Let’s Talk: Short term mission trips, a series of conversations on hard topics

By Jonathan Soder, Faith Co-Editor

According to a 2017 article on Fortune.com, the United States ranks as the 12th richest country in the world per capita. In a 2018 article, USA Today reported that the three richest Americans – Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett – together own as much wealth as the poorest 50% of Americans.

With all this wealth, American Christians and non-Believers alike have adopted a model of charity, known as “the compassion industry.”

This model of charity embraces charitable giving to impoverished individuals, both at home and overseas, with the expectation of nothing in return. This, in large part, describes the aim of short-term mission trips, especially those lasting several weeks or
less.

However, author of Toxic Charity Robert Lupton, along with other contemporary
critics both Christian and not, says these efforts as irresponsible and ineffective. Specifically, Lupton said the propensity for pure charity to cause the receiver to become dependent on the giver.

“Why do we miss this crucial aspect in evaluating our charitable work?” According to Lupton, “Because, as compassionate people, we have been evaluating our charity by
the rewards we receive through service, rather than the benefits received by the served. We have failed to adequately calculate the effects of our service on the lives of those reduced to objects of our pity and patronage.”

Despite this fault, Christians will undoubtedly continue to participate in short-term mission trips. In light of this, how might the popular compassion model be revised or replaced to effect positive lasting changes in the individuals short-term missionaries
interact with?

Both Lupton and WMU professor of missions, Dr. Bruce Carlton, said the need for missionaries to take into account the dynamics of the community they are serving.

“The best way to assure effectiveness is to spend enough time as a learner, ask enough questions, and seek wisdom from indigenous leaders to gain an accurate picture of both existing realities and future aspirations of the community,” according to Lupton.

“Then, having made a realistic assessment of the time and asset commitment you (or your organization or church) can invest, offer low-visibility support to community-led activities. A patient, sensitive entry into grass-roots involvement can open future opportunities to assume a larger strategic role in transforming a neighborhood.”

Carlton, who served as a long-term missionary with his wife for 20 years in Hong Kong, Cambodia and India, said that one way Westerners fail in “offer[ing] low-visibility support” is in the tactics used to establish churches overseas.

“One of the criticisms I’ve heard over the years is that Christianity is a foreign religion, and this is where short-term missionaries sometimes muddy the waters a bit,” Carlton said.

“I used to get upset when people would say that because Christianity is not a religion of the West, but then I began to look around and look at all the churches we’ve started around the globe, and they’re exactly right.”

The result of church-planting overseas often results in the organization of churches that follow a similar model to Western congregations. Worship comes before the sermon, and popular Western hymns are sung, just in the local language.

“We’ve made people into our image, rather than focusing on making them into the image of Christ,” Carlton said.

“So, with short-term missions, if they’re not aware of that, then they perpetuate that model of church and Christianity continues to be seen as a Western religion.”

Serving in a foreign context is difficult for short-term missionaries who often are ill-prepared to relate to the people they are serving in terms of their own culture instead of in terms of Westernized Christianity.

One fix that may be offered is a shift in primary focus of short-term missionaries to serving and supporting the long-term missionaries they assist.

“The beauty of short-term groups or individuals is that they come alongside and enhance the work that is being done on the field,” director of Global Outreach, Dr. Joy Turner, said.

“Full-time field workers are able to learn the culture and peoples they are working with and their strategy can take on a long-term view. They can also adjust their strategy as they learn and grow which would make them more effective in their work. For short-term teams the learning has to happen quickly and a lot of emphasis is placed on pre-trip preparation and reliance on the field workers for their wisdom.”

One aspect short-term missionaries often bring to the field is passion. For long-term missionaries who have years to affect the people they are sent to serve, the temptation to become complacent represents a very real threat to their ministry. The passion of short-term workers can help to rejuvenate career missionaries in their ministry efforts.

“We work very hard at the Global Outreach center to focus on enhancing the work already being done on the field,” Turner said. “It is not about us, it is about advancing God’s kingdom.”

 

This doesn’t mean that short-term missionaries should refrain from interacting with other cultures at all.

“Of course, we desire to minister and share our faith but only in the context of what the full-time workers are doing and under their leadership,” Turner said.

“We hear many stories from the field that our students helped advance their work in ways we could not have imagined.”

One such example comes from a New York City pastor who received 11 students and two mentors from OBU as workers during the spring break.

“They handed out almost 13,000 granola bars and invitations to the Easter service at the church they worked with,” Turner said. “We just heard the church had 259 first time visitors and 63 new believers.”

While the goal of handing out invitations to the Easter service was a simple one for the students, it’s consistent with Carlton’s belief that short-term missions must have a “clearly defined task.”

On the other hand, one thing which Carlton and Lupton both warn against is participating in a short-term mission trip to “sample” missions work. Such intentions lend themselves to a consumeristic view of missions.

“Short-term missions fulfill another need, at least in terms of people from the West,” Carlton said. “People want to ‘try out’ so to speak. They want to see if missions is a career they want to pursue. So they’re not willing to sign-on for a lifetime until they’ve had the short-term experience.”

In terms of responsibility, missions (a.k.a. spreading the Gospel) is not a suggestion but a command which Christ gives in Matthew 28 and Mark 16.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” Matthew 28:19.

However this commission is fulfilled, whether long-term or short-term, at home or overseas, missions is a careful collaborative effort between the long-term missionaries,
short-term workers and those being reached.

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