Have no fear, the Americans are here. You’ve got problems, we’ve got solutions. And, conveniently enough, we also have some free time to fix your problems. Lucky you.
Not only that, but we get to visit some really cool parts of the world while we’re at it. Bonus.
Maybe I’m a bit jaded, but that’s what I always think when someone talks about short-term mission trips. I immediately wonder if the trip isn’t motivated more by ethnocentrism and tourism than altruism.
Yet I’m going on a short-term mission trip. My whole family is. We leave tomorrow.
Here’s the story. My church is sending a team to Slovakia, where we will be leading two summer camps (middle and high school) and teaching English. My wife and I were invited to help with the middle school camp, and after confirming that my daughters (6 and 10) would be able to go as well, we said yes. So we leave tomorrow for three weeks of travel, ministry, and yes, a little tourism (Vienna and Prague).
What’s the Problem?
But, as you probably noticed from my intro, I’m a little conflicted about short-term mission trips. A few weeks back, Darren Carlson summarized my concerns very well in Why You Should Consider Canceling Your Short-Term Mission Trips. Although he broke things down a little differently, he really had five major areas of concern.
- Dependency: The money and power involved in such trips creates an unhealthy level of dependence, that can lead to perpetual immaturity and even downright manipulation on the part of the receiving group.
- Motives: Many people go on these trips because they want to travel the world and have a great time.
- Ignorance: We do little to prepare people to understand and engage the cultures they’re supposed to be helping.
- Elitism: We approach these trips as though we’re the ones with all the answers.
- Selfishness: We know full well that the people who benefit most from these trips are the ones who go, not the ones who receive, even though the latter have to do a lot of work to support these groups once they arrive.
Although he didn’t mention it specifically in this post, I’d also add the problem of resources. These trips take a lot of time, money, and energy. And they often produce very little in return.
So the question is: Are short-term mission trips really worth it? And, at this point, you might also be asking another question, Why are you going on one?
How Is This Different?
To be honest, I’m still wrestling with the first question. And I’m sure I’ll be reflecting on that more over the next few weeks. But I think my church has done several things to make their approach to short-term missions much healthier than what I’ve seen in the past.
1. Long-term Partnership
There’s a reason that we’re going to Slovakia, and that reason is relationship. I don’t recall how the relationship began, but my church has had a close working relationship with a church in Martin, Slovakia for many years. And it’s very much a mutual relationship. We send people there to minister alongside the Slovak Christians, and they send people here to do the same thing. So, although we certainly have more resources, there’s a real sense of partnership in our various endeavors.
2. Local Leadership
My church has been very clear in our training that we are not in charge. That’s a difficult concept for Americans to grasp, so it will be interesting to see how we do with it. But these are ministries planned and led by the church in Slovakia. We’re there at their invitation to help and learn. And I love that. (It does, by the way, leave us a little uncertain as to what exactly we’ll be doing over there. But that’s part of the fun.)
3. Real Ministry
I won’t suggest that everyone’s experience has been like mine, but I’m not excited about construction trips. Maybe if you send a team of skilled construction workers, it would be different. But sending a team of untrained teenagers to build something in another country seems a tad goofy. And, for the teens, the result is usually a trip that was high on fun but low on ministry. I have nothing against good, hard work, of course. But there’s plenty of that to do right here. (My car could use a good washing.) If you’re going to travel all the way to another country, it would seem reasonable to spend the bulk of your time ministering with and to the people who live there. That’s harder and less comfortable, but ministry usually is.
Why Are We Going?
Those three things give me hope that this trip will be different. But I still haven’t said why we’re going. I’m sure my motives aren’t entirely pure (Vienna and Prague are pretty cool cities), but these are what I’d like to believe are my main reasons:
1. Support the Partnership
Like I said, my church has a strong and growing partnership with the church in Slovakia. I think it’s been very good for both churches and would like to do what I can to support it. (I started to say here that I wanted to support the church in Slovakia. But, to be honest, they don’t need me. They’d have a great summer camp without me and my family.)
2. Learn and Minister as a Family
This was a pretty big part of the decision. We love the idea of spending a few weeks as a family learning from another culture and doing ministry together. Like many families in America, a lot of our time at church is spent apart as we all have our different ministries and responsibilities. So we’re always looking for things that we can do together. And this definitely fits the bill.
3. Develop a Global Vision of the Church
We also want our daughters (and us!) to have a strong sense that “Christian” and “American” are not synonymous. We want them to rub shoulders with believers from other ethnic and cultural groups. We can do some of that right here in America, and we need to do more of it, but that’s still “American.” Stepping beyond our boundaries and going to someone else’s home, gives you a different perspective on what it means to be Christian. The Gospel is global.
So are short-term mission trips worth it? I don’t know. My prior experiences have led me to question their value. But this one looks different. I appreciate the hard work that my church has put into developing real and long-term relationships with churches from other parts of the world. (We have a similar relationship with Christian leaders in Indonesia.) And I like the fact that we’re approaching this with humility and not a “here we are to save the day” attitude. But I have to be honest and say that this is still an open question for me. I’d love to hear what the rest of you think.