The Proper Purpose of Short Term Missions

Last year I took part in an international mission trip. This was my fifth mission trip in the last 10 years, and it was the most difficult. It was not difficult for the reasons you might expect, though. I was prepared for the hot days, humid nights, and rampant mosquitoes. I was prepared for the language barrier and culture shock that accompany traveling to a third world country. What I was not prepared for was the feeling that I was there without a purpose. There were definitely things to do, such as moving cement for building foundations, wiring a computer lab, and playing soccer with children in the evenings. There seemed, however, to be too many people on the team and not enough tasks to fill each day. This made for a lot of downtime, and this downtown made me wonder why I was there in the first place.

Since returning, I’ve read several articles that decry short term missions. The articles classify the trips as social tourism designed to ease the consciences of privileged volunteers while perpetuating problems in communities served. Apparently the number of selfies with third world citizens comes across as disingenuous. At first glance, these articles surprised me. I love mission trips and believe that they offer a tangible way to put feet on faith. However, I do recognize the value in these articles, having experienced firsthand some of the pitfalls of missions without proper purpose.

I recently met with a leader in the organization that hosted my last mission trip. He explained that the organization doesn’t need more volunteers, they need more money. The mission trips are a trade off for the organization: they overcharge volunteers in order to gain sufficient ministry funds. In exchange, the organization pats volunteers on the back, commending a job well done when, in reality, cultural damage may have occurred. What sort of cultural damage? Proliferating a victim mentality, reducing job opportunities for locals through the provision of free resources and labor, and initiating intense short term relationships that leave communities in a constant state of abandonment.

Hearing this was like a slap in the face. I felt betrayed. Not only had I been a bad steward of the money God entrusted me with, I’d used up a week’s worth of valuable vacation days. I should have mailed the organization a check for half the cost and enjoyed my time off lounging by the pool. This is one possibility. Another possibility is that I did exactly what I was asked to do and can learn from this trip ways to serve better in the future. Why, after all, did I go in the first place? Two reasons come to mind: 1) The organization asked for volunteers several weeks in a row, 2) As a Christian, I am called to go and serve (Matthew 28:19, Mark 16:15, Luke 10:2, Romans 10:15). I heard the call, and I responded accordingly.

In retrospect, I believe the difference between this trip and those prior was the underlying purpose of the partner organization. Very specific goals oriented the efforts of my first four trips. We taught Vacation Bible School and other educational curriculum during the mornings. We found small ways to volunteer in the afternoons, such as painting buildings and leading worship services. The trips were not designed to financially float an organization; rather, the purpose was to passionately transform the lives of both the mission teams and communities served.

Mission trips have radically impacted my life. I will not be deterred by one negative experience. Rather, I will intentionally seek out organizations with budget transparency and models of service that promote progress in the communities served. Joy abounds in the mission field, and I hope everyone who feels the call will answer in kind.

As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:15)
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