In 1998 I went on a short-term mission trip to Honduras following the devastating impact of Hurricane Mitch. I still recall the stunning site of inches of mud caked over the entire cityscape of Tegucigalpa. Unbeknownst to me, sociologist Kurt Ver Beek was watching. He conducted a study surveying 162 short-term mission participants who, like me, traveled to Honduras in 1998. He later published a devastating report on these relief efforts.[i] Among his findings were that short-term groups spent $30,000 per home to build homes equivalent to homes built by local organizations for $2,000 apiece. There was no discernable difference between the homes or in the impact of them being built by short-term groups. And perhaps, more disheartening, one year later there was no significant change in the generosity of those who had gone on the trips. Ouch!
Next week I’m going to tell you why you ought to participate on a short-term mission trip (full disclosure: I just returned from a short-term trip to Senegal). But today I’m going to explore why you shouldn’t go on a short-term trip.
I want to see the world!
“Travel? Adventure? Answer – join the Marines!” said the 1917 recruiting poster. It was with this basic mindset I thumbed through the Teen Missions catalog as a 17 year-old and settled on Trinidad, the verdant Caribbean island, where I would spend three weeks the summer after my Junior year. While there is nothing wrong with travel, a focus on tourism undermines the most significant purposes for a short-term mission trip. If you want to be a tourist, just be a tourist, don’t go on a mission trip.
I need a vacation!
You will have to use vacation time to go on your trip, and certainly it will be a change of pace from your normal routine, but your trip will not be a vacation. A mission trip, by its very definition, participates in the missional activity of God, the work of bringing his kingdom near. God’s kingdom always challenges and stretches us. A mission trip will put you in close proximity with a group of people who are likely to push your buttons and frustrate you. And all in the context of work that is uncomfortable. A mission trip is an experience in dying to self, not filling up your cup.
I want to bring Jesus to them
Wherever you’re going, Jesus is already there and the Spirit is working. And the Spirit is going to do his work with or without you tagging along. It’s this attitude of “bringing Jesus” that I think is also at the core of some of the reasons that short term missions generally don’t have the long-term impact on us that we hope it would have. The more we dissociate the trip from our normal life, the less likely it is to change us. I’ve seen students whose friends at school probably don’t know they’re Christians evangelize with the fervency of Billy Graham on short-term mission trips. Just as we can categorize and mentally quarantine our experience in certain contexts (think students on spring break, or adults in Vegas), we can spiritually quarantine our mission trip experiences in a way that actually dissociates ourselves from them. Allow Jesus to radically enter your own life and context before you think you can bring him to another context.
To accomplish X
Just as the groups headed to Honduras accomplished the construction of homes at over ten times the cost of local agencies, the projects we do on short-term trips are rarely cost-effective. If your primary reason for going is to accomplish a project you think can’t be accomplished by anyone locally, you’re probably deceived. There are lots of good reasons to have a project as a team, but as Americans we can tend to overvalue projects and undervalue relationships.
Why should I even consider going on a mission trip after this downer of a post? Hold on! There are reasons to consider short-term mission trips. Next week we’ll consider those good reasons.
Photo credit: James Montgomery Flagg/ www.nedmartin.org
For more on the Mission Trip Series, see: