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Just say no to short term mission trips?

24 Aug

Last week our church bulletin listed an upcoming opportunity for youth to participate in a short term mission trip to Mexico, and I asked my two older teens if they were interested. Both said “no” without hesitation, though I know they both want to travel. My daughter saw another “ad” for a youth mission trip and scoffed at the mention of a free river cruise for participants. Poor taste, she thought. Maybe they should add free tickets to a bull fight, too. After all, isn’t the short term mission trip the ideal kind of vaca-, I mean, opportunity to serve, and who will go if it’s not fun?

Over the years I’ve seen many young people go off with church groups to impoverished communities around the world to help with building projects, do dramatic evangelistic presentations and run Bible learning programs. They send out letters or do short appeals from the pulpit asking for prayer and financial support, do fundraising and so on, and off they go. Their leaders are usually only a little older than they, and full of excitement and youth appeal. They come back with stories of how much it affected them, how grateful the people were, and photos of themselves with cute impoverished dark-skinned children smiling sweetly. The participants’ relatives are proud that their children are off doing good in the world and not just focused on material success or on drugs or something, plus they got to travel and see the world (without parents having to go, or foot the whole bill–and with nice church people). The church feels glad to offer such youth programs and opportunities, and everyone enjoys the multimedia presentation in the post-mission church service.The participants always say the received more than they gave. I think they mean this humbly and truthfully. But wouldn’t they be surprised if the missionees admitted the same, “We gave more than we received”?

I just got one of these mission reports in my email box, and, as usual, it had the photo with the smiling dark-skinned child. And a photo of a tarantula the young man had “defeated.” There were also reports of numbers that “responded for Christ,” etc., and a hope that this young person will get to participate in another mission trip soon.

What do these communities think of this invasion by cheerful, enthusiastic, purpose-driven, privileged young people? Was an invitation even sent? What kind of prep has to be shouldered by the community? It is like a mini-Olympics, where dissenters and ugly, uncooperative people are hidden or sent away (or are they kept in the wings to provide the exciting challenge of “spiritual opposition”)? Does the visit have a long term positive impact on the community visited? Maybe some of the local parents can get a break and get more work done while their kids get entertained in the day camp, I’m thinking. And there’s definitely entertainment value, even without dramatic presentations. Maybe some gifts are given, the hope of gainful connections is established. Of course the local folks get to encounter another culture, and that can be positive, but is it?

What about the fact that these people remain virtual strangers to one another and never meet again? Does anyone ever follow up, keep in contact, have the communities “served” give an evaluation or debriefing, the people “saved” get established in their new-found faith? And though I’m familiar with the phrase, “responded for Christ,” what does that really mean, besides the raising of a hand or a coming forward to an altar (Is someone holding a clicker to get the stats, or taking names? Does anyone know the motivations of people who respond, the prior experiences, the hopes for the future these people have? How many times have they “responded for Christ”? Are they doing it out of individual desire to demonstrate faith in the Lord, or just to follow along, or even do what they are told? I’d also like to go into the question of the nature of the mass message offered, because seems to me that Jesus and his best friends tended to make it pretty personal, pretty specific, except for the general “repent.” The current message seems to be more along the lines of “believe, and you get off, and get in.” But the theological inquiry is for another time. What I want to ask here is does a short term mission do more harm than good, apart from the message? For the impoverished communities, I mean–that harm done to the young people (in terms of getting a wrong idea of their own usefulness, a surface impression of a people, etc.), I think they’ll manage to weather just fine.

I don’t blame young missionaries for their good intentions, but I think they, and especially the leaders who plan, organize and train for these events need to think more deeply about these things, and talk to wise, experienced, older people (here and in other cultures) in considering how youth might best be engaged in the sharing of the message of Jesus, and how it is best shared.

I found a great article by Darren Carlson of Trinity Evangelical DIvinity School that beautifully addresses these questions: Why You Should Consider Canceling Your Short-Term Mission Trips.  I was tickled that I found it smack dab on a missions organization website, the Gospel Coalition–no self congratulation there, just smart self-critique, right there with a myriad of other voices. A subsequent article suggests better ways to do these types of trips, or what should be done in their place.

This is just the sort of topic Blimey Cow would probably address, and sure enough, I found a hilarious video lambasting short term mission trips. (My daughter introduced me to Blimey Cow–they are often right on, in the Flannery O’Connor tradition–writ large for the semi-blind, shouted through loudspeakers for the semi-deaf. It’s a bit sarcastic and maybe offensive for the tender-hearted, however.)

Here’s another question: Why do church youth need to go to a foreign country, or at least a good ways from home, to get a polite hearing? I think it’s partly the demands of hospitality placed on the host community (perhaps the power dynamic also, as mentioned in the Carlson article). But hospitality means making someone feel welcome, not that the visitors actually are welcome. You put up with a lot in temporary guests, and want to be thought of well, so you smile and feed them, show them around, let them feel important and try not to get into arguments over their crazy views. And it takes a while to get your energy and routine back afterwards.

I once heard that sort of evangelistic outreach compared to “flashing” (as in indecent exposure)–show quick, get a reaction and a thrill, and run away anonymously. It would be different, wouldn’t it, to do a short-term mission in one’s own home town, without being invited, in the public square, rented room in the library or under the bridge by the freeway. One might even be recognized, pulled in, held accountable over time to practice what’s preached. That kind of ministry is for those who are truly full of God’s love, willing to lay themselves down, open to real relationship, and who believe and live the message deeply, or try to. Those are the kinds of missions and ministries we should be supporting.

Young people need to learn about their world, observe and experience different cultures, and in the process become more critically objective about their own. Short term group trips with the youth pastor can whet the appetite for a more in depth experience. There are lots of good foreign exchange programs that provide extended encounter with other cultures (see this list of exchange programs around the world), and lots of ways to intern or assist in programs and projects run by nationals. But why shouldn’t churches organize these educational opportunuties too, with reliable, intelligent Christian leaders (preferably from the host country, or at least who speak the language) who can help young people stay safe and on the straight and narrow (secular programs can be pretty wild), relate what they are experiencing to their faith journey, make a real contribution in the community according to needs and gifts, and finally, do no harm. Each young person is different, and is involved in church for different reasons. They’re at different stages of maturity, they have a variety of personalities, beliefs, doubts, lifestyles, and should not be herded into programs that require profession and dissemination of convictions before they are really there. Churches shouldn’t take advantage of young people’s naivete, “lifestyle flexibility” and energy to get them to spread a message they themselves wouldn’t take downtown to people they wouldn’t allow to tag along after them. We’re not all ready to be like the Master, who said to the extra-curious in his audience who wanted to know where he was living, “Come and see…” (John 1:39-41) after his sermon.

But why not harness the opportunity to take these young adventurers across cultural divides, in a thoughtful and non-invasive way, so they can become “world citizens”? God knows we need more of those in America, and in conservative evangelical churches in particular.

I welcome your comments. By way of background, when I was twenty I participated in Canada World Youth/Jeunesse Canada Monde, a government-funded exchange program that places selected youth from Canada and a partner developing country (mine was Togo) in rural host families in the two countries in turn, three months each, to learn about rural development. Families receive compensation for expenses, and host a pair, one from each country (not the participants’ home town), who simply live and work there, learning the languages as best they can, with weekly group meetings to process and discuss. I’ve never been on a short term or long term foreign mission, though I have participated in informal evangelism in universities I attended.

 

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