Short-Term Missions Series from The Gospel Coalition (www.tgc.org)
By Darren Carlson
Part 2: Why You Should Consider Canceling Your Short-Term Mission Trips
I have seen with my own eyes or know of houses in Latin America that have been painted 20 times by 20 different short-term teams; fake orphanages in Uganda erected to get Westerners to give money; internet centers in India whose primary purpose is to ask Westerners for money; children in African countries purposefully mutilated by their parents so they would solicit sympathy while they beg; a New England-style church built by a Western team in Cameroon that is never used except when the team comes to visit; and slums filled with big-screen TVs and cell phone towers. I have seen or know of teams of grandmothers who go to African countries and hold baby orphans for a week every year but don't send a dime to help them otherwise; teams who build houses that never get used; teams that bring the best vacation Bible school material for evangelism when the national church can never bring people back to church unless they have the expensive Western material; teams that lead evangelistic crusades claiming commitments to Christ topping 5,000 every year in the same location with the same people attending. Short-term missions is fraught with problems, and many wish such trips did not exist, at least in the common form today. Writing in his book Toxic Charity, Robert Lupton says, “Contrary to popular belief, most missions trips and service projects do not: empower those being served, engender healthy cross-cultural relationships, improve quality of live, relieve poverty, change the lives of participants [or] increase support for long-term missions work.” Ouch! What follows will surely frustrate many. Each of these headings deserves much study, and I would encourage you to do so before you launch out into cross-cultural ministry.
Money, Power, and Dependency
Let's start with some statistics from Lupton's book, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It):
- Africa has received $1 trillion in benevolent aid in the last 50 years, and per capita income is now lower, life expectancy has stagnated, and adult literacy is lower.
- 5 percent of aid money flowing to African countries never reaches the targeted areas of need.
- U.S. missions teams who rushed to Honduras to help rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Mitch spent on average $30,000 per home—homes locals could have built for $3,000 each.
- The money spent by one campus ministry to cover the costs of their Central American missions trip to repaint an orphanage would have been enough to hire two local painters and two new full-time teachers and purchase new uniforms for every student in the school.
No one wants to think their generosity hurts people, but books like Dead Aid and When Helping Hurts have alerted us to the problem. So what is going on? The answer is complex and involves issues of basic economics, power, dependency, and bad motives.
If you have too much of something, the price of the product will drop. An East African country used to have a large clothing industry that employed many people. Then, in our generosity, the West started donating clothing. As a result, people lost their jobs, and if you drive around major cities in Africa, you will see hundreds of vendors selling donated shoes, belts, shirts, and more for less than a dollar. On one level the issue boils down to relief and development. Relief aid should only last for a few months. The problem with most trips is that we perpetuate relief instead of moving toward development work. Haiti is a perfect example. In the four decades before the 2010 earthquake, $8.3 billion had been given, and yet the country was 25 percent poorer than before the aid began.
How does someone say no to Christians from the world's most powerful country? It is very difficult to create authentic relationships between people with such disparate power. So if the most powerful Christians (in your mind) say they are coming to help you (even if you don't want them to), how are you supposed to respond? Plenty of national leaders I know have been notified by U.S. churches that they are sending teams. The national leaders then have to scramble to create something for them to do. It's normally a disaster. So the New England-style church in Cameroon is never used (and was not asked for), but it sure did make the U.S. team feel good about serving. The American woman who goes to Uganda every year to teach flag dancing to Christian women is only frustrated that no one is making flags and dancing.
If you regularly do something for someone that they can do themselves, you create unhealthy dependence. Do not misunderstand: we are not talking about emergency relief situations. I am talking about long-term care. Parents who constantly do things for their kids are blamed for enabling and spoiling them. We rarely think in these terms when it comes to charity work. Construction projects are usually the biggest culprit. I will never forget being on a service project to build a house for a family in West Virginia while I was in high school. The men who lived there watched us do the work. And it's not just construction. A Westerner is targeted by beggars. Kids have hit me when I didn't give them money. It is heart-wrenching to know their parents force them to not wear clothes, withhold food (when they are usually able to provide), and purposefully injure them so they can make money. That's not what parents are supposed to do, but what they do works, thereby legitimizing such methods in their eyes. One reason this happens is because we are stuck in providing relief instead of moving toward development work.
The Bahamas receives a short-term missionary for every 15 residents. Our generosity, sad to say, is often tied to a “cool” location and feeling good about what we do. The farther away from home we travel, the more spiritual-seeming the trip. We need to be the ones to paint the church, build the ditch, and put on vacation Bible school. We can't just send money. We have to send people. This is what causes me to question motives. While I believe there is a thoughtful way to be involved in some sort of cross-cultural, short-term ministry, wise partnership and wise use of money (stewardship!) would seem to dictate we cancel many—most?—of our trips.
Cultural Imperialism and Rhetoric
A little knowledge acquired on short-term trips can be dangerous. Just imagine that three short-term teams from China come to the United States and serve in Lincoln, Nebraska, San Francisco, California, and Detroit, Michigan. They then return to their churches and tell everyone what the United States is like, how the people act, how they struggle with their culture, and how Christians are living for Jesus. Would they really have an picture of the United States? Of course not, but we seem content to tell everyone what Africa is like after visiting Nairobi. We often have no clue about the cultural expectations that inform the worldview of people around the world. It's hard enough to see our own! So an innocent game like painting the faces of kids who show up to a church outreach in Africa turns into community outrage and child abuse as face painting in the region is associated with the demonic. The rhetoric of our fundraising appeals for these trips also reveals a problem. “We have to get this done.” “They really need our help.” “Thousands of people came to Christ in our outreach service for the third year in a row.” “The believers there are so content in their poverty.” The list goes on. There is temptation to return home with PowerPoint slides, gripping stories, and numerical results. We want to get things done quickly. We prefer microwave ministry to the slow cooker. Ministry that can be done quickly is not messy and does not cost much.
Effect on Goers, Not Receivers
Imagine a team from France calls your church and says they want to visit. They want to put on VBS (which you have done for years), but the material is in French. They have heard about how the U.S. church has struggled and want to help you fix it. They want to send 20 people, half of them youth. Only two of them speak English. They need a place to stay for free, with cheap food and warm showers if possible. During the trip half of the group's energy will be spent on resolving tension between team members. Two people will get sick. They'd like you to arrange some sightseeing for them on their free day. Do you want them to come? Most trips I know focus on those who are going, not on those receiving the teams. We send youth so they can have an experience or so God can really grip their heart. You may want your adults to gain a larger heart for the nations. Even if research shows that short-term trips do not affect the lives of participants in the long-term, we still send teams.
I have only scratched the surface of the problems. But I do not want to leave you completely discouraged. I believe short-term ministry has a place, and if done well can bring about healthy interdependence in the global church. In the next article I will explain how.
Darren Carlson is the founder and president of Training Leaders International. Carlson oversees the general direction of the ministry and serves as an advocate for pastors with little access to formal training and thoughtful cross-cultural theological engagement. He is a graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he earned a master of divinity and master of theology in New Testament.