American Christians go on short-term mission trips en masse. In 2006, 2.2 million Americans went on a mission trip, according to the authors of When Helping Hurts. To fund these trips, churches spent $1.6 billion. They spread out across the globe doing all kinds of things — building church buildings, distributing tracts, hosting camps, digging wells, bandaging wounds, and maybe occasionally visiting tourist destinations.
The amount of good that they did is incalculable. But is it possible that they did harm as well?
Five Reasons Your Short-Term Mission Trip Might Do More Harm Than Good
This is a very uncomfortable question — are short-term mission trips doing harm? After all, aren’t short-term missions a sign of our love, our missionary heart, our altruism, our servanthood, our sacrifice? Don’t we spend hard-earned money from fundraising carwashes and bake sales to buy expensive airplane tickets and medical supplies? Don’t we engage in hours of training and preparation? Don’t we subject ourselves to dangerous diseases in primitive conditions? Don’t we do something hard and sacrificial when we could be enjoying a relaxing summer vacation?
What harm could come of this?
Sadly, there is potential for harm. When one person places themselves into the life of another person, both people will be changed. The sum of such change, it is hoped, is mutually positive. But when such interaction is affected by the complex factors of language, culture, socio-economic differences, worldviews, and values, the outcome may differ.
In this article, I’m proposing X reasons why we should rethink the short-term mission model. I am not attacking short-term missions. I have a passion for Great Commission living, and the whole-hearted risk-taking pursuit of going to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). Jesus commands mission. Christians must respond.
However, if our attempts in missions are doing harm — unintentional though it may be — we need to find a better way. No Christian travels off to a foreign land to cause confusion and misunderstanding. Yet if that is the result of such a trip, then we need to take a hard look at why that’s happening, and how to prevent it.
Here are some of the sources of potential harm.
1. Misunderstanding the culture.
Perhaps the broadest and most damaging aspect of short-term mission trips is a misunderstanding of the culture. By culture, I’m not merely referring to the surface aspects of a culture — food, manners, dress, smells, sights, etc. Instead, I’m discussing those foundational aspects of a culture — value systems and worldviews.
These cultural components form the bedrock of a person’s identity as a member of their community or nation. These fundamental building blocks of identity take a lifetime to understand, adapt to, and interact with. It is extremely difficult for a first-world Western Christian with a vastly different worldview to come into the context of a differing culture and adapt seamlessly, causing no offense or misunderstanding.
It is true that we as Christians share an identity with other believers that transcends cultural barriers. When we travel an ocean and worship with other believers, we share a joyful fellowship that needs no mutually understood language in order to interact. But this reality doesn’t negate the fact that there are a myriad of under-the-surface aspects that also impact the relationship — some, perhaps, negatively.
Here are just two examples, though dozens more could be cited.
• The view of time. Most Westerners see time as something linear — proceeding onward and forward. We view time a resource, which is why we “save time,” “use time,” “buy time,” “budget time,” and “give time.” This differs from a cyclical or nonlinear view of time, a viewpoint of billions around the globe. According to this view, time is not something that they feel compelled to check, save, or budget. Instead, the time is comprised of cycles — day/night, full moon/new moon, birth/death. These two vastly different views of time can clash. A missionary becomes frustrated when “nobody shows up on time,” and “things never get done in this country!” On the other hand, the national is confused that the westerners seem to always be in a hurry, are rushing through their work, want to see more patients than they can adequately care for, preach for only thirty minutes, and only stay for a short time.
• The view of relationships. Many western relationships don’t have the strict hierarchy shared by others around the world. Sure, young people are taught to respect their elders. But what Western teenager is taught to avert his eyes, bow his head, and refrain from speaking to someone older than himself? In other cultures, if a teenager looks an elder in the eye, offers a handshake, and keeps his head up, he might be viewed as brazenly offensive. There are cultures that demand specific variations in language and forms of address depending how one is positioned in relative chronology to their interlocutor. It’s an intricate waltz with a million untaught steps that come by sheer practice and immersion, not by a two-week pre-field crash course in “cultural differences!” Because they are ignorant of these practices, nationals may be forgiving, but some cultural faux pas are so egregious that they may cause deep and longing pain.
A carefree teen may walk unknowingly upon the grave of an ancestor, committing a serious offense in the mind of the national. A casual hand gesture might be interpreted as shockingly obscene. A Western mother’s treatment of her baby might, by the host culture, be viewed as cruel and inhuman. Though we Westerns lack any context or knowledge of these intricacies, we may nonetheless be causing serious harm because of our ignorance.
2. A bewildering financial value system.
Many churches take mission trips to third-world cultures. We Westerners have a lot of money. They don’t. Thus, we spend money to visit them and provide something for them — spiritual or material provision.
