Friday, October 10, 2008

Vacationaries: Do we want them on the Mission Field?

In the Wall St Journal, of all places, comes THIS CRITIQUE of the 'Short Term Mission Trip'. The author, Evan Sparks, is an associate editor at the American Enterprise Institute, and 'has taken numerous short-term mission trips'.

I've got good friends who are, or who have been, on short term mission trips. I haven't made up my mind on this. But this is worth discussing. Read the whole article (he suggests alternatives to the mission trip), but he in it he says:
Short-term mission trips to Africa, South America and Southeast Asia have become very popular in the past few years. They are a keystone strategy of evangelical pastor Rick Warren's plans to help Rwanda. These trips, like Christian missionary endeavors overall, encompass a wide variety of activities, from evangelization and "church planting" to health care and economic development. The billion-dollar question, however, is whether they're worth the cost. Are short-term missions the best way to achieve the goals of Christians? Critics argue that sightseeing often takes up too much of the itinerary, leading some to call short-termers "vacationaries."

Pic on Flickr by Bemky.


Andrew said...

Sometimes they are "worth the cost", and sometimes not.
Some factors that can help:
- If they are humble, and recognize up-front that it will be easy for them to do more harm than good
- if they expect big cultural differences
- if they do what the long-termers ask them to do.
- If they go out, and come back, with a strong sense of reporting to their home churches. And reporting: not so much what they themselves have DONE, but about the needs and opportunities of the situation they've gone to.

Now ... here in Bangkok we need some people in Jan-Feb 09 to teach English, in a context where local Christians and long-term-missionaries can capitalise on the English-teaching as a means of outreach

Anonymous said...

NO!! Short-term missions has its place when done well. But the current popularity of short-term trips is a disaster for world missions. And indeed there are way too many vacationaries. There is simply too much done very badly and it is becoming a serious drain on finances and focus away from other ministry that is more strategic.

I am amazed a secular paper has picked up on the trend and its problems.

My wife is working full-time to organise and coordinate the 50+ short-termers who visit our field each year, so I not just saying this out of prejudice against short-term. However, this is what young Christians and many churches are demanding so I cannot see a way to deal with the problem and reduce the numbers. We just try to ensure the trips we organise are worthwhile both for our ministries and for the growth of those who come.

Pete said...

I like the article.

I spent so much of my time in Mongolia realising how limited my ability to communicate with the locals was, and trying to find ways I could help with things without getting in the way too much.

At the same time, I had spend some thinking time trying to work out how best to manage my time, and to make sure I learned good things (in terms of practical knowledge about the field) to bring home.

Although, in the end I don't feel that I achieved anything much measurable, the knowledge of the field that I can bring home is probably where my trip may have value.

JHagan said...

Short-term mission is an oxymoron but we are so far away from institution building we don't even realize it.

A few months ago the Washington Post did a similar critique. one example was a youth group building a facility. The building cost $4K but they had to raise 35K for the plane fare. The locals commented that a budding indigenous construction firm could have done it for 4K and it would have helped the local economy. Unintended consequences again. The current mentality of us doing for others and advertising it to all has to go . American evangelicals are way too patronizing. The term "short-term" mission is awful. It's a label that shows we are not into long-term institutional building. Often these are short-term fixes to satisfy our consciences.

I was recently on a "visit" to the third world which many even on our trip would call a "short-term mission." Before the trip some were lobbying for expensive sight-seeing events. Thankfully they were nixed.

JHagan said...

Also, Evan mentions the need for internationals to come and study in the U.S. This is often very good. However, there is a huge temptation to stay and not go back. Salaries for ministers are better here as is the quality of living. Building good schools and seminaries in the third-world should also be a priority. The more institution building that goes on the better.

Justin said...

Great thoughts, all. You are helping me process.

Gotta keep working, so will have to respond later!

mandy said...

it def. does depend I reakon.
the argument for it is often that it will give the "short-termers" a "taste" and hopefully they will return (or go somewhere else) long term as a result.

but my experience has been that debriefing has been weak/pretty non-existant. So, another spin off: it can not just have negative effects for the area/people they go to, but also for themselves leaving them confused, stuck as to how to respond/act when they get back, a sense of isolation from other people who can't relate to their experience etc.

this can potentially hurt the church back home if things are said/done that are unwise.

and...ineffective debriefing/follow-up means that it does become a christian holiday, and they nevee return somewhere long term

The multitude of options for "short term trips" also means that it is very easy for good hearted people to go on many MANY trips trying to find the perfect "fit", something that really grabs their heart to give their life to. Similar to church hopping i guess, or even christian ministry options in the West, or even careers mind you. Missionaries back in the 1800s and even most of the 20thC were happy to give their whole life to China, or India in one go. Too many options leaves people paralysed and afraid to commit to anything.

also, these 2/3 week speed missions don't even give a taste for what cross-cultural work would really be like. You do all your "ministry" in english, you're often with a team of friends all up for an adventure, you don't get sick and you visit a whole stack of "ministries" in a very short space of time, getting no sense of what a monotonous routine would be like in that place. Unrealistic experience.

but yes, it does have it's place. I've done it. But from now on I think if I couldn't give myself to a place for 6 months or more it would do more harm than good.

