In our fast paced North American society, where most people have been blessed with an abundance of resources, short-term religious missions trips are becoming increasingly popular. This trend assumes we are using our resources to help others, but is this actually what we are doing?
Success of a trip in the Christian community is often measured after a group is able to check off a well-attended Vacation Bible School (VBS) program or completed service project from their list. The biggest accomplishment for groups usually comes during an altar call where numerous people come forward and make a spiritual commitment to Christ as translators share the original message. Once completing the routine checklist, most groups are able to return home with a warm feeling, thinking they have made a lasting impact in the country they have just visited.
But what is the outcome for those on the receiving end? Unfortunately, these extravagant VBS programs have set unrealistic precedents which the locals are often unable to match. When a new group comes through, service projects are often repeated, and the same people attend the altar calls. Once teams leave, there is often no long-term positive change.
To build a strong ministry one needs to evaluate their motives and be prepared to invest in relationships. In most cases, once one finally begins to break through the initial barriers of language and culture and start building relationships, it is time for the young missionaries to return home. There is simply not enough time to build true loving relationships.
Imagine a group from Asia visiting Winnipeg. After a two-week stay they return home, telling everyone of the cultural problems and poor ways of life. Would they have an adequate picture of Canada?
Yet, when Canadian groups return home from mission trips, they confidently stand in front of their congregations to share their new cultural experiences. Yes, other cultures can bring a fresh outlook to new locations, but at what point does that take away from the way of life a nation has always known? In an era of growing technology, perhaps the global church could share ideas and resources across nations through means other than simply sending groups.
Finances and Economics
American writer Darren Carlson notes an insightful statistic: “U.S. missions teams who rushed to Honduras to help rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Mitch spent on average $30,000 per home—homes locals could have built for $3,000 each.” If groups sent fewer workers in this situation with the same amount of money, they could have engaged locals by hiring them to do the building; locals who desperately needed work.
Imagine the potential jobs funded, programs offered, and people fed if an educated local pastor would be given the same amount of money it costs to send a group.
What do we do?
Most people who go on short-term mission trips go with the best intentions. However, I believe in many situations there are alternative options which may have greater results for both groups. In fact, if one wishes to truly do the work Jesus calls Christians to, it probably requires a much larger sacrifice than fundraising a few thousand dollars and taking a couple weeks out of a schedule. Whether you decide to travel away from your home country, or find an organization to work with locally, this will likely mean a long-term commitment rather than the ‘microwave ministry’ of short-term trips.
Christians often get sucked into the idea that ‘missions’ is something that can only be done in foreign countries; however, we must recognize there are needs for ministry all around us no matter where we are. Although the quick fix trip often sounds a lot more appealing, how much more of an impact would we be able to make if we built lasting relationships with those closer to home? We are not created to simply give others a ‘hand-out’ and leave, but rather build relationships and truly invest in each other’s lives.
There is not a black and white, yes or no answer that will address the questions of missions as a whole. However, before teams embark on a short-term trip they should truly examine the costs, benefits and intentions. Is this trip for me, or will it benefit the people I am going to serve? Would this money be best spent somewhere else? What will the long-term effects be? Is there a ministry similar to this closer to home? And finally, am I prepared to sacrifice and allow myself to invest in potential long-term relationships if that is even feasible?
Short-term missions trips are the easy answer, but long-term ministry is what truly builds community and lasting relationships. It is most often through long-term relationships that others can really begin to understand who Christ is and what a relationship with Him is all about.