Four years ago, I boarded a plane en-route to Budapest Hungary for what would be the single most life-changing trip of my life. No...it wasn't a two-week mission trip with a group of peers. I left America with my new husband and four boxes between the two of us. We left not knowing how long we would stay or when we would return for visits. At the time I wasn't aware that I would return to visit in 6 months or that we would return for good only one year later. In my mind, we were moving to Hungary indefinitely.
Needless to say, I can identify with the criticisms of the typical short term mission trip. I witnessed firsthand and heard numerous stories of disasters (from the missionaries perspective) during foreign mission trips. Whether it was the loud, obnoxious groups wandering around the city, or the cultural blunders due to a lack of training and understanding, or simply the appearance of the groups housing themselves in the nicest hotels: I wondered whether these groups were doing enough good to cover up the bitter taste they often left in the mouths of the nationals and missionaries they came to serve.
From the side of those who go on the trips, there can also be less-than-ideal effects. David Livermore, a scholar at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and author of the book, "Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence" had this to say:
"We justify our efforts by saying [youth] will come back and make a difference in their own communities, but the research has demonstrated it's not happening...Kids are going down and 'loving on' Mexican kids for a week and then coming home and being the same racist white kids they were toward their Latino classmates before they went on the trip."As of now, many trips offer (especially to teens) interaction with other peers, a chance to see the world, plus the many sight-seeing, restaurant dining, free-time activities which are planned. To top it off, they are given an opportunity for a rush of an emotional high by "doing some good." Sounds like the next t.v. reality-show to me! One reason for this, I believe, is a mentality that spreads throughout many areas of Christianity these days: it's all about the numbers. From Mega churches to crusades to mass alter calls: the numbers impress. We long to see revival and revival is visibly seen through the masses. So what do we do? We alter what we believe is best to accommodate for those on the fringes in an attempt to pull them in. What travel seeking Christian wouldn't want an opportunity to stay in nice hotels, tour other countries, travel with friends...all while "serving?" The pastor is then able to plug into his message that "we had the biggest number of mission trips sent out ever!"
Meanwhile, the long-term missionary is left exhausted from all his preparations for the team, behind on the normal work of his ministry, and in the end, glad to see the team go. Also, the nationals who were to be blessed with the presence of Americans are left behind with little or no connection to a local church or a local face. Their experience turns into only a memory as contacts are lost and they are forgotten.
So, is it a lost cause? Should the church abolish short-term trips to foreign mission fields? I don't think so. I believe these quick trips have great potential benefits for the foreigner, long-term missionary and the short-termers themselves. However, I do believe that most of these trips need to change.
During my stay in Hungary, our church underwent major changes regarding how short-term mission trips should be run. Instead of mass-evangelism and street witnessing, they switched their focus to the foreign missionary on the field: strengthening them by serving in whatever way they needed. For us, they helped put on a refugee retreat, stayed with me during my last days of pregnancy, went with my husband to his ministries, and helped in whatever other ways they could find. My in-laws just returned from Brazil where they went to work on a missionary's apartment which was absolutely filthy from the previous tenants. Others went in smaller teams to orphanages, slums, and the local church.
The difference is this: the church realized that a mission trip should be taken with a servant's attitude. They now send teams out, not with an over-booked schedule of street witnessing but with the simple question of "how can we serve you?" It is this phrase which will structure a successful short term mission trip; for who better knows the needs of the people than those who live among them? This frees up the missionary to take a look at the things on his heart for the people and it gives the team the freedom to experience true service, humility and love.
Related Tags: Short-term mission trips, Missionarys, Hungary, Budapest, Christian Science Monitor