“Yes, but…” The challenge of short-term mission trips

Stephy’s back with her satirical and often depressing blog, “Stuff Christian Culture Likes.” (She’s been offline for a while as she’s changed blog services.) Her first post out of the gate bugs me, probably because she’s not altogether wrong, even though I wish she were. By all means, sinful pride is always a danger, as Jesus warns, whenever we try to do something good: “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

And, yes, short-term mission trips are to some extent self-serving. Churches in the U.S. could take that same $30,000 or so (average cost of a mission trip, according to the Wall Street Journal) and spend it more efficiently by contracting out the labor and materials—to build that school or home or latrine or well—in whatever community the missionaries would otherwise go.

But, as I’ve argued elsewhere, these trips must necessarily be as much about the missionaries as the people to whom they’re ministering. There’s no way around that. As affluent Americans living in relative first-world luxury, it’s sobering and often traumatic to see the way the other two-thirds (or more) of the world live. If we have a human soul, there’s no way we can go on one of these trips and not be deeply affected—and, I hope, for the better. And we naturally want to tell that story when we get back—even by showing slide shows of the trip.

By all means, if all we do is go on these trips and ignore the “least among us” back home, then we’re doing something wrong. But why would it have to be that way? Why would it have to be either a trip to Paraguay or doing something for the poor here? It’s not that way in our church. In fact, in my (limited) experience, these trips sensitize us to the needs of people living in our communities. They inspire greater compassion and service when we return home. If it takes a short-term mission trip to do that, so be it.

Besides, the dangers of self-righteousness still apply, whether we’re serving in the third-world or the soup kitchen down the highway. Churches can be equally smug and exploitative about the work they do locally. We’re not “saving the world” either way. That’s Jesus’ business. We’re bearing witness to Christ’s love, and—I hope—being faithful to his call.

Still, thanks for the thought-provoking piece and welcome back, Ms. Drury. Your blog rules.

4 thoughts on ““Yes, but…” The challenge of short-term mission trips”

  1. Aww you’re really nice. I had just written a response in the comments on my last post trying to explain what you’ve just said here in your post. Thanks for getting me, and grieving too.

  2. It’s sad that Stephy is such a cliche, the rebellious pastor’s daughter. I would enjoy something refreshingly original, hammering away and being narrow-minded is as bad as those you’re mocking. Maybe that dogma rubbed off on you and not in such a good way?

  3. “These trips must necessarily be as much about the missionaries as the people to whom they’re ministering.”

    I couldn’t agree more. Teams that visited my father’s church in Japan (when I was a teenager) and that I have led or worked with since (as an adult) open the team members’ eyes and hearts to needs around the world, physical and spiritual. If it inspires them to go back or to pray more or to give more, than the team may very well have been a success.

    And actually, I think sometimes a team can get more done (maybe not in physical labor such as construction, but definitely in ministry such as children’s work or music or something) than the people in the ministry being visited, just because there is strength in numbers (and weakness too, of course).

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