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Thursday, January 14, 2016

Misguided Missions: The Problem Defined

What's the problem with short-term mission trips?

Well, I think there's not always a problem. But there are potential problems. Check out the intro to this article from the Gospel Coalition:  Why You Should Consider Cancelling Your Short-Term Mission Trips:
I have seen with my own eyes or know of houses in Latin America that have been painted 20 times by 20 different short-term teams; fake orphanages in Uganda erected to get Westerners to give money ... teams who build houses that never get used; teams that bring the best vacation Bible school material for evangelism when the national church can never bring people back to church unless they have the expensive Western material; teams that lead evangelistic crusades claiming commitments to Christ topping 5,000 every year in the same location with the same people attending.
Holy cow -- talk about unintended consequences. Here you think you're just loving some motherless African babies, and suddenly people are building fake orphanages to get your American dollar.

Please go read the article in its entirety.  It discusses how economics, power, dependency, and motives can all go awry when we set out to do some Christian evangelism and service in a faraway place for a week or two.

Economics. Mission trips bring money. They inadvertently may create a market for the very thing they are trying to eradicate. (For an extreme example, imagine a Western team buying prostitutes out of sex slavery in India. When you deal in human flesh, whatever your motives, you risk creating a market for more human flesh.)  Mission trips may also destroy markets that were doing fine before they got there. The article above describes how clothing donated to Africa hurt the local clothing market.

Power.  Can receiving countries say "no" to American teams coming? Should they? The power differential might make it hard, even if it's burdensome for locals to host (and keep busy) teams of American church-goers who announce that they're coming to serve.

Dependency.  This is the biggest consideration, in my opinion. Dependent relationships are not healthy relationships! In the long run, it may often be better for a local village to figure out how to fund, build, and maintain their own village well than to have a team of American engineers come every year to fix it for them. It may be better for the local church, however poor it is, to figure out how to care for their own orphans. Dependency kills initiative on the part of the dependents, and probably isn't good for the other party either.

Motives.  The article states that the Bahamas receive one short-term missionary for every fifteen residents. This should give us pause. Are we (American church-goers) going where we are most needed, in the ways we are most needed, and staying home if we are not needed? Or do we value our own cool, self-validating experience more than we value the ultimate good to other people?

I don't think all short-term mission trips are bad, and there are ways to address all of the above considerations. The follow-up article over at Gospel Coalition is great: Toward Better Short-Term Missions.

In addition to many helpful principles and suggestions, it ends with this quote:
But the beauty of gospel ministry is that God is not handcuffed by our foolishness. He is still accomplishing his purposes amongst the nations. For any harm we may cause, God is using others to bring great advances for the gospel. So become a thoughtful global Christian. Think critically about cross-cultural engagement. Be convicted if you are harming the church in other cultures. But know that in the end, God is still on his throne, and his work will be accomplished.

This is the second part in a short series on the evolution of my views on mission trips. With two million Americans going on short term missions yearly (according to, it makes sense to evaluate whether these trips are worth the expense, and if their outcomes are generally good or generally bad. My intention here is to highlight the nuances I now see and give us all some questions to think about, not to criticize you, your church, my church, or my own self. 

Part 1. Misguided Missions: Analogy with a Side of Cookies
Part 2. Misguided Missions: The Problem Defined 
Part 3. Misguided Missions: The Culprit is Me (...and You?)
Part 4. Misguided Missions: Toxic Charity and the Case of Cuba
When Helping Hurts: A Misguided Missions Follow-Up

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