Do Short Term Mission Trips Do More Harm Than Good?

Do Short Term Mission Trips Do More Harm Than Good?

Many years ago in Brazil we had a team come over from the UK to do some short term ‘missions’ work (defined in this article as 1-2 week trips run by local churches). What that meant in reality was that 10 young people came over to see our project, run a couple of holiday clubs, do some painting and a bit of maintenance, play some football and hang out with some street children. They stayed for 10 days, made their way home and I have never heard from them again (apart from the odd status update on Facebook!).

The reality was that it was a massive amount of preparation and time out from the ‘real’ ministry of my Brazilian team, a huge headache in terms of security (we employed two armed guards to watch over them at night), the extra cost to us to patch up some of the suspect ‘work’ done on our site, not to mention the whole ‘translating’ issue . One particularly ‘confident’ young man arrived on our doorstep to proudly inform me that he and his pals had come to ‘develop friendships with the locals and build bridges into the community’. The sad part about this story is not only is it true, but that this young man was serious. More than that, I suspect that he genuinely reflects much of the mind-set of many so-called Western Christians who engage in the growing trend for this type of trip. The reality was that after they left my team was tired from the strain and my wife and I needed a holiday! The effect on the community was virtually nil, apart from the hubbub caused by having a few more ‘gringos’ on site for a week or two. I found the whole experience (and other subsequent ones) troubling. However, I put up with it, in truth, because it brought in much needed finance, and helped our project to get off the ground.

Recently, I have been reading a new book entitled: ‘Toxic Charity: How The Church Hurts Those They Help & How’. This book has been a challenge in terms of thinking through similar issues as well as those of working in an inner city housing scheme. It is so easy to get caught up in the ‘helping the poor’ mentality and yet, in reality, how much of what we do (and churches in general when it comes to ‘social’ issues) actually disempowers those we are seeking to help?

We’ve just had a team of visitors from the US helping us for a week here in Niddrie and many more seem interested in coming to ‘help’ us and do some ‘missionary work‘. So, the question is why am I continuing with something I have grave reservations about? A number of reasons really:

1. It is the nature of the world we live in. Whilst not a winning argument it is, nevertheless, the reality of our world. Ours is a ministry that does not attract lots of attention or funding (although there seems to be a slow turnaround in this along with the rise of church planting). Pragmatically, allowing people to come along to the church to gain some ‘insight‘ into how our ministry works (however ‘unreal’ it is) has, historically attracted personnel (interns) and finances (for our community cafe etc). Whilst this system is in place I feel that it can be a useful tool to fulfill longer term and broader community objectives, as long as it is the cart and not the horse!

2. I ensure that those coming know the reality of their limitations. They are not coming to make a real breakthrough in our community – my team and I who live here 365 days a year will do that far more effectively than some random person who just pops up for a week to ten days and will never be seen again. Teams can be useful but only insofar as they are used to either launch new initiatives that will be taken up in the community after they have left, or they bring a real ‘skill set’ that can be used to train my people in order to equip them for the longer term benefit of our community. Of course, God can break in and do something through an individual(s) on trips like these and so we have to be careful here as well.

3. It encourages my team and the church in what is a very hard and sometimes depressing ministry with a high level of input and effort with (seemingly) very little immediate fruit. Being strengthened from the outside can have an indirect knock on effect for the community. So, in a way, an argument could be made to suggest that it does benefit them indirectly in the long term. It also encourages my people to make new friends and contacts from around the globe who they know will be thinking of and praying for what we do here. The congregation can feel the impact of a short injection of energy around the place.

4. Interestingly, at Niddrie we have many ‘repeat missioners’ who have come back more than once. This has never happened to us before and is an interesting phenomenon. Some are now choosing to take their ‘holiday time’ and use it to come to Niddrie to do ‘whatever you want us to.’ More importantly, some people in the community remember these people and are beginning to relate to them, particularly through social media like Facebook.

4. It gets our work ‘out there’ in terms of being known in the wider Christian church. As we seek to move out and plant in other schemes, train planters and aid other struggling works, it is good for us to build on our support network.

5. It exposes my team (and some of the people from Niddrie) to people from other cultures who love Christ but also think and do church in different ways. This is a good thing.

Of course, there are legitimate arguments against our approach which I am sympathetic to. For instance, how much are people really changed by this sort of ‘short term’ approach is still up for debate. According to Kurt Ver Beek of Calvin College and Robert priest of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, these trips are largely a waste of time. ‘Mission trips do not effect lasting change. Within six to eight weeks after a mission trip, most short-term mission-trippers return to the same assumptions and behaviours they had prior to the trip.’

Now, I appreciate that this was written for an American context, but it still seems a little harsh to me given that many of the people I know in full time ministry in this country started off by going on a mission trip of some sort as a ‘taster’ and/or a precursor to other things. Certainly,  we must teach those going on these trips to be realistic about mission. It is not all a great week away and meeting wonderful people. I send most of my time warning people not to get all dewy eyed and romantic about their experience with us. It does not really reflect the daily grind.

The challenge for us as a church as we move forward is to have intelligent discussions and interactions with our friends from around the globe about these concerns. We need balance between being a place where people can offer us expertise, where we can offer them insight, genuine cross cultural experience, along with biblical training and where there can be a mutuality of respect and growth as we bring the gospel to bear in each others lives and the lives of our community here in Niddrie.  Certainly, this is a complex issue that deserves deeper thought and theological reflection.

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