When Helping Hurts, Chapter 7 – “Doing Short-Term Missions Without Doing Long-Term Harm”

Synopsis

  • Short-term mission trips are an a growing event in American church life. “There were 120,000 in 1989; 450,000 in 1998; 1,000,000 in 2003; and 2,200,000 in 2006. The numbers reflect a tsunami of epic proportions, a tidal wave of American short-term “missionaries” flooding the world. The cost? Americans spent $1.6 billion on short-term missions (STMs) in 2006 alone. (From Roger Peterson, Short-Term Missions Long-Term Impact? 28 September 2007, Minneapolis. Via Fikkert and Corbett (F&C))
  • Short-term mission trips can cause long term damage while doing short-term good.
  • Problems arise because of different cultural understandings of time and the roles of individuals versus groups.
  • North American short-term missionaries are often very concerned with time and getting the greatest amount of projects completed in the shortest amount of time possible (time is money, this is the monochromatic view of time). Those who are on the receiving end of the assistance are more concerned with how a job is done, the relationships that are involved, and how the group participates than individual effort and when the job gets done. Time is viewed as endless and relationship building is more important than efficiency. This is the polychromatic view of time.
  • “The core problem with STMs to poor communities is that STMs tend to reflect the perspective of “poverty as deficit,” the idea that poverty is due to the poor lacking something. North Americans often view the “something” as material resources, but a lack of knowledge or spirituality is also commonly cited.4 This conception of poverty leads to poverty-alleviation strategies in which the materially non-poor are necessarily in the position of giving the “something” to the materially poor, since the non-poor have the “something” and the poor do not have it.” (F&C)
  • Most targets of short-term missions provide a short term poverty relief, but what they need is long-term development. Short-term relief strangles long-term development.
  • Short-term missions are often focused on the spiritual growth and needs of those providing relief. The trip becomes about us and not about those who are in need.
  • The money spent to take a dozen Christians from the first world to the third world could be better spent by investing in indigenous talent within struggling communities to kickstart development.
  • Short-term trips, if they are taken, should require participants to have a long-term commitment to encouraging development.

My Thoughts

I’ve always been suspicious of short-term mission trips. Sure, they may get a lot done, but isn’t it really a vacation? Isn’t it really getting out of the familiar and experiencing something? Isn’t it really about doing something good and feeling good about doing good even though we don’t have to travel thousands of miles to do good? Aren’t there poor, homeless, hungry people in our own cities that need assistance? Short-term mission (of course I’m generalize, not all of them) tend to be more about the person going than the person being helped. The real, hard work of ministry is the work that is in your neighborhood. The drug addicts, the sex addicts, the mentally ill, in our neighborhood are real people with real long-term needs. But, those long-term needs require long-term commitment, and a short-term mission trip absolves us of the guilt we feel for being so fortunate and not doing much with what we’ve been given.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think people who go on short-term mission trips are bad people. I think that they do want to do something worthwhile that honors God, but I also think that most of us want to serve God in the most comfortable way possible. Jesus didn’t call us to comfortably serve him, but to pick up our cross and follow him.

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