Short-Term Missions: Missionary Work or Religious Tourism?

According to an article in the Huffington Post the number of U.S. Christians taking part in trips of one year or less leaped from 540 in 1965 to an estimated more than 1.5 million annually, with an estimated $2 billion spent yearly, according to Dr. Robert Priest, a missiology professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

That doesn’t surprise me considering that Americans give more to charity and volunteer more service hours than anyone else in the world. We’re very generous and show a lot of concern for the less fortunate of other countries; good for us. However, before we pat ourselves on the back we need to ask ourselves a potentially painful question, painful because we probably will not like the answer: is it effective? Are we actually accomplishing anything and if so is it worth the cost?

Now, I don’t ask this to call into question the importance of charity itself; donating our time, our money and our talents so that others less fortunate may benefit is one of the most important things we can ever do – and that’s exactly why we must question our methods, because the issue of charity is too big for us to ever allow ourselves to be wasteful.

Joann Ven Engen, in an article published in Catapult Magazine, gives an example of a typical short-term mission trip:

Take this example. A group of eighteen students raised $25,000 to fly to Honduras for spring break. They painted an orphanage, cleaned the playground, and played with the children. Everyone had a great time, and the children loved the extra attention. One student commented: My trip to Honduras was such a blessing! It was amazing the way the staff cared for those children. I really grew as a Christian there.

The Honduran orphanage’s yearly budget is $45,000. That covers the staff’s salaries, building maintenance, and food and clothes for the children. One staff member there confided: the amount that group raised for their week here is more than half our working budget. We could have done so much with that money.

A simple cost-benefit analysis makes it clear: the cost of such a trip are very high at $25,000 while the benefits to the native people are almost non-existent. Meanwhile, that same $25,000 could have kept the orphanage operating for over six months representing an investment in a long-term endeavor that very clearly provides very important benefits. Now, perhaps the loudest and most common objection I hear to this argument is that what the students on the mission trip gain is “priceless.” After all, as one student testified the trip was a “blessing” and she really “grew as a Christian there”! I don’t deny that the students benefited and such a sentiment does not surprise me because, as a missionary friend of Van Engen put it, “Short-term missions benefit the people who come, not the people here.”

Van Engen continues,

Short-term mission groups almost always do work that could be done (and usually done better) by people of the country they visit. The spring break group spent their time and money painting and cleaning the orphanage in Honduras. That money could have paid two Honduran painters who desperately needed the work, with enough left over to hire four new teachers, build a new dormitory, and provide each child with new clothes.

Even medical brigades are difficult to justify. The millions of dollars spent to send physicians to third world countries could cover the salaries of thousands of underemployed doctors in those countries, doctors who need work and already understand the culture and language of the people they would serve.

Short-term groups are also unable to do effective evangelism, which is a main goal of many groups. Since most group members do not speak the language or understand the culture, their attempts are almost always limited. I know of one group that traveled all the way to Senegal to distribute copies of a video to people on the street, but could not hold even the most basic conversation with these people.

Mission trips, when not done right are at least usually benign but sometimes they can even be destructive. Looking at the examples Van Engen provides above its easy to see how such interventions, in which Americans swoop in thinking that they’re saving the day, stay for a week or two and then leave never to return, can mess with a region’s economy. Most of these impoverished regions suffer from low wages and unemployment and when Americans come in and do the native people’s work for them instead of investing in long-term relations, projects and capital, the problems of low pay and unemployment are aggravated.

Its imperative that we accept the reality that such “mission trips” aren’t about helping others but helping ourselves and that this kind of missionary work is no missionary work at all. Now, while I am saying that such mission trips do little to help others I am not saying that for students to go on such trips is selfish: we cannot help others until we help ourselves. These short-term mission trips provide a lot of awareness: students from the richest country in the world are removed from their bubble and see up front different cultures and living conditions, but at $2 billion per year shouldn’t we be trying for more than simply awareness?