Anonymous said...

Great comments Mandy. I reckon the debrief and follow up are as important as the rest of the trip for positive results.

One of the biggest problems is if people think they are going to "serve" in a condescending sense. They go, do their thing and then leave thinking "mission - been there, done that" - not realising that usually they will be receiving far more than they can give.

One simple way to help screen people and reduce numbers would be if churches stop fully funding short-term teams. Make them pay at least part of their own costs. I know of some churches that fully fund short term trips, it encourages unsuitable people to go and sucks funds away from other more worthwhile ministries.

Justin said...

Phil -- thanks for commenting.

I remember someone generously inviting me on a short term mission trip to China. All expenses paid. Just say the word, and we'll book your tickets.

I would love to have gone, but declined, I think, for Christ's sake.

Mandy said...

The short term mission trip I went on 3 yrs ago have been a life changing experience for me. It gave me opportunities to gain better knowledge of the field, and witness how missionary life is like, having lived with a long term missionary while I was there. I have to admit, the trip I went on was well organised, and the team were given lots of opportunities to be involved with various types of ministries. I guess I was very lucky to have went on such an organised trip. I can see that STM have both pros and cons.... I guess the orientation week and the debriefing afterwards play a very crucial part in making the whole STM experience worthwhile and valuable.

Anonymous said...

Haha, I just looked Mandy's profile and realised who she is. She came on one of our trips to Taiwan.

Hi Mandy!

Mandy said...

Phil, you do realise there are 2 different Mandy's making comments here, rite? =P

mandy said...


yeah that'd better be clear else my critique might be taken personally by phil :p

hi mandy #2! (you're #2 because you commented 2nd, not because you're any less special :)

Justin said...

Oh. Now I'm confused...

Anonymous said...

Oh, I'm confused too. I didn't notice there are 2 Mandys. I still like your comments Mandy#1.

Mrs. W said...

Hi J, This is a bit of an old topic, but one that I feel qualified to comment on. Throughout High School and into my first year of college I went on many and various "short term" trips.

Often the greatest use for the trips was creating community within a youth group, and taking a trip to do something good was more meaningful than just going to camp. Those trips were mostly in driving distance though, not expensive or culturally difficult. They were well organized and tied into our church community life.

I went on one trip for two months when I was 16 with an org called Teen Missions Int'l. While I don't think we really accomplished much in England or Iceland, I know that God used the trip for my spiritual formation and it was cool to see life outside the US. My brother and sister both went to Africa with the org and it changed their lives. I think anytime over a month begins to be a real cultural exchange, especially for a young person. The fewer ammenities the better for a north american teenager.

But the most meaningful experiences for me were study abroad. Longer chunk of time, legitimate stuff to do, more interaction with "the locals."

However I've met lots of people who squandered all of the above opportunities...

Megan said...

I think it depends, especially on the place and the long-term work going on. In Japan, the college students who come to us in the summer have tremendous influence in recruitment; it is somewhat of a talking bear phenomenon, but the fact is that foreigners are attractive, particularly to young Japanese. Japan, most of the work that needs to be done is evangelism, planting seeds, praying, faithfully waiting, and that can`t be accomplished in the space of a summer. So, we need long-term staff, too. But I guess what I`m drving at is there is a place in our ministries for summer staff; we`ve made an effort to build their work into our ministries, and Japan is an open country in the sense that having a group of Americans who don`t necessarily know the country isn`t going to do any damage to the work here. I`ve heard that short-termers can do damage to the long-term work in other countries.

One danger, I see, though: short term work leads to a tendancy to have a lot of the evangelism work done in English, and that can perpetuate the myth that the gospel is essentially foreign (and therefore irrelevant) to Japanese people. I don`t know; I see pros and cons.

Mrs. W said...

So, I, in the esoterica of a theological education, had a thought: what if short term missions is really more of a pilgrimage of contemporary (often Western Protestant) Christians to see God working in a place far away? I think the most remarkable parts of a short term trip is meeting someone on the other side of the world, who immediately welcomes you as a brother or sister. Perhaps we are looking at it in the wrong terms, terms of "usefulness" instead of, as many short term missionaries might put it, "calling." Tell me, are these terms more helpful?