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Rethinking Mission Trip Realities

Many first-world churchgoers have been on third-world mission trips.

It's quite possible that you yourself have been on a short-term mission trip. Maybe you went to Peru to visit your Compassion Intl child. Maybe you flew to Asia to help with an English-as-a-second-language class or to help train church leaders. Maybe you traveled to El Salvador to snuggle children at an orphanage and feed the homeless. Maybe you used your medical skills with a team to Belize or Kenya or Mexico.

I have been on these trips. No one would argue that to go and serve and be love in poor countries is noble. Maybe even life-changing.

But life-changing for whom? Often these trips end up being more about us than them.

Short-term missions (STM) expose us to the immense gap between the rich and poor. They get us out of our comfort zones and beyond complacency. They broaden our horizons through meeting other Christians and missionaries around the world. They impact us so that we go back, upload our photos, share our stories, start a giving campaign, and encourage others to see the world with our freshly gained perspective.

These all great things….for us. But what about the people we've just left behind? Once we leave, their story goes on, their challenges continue, and their lives in large part remain unchanged.

I want us to caution us with three ways our mission trips might negatively impact the very people we are trying to help.

1. STM labor such as building, repairing, installing, painting, plumbing, etc., may be hard yet rewarding labor for us, but it strips ownership from the local communities we're trying to help. Most of the people in these communities, men especially, would prefer to do the work themselves. Men derive purpose from their work. They need a job and a wage. Often, after foreigners come in and snatch up available opportunities for work, people are left feeling not particularly grateful, but rather humiliated. When we do the work they could do, we deny them their capacity and steal their pride.

2. Children are often the focus of many STM trip ministries. The conviction to love and care for and mentor children, especially orphans, around the world is good. It's biblical. However, what happens a lot of times is that we only focus on children. I mean who isn't captivated by pairs of little arms wrapping themselves around you, or faces piercing you with deep, ebony eyes and ivory smiles. Part of why we love that, is because of how it makes us feel. It's easy to swoop in, lavish attention, build excitement, teach a few things, and then leave them after a week. It's the adults then, parents, grandparents, community elders, teachers, and orphanage caretakers who are left to carry on our attention, excitement and teaching. But the truth is, in most traditional communities, children will never receive that much attention again. Their caretakers simply can't afford to. They are too focused on acquiring the next meal, finding the next job, or battling the next illness.

If we really want to invest in children, we need to invest in adults. We need to help them find jobs so they are not burdened to provide for their dependents. We need to listen to their stories of hardship and sympathize rather than criticize. We need to build them up so they feel empowered to mentor their children. We need to exude the love of Christ, equip them with the Truth, and encourage them as believers to grow in unyielding faith and unconditional love, which will ultimately spill over into the lives of their children.

3. The financial investment behind STM trips is great. A team of 10 may spend $25,000 to travel to Africa, while the organization they're working with operates on a budget of pennies.Is there a way that money could be better spent as a gift to support the beneficiaries, rather than footing our bill for airfare, transportation, lodging, and food? Maybe. The question to ask is how can we best steward the resources God has blessed us with? Sometimes it may be by going into all the nations, but sometimes it may be by sending our resources directly to those who have the experience and field knowledge to apply and maximize its effectiveness.

The title of the recent book “When Helping Hurts” speaks volumes by admonishing us to step back and take a second look at the real impact of our short term mission trips. Having good intentions and a positive trip experience is not the same as demonstrating the love of Jesus in ways that truly meets the spiritual and tangible needs of those we seek to serve.

Steffani Taylor

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