Friday, August 20, 2010

Why Short Term Missions Don’t Work

Now there’s a catchy title! I don’t totally agree with that statement, but it has the potential to catch your attention, and this is an issue that is getting me a little worked up these days, so here goes…
Over the last 20 years or so, short-term missions trips have become one of Evangelicalism’s sacred cows. I spoke with a friend recently who took a youth pastor position at a large church out west, and from what I gathered, the lead pastor required him to plan one pronto. But a good question is why? Why is there such insistence that we get kids, often as young as junior high, onto the “mission field” for a few days when every American Christian is completely surrounded by unbelievers?
Big problems:
1) Most trips are in reality about the people going on the trip rather than the people being visited. In other words, they’re about the missionary more than the mission. This is the diametrical opposite of the idea of “mission”
2) In most cases, the people (especially kids) who go are not subjected to high expectations. In other words, they get to go and “serve the poor” or “witness about Jesus” when they rarely if ever do those things at home. (Would it not be better to save the money and regularly do all those things locally? Is the big incentive to go simply the fact that they’re taking a trip?)
3) The trips often have a patronizing feel to them; the people visited are rarely the determiners of who comes or what is done, and often are not even a significant part of the decision making process
4) Many trips cater to (often spoiled and rich) white suburban kids, and are treated like vacations or sightseeing tours. Thus the term “vacationaries”! I completely understand the need to understand the culture one is visiting and the importance of visiting cultural sites, but it doesn’t have to look like a Disney trip. Think about the extra logistics and cost, not to mention the additional burden often foisted onto the receiving churches.
5) An entire industry has been built around getting American Evangelicals onto the “mission field” quick, cheap and easy. Consider this ad from Teen Serve: You can take your junior or senior high youth group for the ride of their life. TeenServe workcamp missions trips are jam-packed with life-changing devotions, and cool activities like a COFFEE HOUSE & even an E-MAIL CAFÉ!
6) Often, these missions trips are populated, at least in part, by kids whose spiritual maturity is questionable at best. Many youth pastors see short-term missions trips as an opportunity to evangelize the participants as well as the people they’re visiting, which is profoundly backwards. Only the most focused, most serious, most mature kids should be able to go.
7) This thinking reflects a fairly recent development in evangelism strategy that says that if we get lost kids into our “loving Christian community” they’re going to want to be Christians. While there is some real value in exposing lost people to healthy Christian community, missions trips are a poor choice of venue considering the purpose (ostensibly) of the trip, and ultimately it takes more than just watching real Christians to be truly evangelized. One must be confronted with the claims of Christ and the truth of the gospel.
8) A recent article in Christianity Today on emerging adults (“Lost in Transition”) indicated that the hopes of significant spiritual development taking place because of going on a short-term missions trip do not seem to be well founded. For the most part, teens and young adults who participated in a trip seemed to have no advantage over those who did not regarding whether their faith “sticks” later on into adulthood.
9) At the end of the day, the whole business smacks to me of American hubris, patronizing attitudes, and self-centeredness – the opposite of everything the Christian life is supposed to be.
All that said, I am in reality a supporter of short-term missions trips, if they could somehow be salvaged and done in a far more biblical manner.
The paradigm of the 19th and 20th centuries was one of career missionaries who went to foreign and unevangelized lands and spent the rest of their lives there. While that is still viable in many cases, the realities of the 21st century have shifted significantly, with Christians in the Global South far outnumbering those in North America and Europe. Furthermore, some of the colonialism and ethnocentrism that tainted missions of days gone by has at least been recognized and hopefully corrected in more and more cases.
I think this sets us up for a paradigm where short-term missions could be used very effectively, not unlike the “short term” trips Paul and his companions took in the first century. The key, I think, is developing real and lasting relationships between churches in the West and churches in the 2/3 world… relationships that would lead to lasting partnerships. These partnerships would be partnerships of equals, with resources flowing both ways. Things that Christians in the developing world have learned need to be passed onto Americans and other Westerners, and things Americans have learned as well as other resources could be passed onto our brothers in the developing world. This of course would require a posture of humility and openness to learning on the part of the Americans! “Missions trips” could be frequent exchanges of people with various skills over an extended period of time – an actual, ongoing partnership of working together for the mission of the Church. This would put a lot of commercial sending organizations out of business, but it would edify the church and promote the work of Christ in the world.
There is a real impact on most people who go on a short-term missions trip, not the least of which is an increased awareness of missions, but that simply cannot be the driving factor. The trip must be about the mission first, and whatever benefit comes to the missionary must be strictly collateral. Does anyone really think Paul went to Philippi for his personal spiritual enrichment? My guess is that if more beatings of short-term missionaries occurred, people would think a little harder about why they go. However, if we can find a way to do this right, both partners in the venture can be edified, and then I believe god will be glorified.
Added 07/02/12:

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