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Who says "No" to "Mission Trips"?

Auteur: Vinoth Ramachandra
Date: 11.05.2010
Category: Partenariat

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L'original est en anglais

Here is a staggering statistic that I came across recently. Robert Wuthnow, the eminent sociologist of religion at Princeton University has estimated that up to 1.6 million American Christians take part in overseas “mission trips” each year, with churches spending at least $2.4 billion per year on such trips. What is unsurprising is that many of these 1-3 week “mission trips” are to the Caribbean and Central America, with luxury resorts such as the Bahamas reporting one “short-term missionary” for every 15 residents. One would expect Mexico, which receives the most American “mission teams” every year, to be the most Christian nation on earth.

In the distant days when I was a university student in London, I had friends among people who came from all over the world. They embraced all religions and none. Some of them still remain friends. Occasionally I would take a backpack and “bum around” Europe. I would travel by train and public buses, stay in youth hostels or sleep in railway stations like thousands of other young tourists. I would love nothing better than to land in a strange city and explore it from one end to another (or as much as possible) by foot. Sometimes I would contact local churches and, if I spoke a smattering of the language, join their Sunday worship. Before visiting a country, not only did I pore over maps to acquaint myself with the geographical layout, but devoured books on its history, including the history and present situation of the Christian church.

My thoughts return to these experiences whenever my wife and I receive a request from some Western (or rich Asian) church to find someone in Sri Lanka or India willing to host a team of young people who want to undertake a “mission trip”. We don’t doubt the sincerity of those who want to practise neighbour love or share the gospel with people in other lands. But good intentions, history reminds us, often do not translate into good outcomes. But those who are enthusiastic about such “mission trips” usually don’t have the patience to study history.

It is customary for the leaders of such teams to inform us that such an “exposure” is absolutely vital for these (relatively affluent) kids to discover the world and become (it is hoped) missionaries in the long term. “Mission”, in this way of thinking, is what one does elsewhere, not in one’s own neighbourhood or nation. It baffles us why such Christian kids cannot learn about the world by doing what I, and several millions of their non-Christian peers, have done over decades: simply travelling as tourists and exploring the countries we visit, learning about the history and culture as we do so. Moreover, in America, Europe and Australia, there are millions of people today from every religion, culture and nation to be found in almost every major city: why not stay and learn about “mission” from the local churches that are working among such people?

It also baffles us as to why such Christians first need to have an “exposure” to mission before they engage in mission, when the great majority of missionaries in the world are poor and unable to afford such costly trips. Having a rich nation’s passport, and not requiring visas to most countries, makes it easier to be a “short-term missionary”. I heard recently of two Chinese women who felt called to be missionaries in Cambodia. So they simply went there overland and took jobs in a factory, and joined a local church. They didn’t first plan a “mission trip” to gain “exposure”, nor are they starting another “church-planting project”. We find ourselves wondering: how did Christian mission become reduced to “missions” and now to “mission trips”? What is the harm in simply coming as a tourist, if one is seriously curious about a place? If, on the other hand, one wants to come and serve the native church, why not simply do what the two Chinese women did?

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Mots-clés: short term mission, partnership, mission

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Répondre Signaler 0 J'aime Je n'aime pas Joseph_Paul_Cadariu (5)  

Some excellent perspectives.  Yet, this statement puzzles me: "It is extremely difficult for us to say to zealous American, Singaporean and Korean Christians that they are really not needed." Who is the "us" who is saying this.  And what is the (for me) unbelievable bias against the western church that I hear periodically in these conversations? 

Judging everyone by the sins of the few is certainly not Christ-like.

Répondre Signaler 0 J'aime Je n'aime pas Rosemary_Grier (2)
@ Joseph_Paul_Cadariu:

I guess the ’us’ would be Sri Lankans, as Dr Ramachandra is from Sri Lanka.

Répondre Signaler 0 J'aime Je n'aime pas Jim_Harries (-3)
@ Rosemary_Grier:

I guess that the ’us’ includes most Third world Christians? I have attempted to say this elsewhere - that the ’mistake’ the Western church makes is to tie its ministry to financial giving. 