The very fact of our doing so sends a message. Let’s say ten teens spend $2,000 each to go to Mexico for two weeks. The trip costs, to use round numbers, $20,000. Thus, it costs $1,428 per day for the team to stay in Mexico. What are they doing? Perhaps hosting VBS, painting a church building, or distributing literature on busy street corners.
The Mexican believers aren’t ignorant of these costs. They aren’t ignorant of the fact that they themselves could paint the building or give tracts to others. They have some idea of how much an airplane ticket is, how much Columbia hiking boots cost, the price of an Osprey backpack, and the sticker price of an iPhone that’s used for taking pictures or playing Flappy Bird.
Perhaps these Mexicans are living on four dollars a day. What does the cost of this trip say to the people? What message does it send regarding our financial values compared to theirs? What does it say about the value of their own labor — if they were to do the work of building a church or running VBS? How could this trip impact their view of American Christians?
It’s impossible to say exactly. But how often do we go into a country, without even thinking of the impact that the trip itself will have, regardless of the individual interaction with have with the individuals.
3. A warped view of “missions.”
Short-term mission trips do not offer an accurate perspective of the life of a missionary. There is so much that simply cannot be grasped during ten days in a foreign country. For long-term missionaries, the romance wears off after the typical two-week period of a short-term trip.
The reality of missionary life is a lot different than a short-term trip experience. Homesickness, language frustrations, culture-shock, culture-disgust, relationship-building, visa acquisition, food sickness, etc. — these are aspects of life that can only be grasped by doing instead of just hearing about them.
But these are tangential issues, compared with the core concern — that missions isn’t merely about one Christian going to a different culture to plant a church or dig a well. Missions isn’t even about crossing cultures. Missions isn’t about us giving them something that we have that they need.
A basic understanding of missiology is usually not part of the pre-field curriculum for most short-terms. De-briefing, if present, usually overlooks the core of what missions is all about, and why it matters.
But this is the elephant in the room. Is short-term missions really missions? If so, what is our biblical warrant and justification for doing so.
4. A skewed view of the recipients.
When we as Westerners go to visit non-Western cultures, especially third-world cultures, our viewpoint is sometimes fraught with misconceptions. At times, we feel, without even meaning to, that we have something to offer that they lack — be it our Bible knowledge, skills, experience, or material goods. We come bearing this sense of privilege, and interpret what we see is their lack. Could it be, however, that we are the ones who lack? A full and meaningful life is defined by more than the amount of wealth and access to amenities!
Sadly, a subtle paternalism creeps into our behavior and viewpoint. We take on, however unintentionally, a God-complex. We are rescuers. We are coming to provide for what they lack. The reality may be completely opposite. We go to give, but do they need or want what we are offering? Is it going to do them good, or cause them harm? Do we instead need to learn from them? To understand the joy that is present when physical comforts are absent? To know what it means to know God when there are only scraps of Scripture available in their language, and only occasional visits from an itinerant evangelist? To grasp the brevity of life and the importance of relationships?
For short-term missions to be truly valuable to both parties, the missionaries should take the stance of learners.
5. Superficial relationships
As noble as our intentions, there is no way to build a deep relationship in just a few days or weeks. Although our hearts may be full of love and respect for the people whom we visit, we simply do not have time to create a relationships that means much to both of us
Going back to the view of time and relationships cited earlier, westerners are accustomed to superficial relationships. We are even accustomed to thinking that a few interactions, a couple coffee-shop Bible studies, or even several long phone calls qualify as “friendship.” for another culture, however, “friendship” may be unattainable without years of building, forging, and learning from one another. Sure, there may be that spark of joy between the two of you, and a deep sense of affection. But the relationship may still be superficial.
We come, and then we go. And we leave behind a semblance of friendship that simply cannot be maintained. More tragically, we sometimes make promises that we cannot fulfill — that we’ll send pictures, money, letters, or emails.
Short-term mission trips have had a profound and positive impact in my life. As a missionary kid growing up in Korean-speaking Canada and South Korea, I learned a lot from the teams that came to visit us every summer. As a missionary intern in Africa, I interacted with four different mission teams during the course of one summer. In my years at a Christian college and a lifetime of church ministry, I participated in short-term trips, both domestic and international.
In short, I applaud the good that short-term mission trips can do. I praise God for the life change that I’ve seen for both recipients and participants. I’m confident that thousands of people have experienced the calling of God to the mission field as a result of a trip. I’m confident that thousands of souls have been ushered into the Kingdom as a result of these trips.
And I am confident that with careful planning and deliberate preparation, such short-term trips can maintain a solidly positive impact. Admittedly, this article raises questions, not provides answers. Questions are a good place to start in order to understand the problems, then correct our course to make the necessary changes.