There exists several legitimate missions alternatives that we can strive for which provide real benefits at reasonable costs:

#1 Long-term missionary work abroad. This is the traditional missionary work that comes to most people’s minds when they think of “missionaries” where missionaries live for years in one region, learning the culture, building relationships, establishing or building upon the necessary foundation for effective mission and providing real, long-term benefits. For anyone willing to stick it out for the long-haul long-term missionary work can have a profound positive impact.

#2 Continuing mission work locally. This is where mission starts and we are all universally called to serve in this way. While we can’t all spend a year volunteering in Africa, we are all capable of building relationships and investing our time and resources locally. There’s more than enough physical and spiritual poverty within our own country and communities to keep us busy.

#3 Providing the sacraments. Another argument I’ve heard in favor of short-term mission trips is that many of these regions are without a priest and in need of the sacraments. True; so, if the goal of the mission is to provide the services of a priest, instead of sending 20 students and one priest once per year at $25,000 a trip why not use that $25,000 to send a priest to the region once every month or two. Find a more economical way to meet the spiritual needs of a community; $25,000 to send a priest to central America for one week is just wasteful when you can do it for $2,000.

#4 educational missions (for the people on the mission trip, not the natives). Most short-term mission trips come closest to this category, in which the greatest benefit is awareness. If that is the goal of the mission then that needs to be made clear; emphasize that the goal of the trip is exposure, not to save the world and plan the trip accordingly. Don’t waste time on token projects like painting a wall; talk to mission partners and native residents: learn about the unique problems the region faces, its culture and its history. Follow-up with the mission participants upon return to the states.

In closing, Van Engen provides some good advice:

One good rule of thumb for short-term missions is to spend at least as much money supporting the projects you visit as you spend on your trip. Invest your money in people and organizations working on long-term solutions. If you are interested in evangelism, support nationals who want to share the gospel. If you are concerned about health issues, support programs that are seeking to address those problems. Better yet, find programs that minister to people holistically by meeting their spiritual, physical, social, emotional and economic needs.

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3 thoughts on “Short-Term Missions: Missionary Work or Religious Tourism?

  1. I think short term mission trips probably open the door to longer term trips or other missionary work later in life, perhaps to permanent vocations. As a college student I spent a summer on a mission in Honduras and frankly did not do very much there. But subsequently I have done a lot of volunteer work for the Church and continue to do so as well as contributing a lot to the Church and other charitable endeavors, both at home and abroad. I think that young people who want to spend their spring break on mission for the Church rather than partying in Cancun or Panama City should be commended and encouraged rather than discouraged by saying that they will upset the local economy of wherever they go to help.

    Kirt Higdon

    • I agree. My point is that much of the culture of short-term missions focuses on this need for Americans to “do something” and that this constitutes real missionary work. When students sacrifice their spring break to visit impoverished areas to learn more about others and are inspired to pursue real missionary work that is a very good thing. But spending 25k so that Americans can paint a wall only deludes students about what real missionary work is. Short-term missions are a first step but if those opportunities aren’t used correctly people will never learn what real missionary work is and thus will never be able to contribute to such missions or become a part of them themselves.

  2. Of course, you are using the Extreme as the example of the whole. All of the mission trips outside the USA that I’ve hear of have actually Built something, not just cleaned up and painted. This is a problem with the tour planner, not the students themselves.

    What is the value of turning just One American Child into a lifetime of service and missionary work? The value is much more than $25,000, so your cost-vs-value is actually quite relative.

    What is the value of taking 20-50 kids out of their cushy, distracted, suburban electronics cocoon and exposing them to the Real Problems of the Real World–particularly the World that lives Without?

    What is the value of getting all of those youth to appreciate their situation by giving them an actual world that, but by the grace of God, they could be living in themselves?

    Maybe in future tours the average Mission Trip itself should cost twice as much, with 50% going to the people at the Tour Destination. Get both benefits, at the same time.

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