Répondre Signaler 0 J'aime Je n'aime pas Pete_Houston (7)
Afrique du Sud

It IS hard to say no to well-meaning short-term mission teams. The cynic in me sees it as a form of Christian tourism, albeit well-intentioned.  

But I have been there done that, and got the T-shirt (or curios).  I’ve been on short-term missions to Bolivia, Mozambique and Lesotho.  None of the destinations were glamorous, as we stayed in poor neighborhoods.  

The mission to Bolivia I thought was well done, with good interactions with the local church where we went to simply serve.  The Mozambique one was terrible - a hit and run type approach.  The Lesotho one was a bit of both and at least we ran a great holiday club for the youth!

The key thing I’ve come to realise is the attitude with which a short-term mission is conducted.  I recently was on the receiving end of a mission to my church/city where the feeling I got was that the visitors thought God hadn’t arrived to work in Polokwane until THEY came!  If I look at the Bolivian mission I was on, our attitude was right, and humble.  If I look at the Mozambique mission, our attitude was patronising.

So I think short-term missions have their place.  Proper preparation of teams is needed (where people also become conscious of the history of missions).  Added to this mature, humble leadership is crucial and very open communication with the receiving churches.  (And if a little Christian tourism is thrown into the mix, well, God works in mysterious ways!)

Répondre Signaler 0 J'aime Je n'aime pas Swells_in_the_Middle (15)  

This is such a huge issue. When money and opinion on the west all suggest that this is something the people in the pews want, the pressure for churches and agencies to provide these opportunities is enormous.  At the same time, the believers on the other side of the world have little actual power to resist:  I have heard the Chinese pastors in my city weighing the cost versus potential gains of many different proposed outside partnerships.  They rapidly adjust whatever their plans and priorities are to try and accomodate the outsiders; perhaps they will give money, if not now then perhaps on down the road. 

We recently saw a group of 27 overseas teenagers visit a rural Chinese community for a building project; nevermind that this community was in the midst of the worst drought in many decades, and the farmers were desparate for work so they could feed their families after their crops failed.  Nevermind the questions regarding the quality of construction 15 year old western high school students are capable of.  They had the money, and the willingness, and an organization to "equip and send" them.

This is not to say there is no value to short-term work.  But surely much of what currently passes for short-term missions is far from any understanding of true best practice in mission?

If we are to continue investing resources in short-term enterprises we must think much more carefully about what is important in missions, and what kinds of things this particular mode of ministry is actually capable of doing well.  Short-term missions is a valid missions tool; but it is a very specific tool that is only applied effectivley to do certain specific things.  It is a wrench and not a multi-tool!

Répondre Signaler 0 J'aime Je n'aime pas John_Boland (0)  

As my church’s minister of missions I don’t know whether I should be insulted or humiliated by this writer and the comments. I am certain that there are some problems with western missions programs but hold your open criticism for a moment. 

I do take and have for over 15 years mission teams on "short term" trips to such places as Mexico, Thailand, Romania and Ukraine. We don’t use the time as "vacation". We minister to orphans, homeless, and the handicapped and disciple new believers.  We sat with those affected by the Chernobyl disaster.  We assisted sea gypsies recover from the Tsunami when THEIR own government refused to lift a hand to help them. We raised awareness and support for the plight of street orphans and those forced into child prostitution in Asia.  We educated our own church members on what it means to be on mission with God outside of their comfort zone.

However, our mission trips did not start overseas.  We started our mission journey as the Holy Scriptures directs us in Acts 1:8. We started in our own backyard, by helping the poor and needy within our community.   We assisted the abused mother and her children, homeless, recovering drug addict and the hungry. 

As far as our youth are concern they too started at home but there is no substitute for real world experience on the foreign mission field.  It changes our narrow American worldview to a global understanding that the world does not revolve around us.  The only way many will understand and loose that ugly image is to go on a short term mission trip. 

