In the past couple of weekly roundups, I’ve included links to a recent three-part series by Darren Carlson of Training Leaders International on the pros and cons of the short-term mission trip phenomenon, as well as some hints at a better way forward. As it happens, Christianity Today took up the topic in June as well, devoting its Village Green opinion section to three different perspectives.
Those who have read When Helping Hurts (my thoughts on the revised edition soon) or Toxic Charity (thoughts here) have been forced to consider the sometimes less-than-wonderful outcomes of well-intended service projects and mission trips. Some come away from those kinds of books feeling paralyzed, afraid to do anything at all. Others dig in their heels, stubbornly refusing to change course. Neither, obviously, is the right way to go, as the authors of those books do make fairly clear.
So, what did CT’s three guest columnists have to say? Here are my summaries:
- Wheaton anthropology professor Brian Howell says churches “should abandon most travel-intensive ‘projects.'” He’s concerned with travel that emphasizes relationships and learning, and urges us not to forget needs closer to home.
- David Livermore, a “cultural intelligence” guru, says the key to good short-term trips is for leaders to set clear objectives that make sense for everyone involved.
- Finally, Trinity’s Robert Priest argues that international trips and local service projects don’t need to be mutually exclusive.
The fact of the matter is that the number of short-term mission participants continues to rise (confirmed both by actual studies and by perusing Facebook photos this time of year), and increasing numbers of evangelicals are getting involved locally in service projects. As far as I’m concerned, these are positive developments, taken overall. Despite the potential of both to do harm if not done well, they can also be mutually enriching experiences for everyone involved. But they need to be done wisely. I agree with Howell, who emphasizes relationships and learning. I agree with Livermore on the importance of having clear objectives. And I agree with Priest that we shouldn’t have to choose between local projects and international trips.
If I were to add my two cautionary cents, I’d say it’s important to be realistic about what we can actually expect to come out of a short-term trip. In the economy of the kingdom, there is very little that can be accomplished during a two-week trip or during an afternoon at the local park. Real change takes time. Lots of time. Often, the one who goes to serve is the one who is impacted most positively. We need to be honest about that.
We also need to be honest about the fact that a short-term trip is a largely artificial experience. What happens in the weeks, months, and years ahead is the true measure of impact. And we should examine our motivations for participating: is it for the accolades we’ll receive at church? Is it for the spiritual buzz we’ll feel? Is it mostly to get a new profile pic with an orphan? Is it because of a resident god-complex (to borrow Jayakumar Christian‘s incisive and helpful term)?
Our motivations may never be 100% pure, and we may never be completely sure of the results of our participation. That’s reality. While all of this should give us pause and lead us to listen better, and to think and pray more deeply, we shouldn’t use it as justification for our apathy and selfishness. Following Jesus is about faithfulness, which is ultimately impossible when we play it safe and bury our treasure in the sand.
[Image credit: managedministries.com]