thoughts on missions are specific to trips that involve serving in countries where there is great, physical need. We're not claiming all of these thoughts apply to every country - especially those where we find a lot of spiritual poverty, but not much physical poverty. 4. We're not flying solo in this discussion. If this series of posts was based entirely upon the questions and uneasiness we have, these thoughts would be ridiculous and should be discredited. Instead, we're drawing on many, many conversations with long-term missionaries and from brave leaders and authors who are publicly asking the church to reconsider their methods of participating in the Great Commission.
When the effectiveness of short-term mission trips began to be questioned publicly we noticed a shift in how some churches talked about mission trips. Instead of saying "We as Americans are going into a country to save the day" we started hearing leaders and team members saying, "We, as visitors to a new culture, are the ones who will really be changed on this trip. We hope we can offer something, but we also have a lot to learn. We're going so that God can change our hearts."
Admitting we'll probably be changed and challenged far more than the people we're visiting and "serving" for a week in a foreign country sounds much more honest - and even better - but is it right?
If we go all MC Hammer on this argument and break it down, what we're really saying is, "This expensive trip may or may not actually serve the people we're visiting and may even be harmful to the community where we're going - but it's not really about them. It's about us. It's about how it will change me. It's about how it will change our church."
If you read the post from yesterday, the links, and books like Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts, you know that this argument that mission trips drastically change the lives of the team members is not only up for debate - it's mostly been proven bogus. Mission trips have increased, while missions giving has decreased. Short-term mission trips have increased, while the number of long-term missionaries living abroad has decreased. More money is being spent on short term trips and less people are actually deciding to uproot their lives and live in other cultures for the long haul. Let's hold that thought while we once again admit that the most effective forms of ministry are deeply rooted in relationship and trust - which only happens when we get past the surface of a relationship and know people in deep and meaningful ways. Keeping this in mind, is it not troubling that short-term mission trips are on the rise and the number of long-term missionaries is decreasing? Is it not troubling that the few people who do decide to move overseas to serve in some mission-related capacity have a very difficult time getting their churches and friends to financially support them? I'm simply wondering if we're putting too much of our missions money on the least likely horse to win this race. Holy cow, I just used a gambling analogy in a churchy post.
The "we're here to save the day, and we're about to make a life-time's worth of difference in five days" mentality gives a lot of people the creeps, and I'm glad we're seeing that argument for short-term missions fading away. However, if we've traded that self-focused, misinformed, argument for the "This trip is really about us - not them" argument perhaps we've traded one sad justification for another.
Let's be real honest - On what planet is it ever okay to label something we're doing mostly for ourselves, "missions?"
We wholeheartedly believe that experiencing different cultures, their faith, their needs, their beauty, their courage, and their struggles may bring about awareness and can be life-changing for both parties involved. We can't say that most mission trips can be described with such glowing adjectives, because there is a whole lot of proof and research today suggesting otherwise. But we agree - there are probably healthy ways to take the love of Christ and the gospel to other cultures. However, when we personally gain any gift - even a good one - by engaging in activities that harm and exploit other cultures, and particularly the poor, our methods are never okay. Worse, when we as outsiders, are quick to defend our trips and decide we're not harming anyone, or we are the gauge of our own team's success we may be acting in a way that is short-sighted and misguided. How would short-term missions change if we really did our homework, got to know the culture or established intimate relationships with missionaries who do? What would it look like to really know the needs of the long-term missionaries - to listen - not only to them, but most importantly the leaders within the indigenous community where we're visiting?
Obviously, what's being talked about on this blog is not the end-all in missions conversations. We have a very limited perspective. People way smarter than us, better communicators, and people who have lived overseas a lot longer than we did are writing on this topic. We simply hope to play a small part in this much needed dialog. For some other great reads on this idea that mission trips are viable because of how they change us....check out these links:
Sorry, Poor People - It's Not About You
Using Your Poor Kid to Teach My Rich Kid a Lesson
I'm anticipating that people will begin to say things like, "Well - you're not saying all short term mission trips are bad, but you're not pointing to any good examples. Quit being such a Debbie-Downer." I hope people won't walk away from this discussion feeling like we're on a mission to bad-talk the American church. It's precisely our love and hope for the American church that prompts us to beg people to respectfully participate in these conversations within their local church bodies and families. The Great Commission is a big deal. So is seeing God's Kingdom advance and break through on this earth. Shouldn't the concept of missions and the methods we're using to further the gospel and grow the global church always be open for discussion and reevaluation? Shouldn't we always approach other cultures and our contribution or judgement of their needs with a heaping dose of humility and respect?