Now let me add one thing. I do not go where I am not wanted. Nor do I go where I have no missionary contact that has not said to me directly "please come".  I learned along time ago that missions are about having a long term relationship.  We return to the same areas we work with time after time and are effective in discipleship, preaching, street evangelism, teaching English, showing Christian love and encouragement to the local missionaries, pastors and staff.

If there is a problem with short term mission trips maybe the “mission leadership” needs an education in order to understand how to become more effective and less offensive in ministry.

Répondre Signaler 0 J'aime Je n'aime pas Jim_Harries (-3)
@ John_Boland:

John. Thanks for your response.

There are certainly MANY invitations for mission trips from Africa. There is also a 90% guarantee, that you a mission trip (person) will be told that they have done a wonderful job. I think one needs to dig a bit deeper …

Money is a (the?) big issue. Are you appreciated for your money, or for the Gospel? Does it make any difference to folks sending short-term teams from the West, if they come to realise that they are only wanted for their money? But how can that be true Christian fellowship, if it is only extended to those who bring money?

That is not to say one has to open one’s wallet every day. There is a lot of momentum in the system. One trip not giving anything away won’t kill the momentum. A friend made in the West (from Africa) may pay dividends many years hence. Life is such in Africa, that what is Western = money. It is VERY HARD for any Westerner to get out of that.

That is not to point to the distraction caused by teams from the West. And the compromises that they bring about – causing some even to doubt their faith – if the Westerners are lax say on morals (e.g. ladies’ dress).

If short-term teams were to stop using English (the language of money) or other European languages, and to make sure no-one benefitted materially from their presence, whatever warm welcome they receive may be taken as more genuine. (I have concentrated on the nationals. Of course missionaries also love mission teams, as they contact them with their home churches, for which read donors … etc. )

Répondre Signaler 1 J'aime Je n'aime pas John_Patton (1)  

The big issue missing from this article is responsibility on the part of the sending agencies, churches, as well as the businesses that specifically cater to short term trips.

The sending agencies who have mainly long term cross cultural workers usually know the short comings of short term trips (week to a few months). Their short term programs are more of a recruiting strategy than anything else. If you have X number of people go through a short term trip with you, then you will have a stronger relationship with those individuals that allow you to recruit them easier for long term commitments (2+ years). Do the positives outweigh the negatives?  How much of a burden does this put on the long term workers who are acting as tour guides, and how does it affect their relationships in the community?

Churches who send short termers may simply be ignorant of what’s going on. They merely want to raise the global vision of their church members, and they truly want to help their host. But they may not realize they are doing more harm by exporting their Western form of Christianity, they are a lousy witness running around half naked (short and t-shirts in a conservative culture) and flaunting their wealth around, and the money/projects they bring with them often creates dependency. How can we educate these churches out of their ignorance? Why are seminaries not training pastors on the issues of contextualization and dependency?

As for businesses that cater to short term mission trips, these vary from profit seekers who deliver mission-tours like eco-tourism to organizations that try to educate the church on issues in cross cultural missions and can help alleviate some of the negatives of short term missions.

All this is to say that we need to take responsibility in our churches and agencies, and make some difficult decisions. What is more important - the experience of the short term participant, or the effects on the host culture?  I vote for the host culture.

I work with the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement program, and we are trying to educate others.  When I first took the course, one presenter told a story of a few dozen teenagers that went to central America to build a church – standard mission trip for Americans. He asked us, ‘How do you think the unemployed construction workers felt as they saw these rich American kids who spent tens of thousands of $$$ to get there and build a mediocre building? These locals just had their jobs stolen by kids. And they didn’t even buy equipment from the local merchants – they brought their own. Do you think these locals are not going to be resentful, and thus not darken the door of the church?’  I’ve never thought of short term missions the same way since.

Répondre Signaler 0 J'aime Je n'aime pas Jim_Harries (-3)

It is hard to say anything much more than that this author seems to be ’spot on’.

It is EXTREMELY HARD to refuse mission trips. Folks at the SENDING END need to reconsider this. Asking a poor community ’do you want a mission’s trip’ from a wealthy country just won’t cut it.


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