Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Who Do Mission Trips Benefit?

There are tons of opportunities and scads of enterprises putting together short term mission trips for all ages.  It has become a real cottage industry in our own church body as well as throughout the USA.  In my city alone there are always people coming and going to one place or another on a short term mission trip.  Some of these involve more local geography (Mexico, Latin America, Caribbean, and South America) and some of these take folks half a world away (especially Africa).

I have written before about my uneasiness about mission trips.  I have heard from any number of folks on the mission field, involved in mission and relief work, and in congregational leadership.  They all admit to some concern about the large amount of money spent to send people over with few unique or special skills, to do things that local people could do, and to pre-occupy the attention and resources of the mission field from their work to the short term "missionaries."  It is not uncommon for a group of 20 to have invested $60-$80K in basic expenses for one mission trip of 10 days to 2 weeks, say, in Africa.  I have written here before about the wisdom of spending that kind of money on the trip and the rather "make work" things that these folks do on the mission field while leaving the indigenous church still in need of the cash to construct church buildings, pay for basic operating expenses, etc.

I wonder if it is not time to be honest here.  Mission trips are religious vacations for the people going.  The trip organizers are more like tour directors than mission directors.  The work that is done is intended to give the people who go a taste of the mission field -- not to do real mission work.  The money spent is largely entertainment, perhaps some educational value.  Let us be honest about this.  This is pretty much what the whole idea of mission trips is about -- entertainment, some education, and a little bit of experience.  In some respects, it is not unlike visiting a national park here or one of the presidential museums or Washington, DC -- a lot of fun, some great experiences, and a little learning along the way.  So let us be honest.  Mission trips are religious vacations.

Now as long as we are honest about this, as long you do not ask me to pay for your vacation, as long as you do not preoccupy or distract the missionaries from their real work, and as long as you do not consume scarce resources on the mission field that might better serve the work of the kingdom, well, okay.  Go, and have a great religious vacation.  But let us not confuse or deceive ourselves.  Two weeks on the mission field (absent any real specific or unique skills needed there) are not going to make much of a difference.  And, given the cost, it is a pricey way to speak through an interpreter the Gospel to a few folks, to build or rehab a building, or to witness the same folks being baptized over and over again for effect.  In this day and age, we can do most of this more cheaply through media (and pay the locals who need the work to build and rehab the buildings).

But, if these "mission trips" disrupt or distract the missionaries from their work or keep needed funds from that work (money that ends up being spent on our religious vacations), then don't go.  Don't encourage others to go.  Don't support those who decide to go.

I must be honest.  I have never gone on a mission trip.  I have spent time in Mexico.  I have been in mission settings in run down urban areas across the Northeast.  I have served on boards and committees in Districts and been charged with some of the responsibilities of the mission work of our churches (particularly in the areas of finance).  I would love to go to Africa.  I would love to visit India.  I would love to go to Germany.  I would love to go to a thousand other places and some of the reasons are religious.  But most are not.  I want to go for me.  Why can't we just be honest about this when it comes to "mission trips."  If we begin with this honesty and can do them without detracting from the work of the congregation here or the mission there, and if we are already giving a tithe or more to that local church and offerings above to the mission work of our church body, then go.  I will be happy for you.  I hope you will learn something.  I pray that when you get back you will marshal the support of God's kingdom from among those not to excited about that work.  But let us be honest.  Lets not call them "mission trips."  Okay?


Anonymous said...

"Mission Trips" aka "Religious
Vacations" There needs to be a
big distinction between these trips
made by high school youth groups and
mature adult groups. The LCMS has
made a cottage industry out of youth
groups who want to keep their kids
involved in servanthood. However,
when adults who are doctors, nurses,
dentists, etc. decide to go to help
a mission field, then this is not
entertainment. It is genuine Christ-live love.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

You know, I think if we considered them as simply religious vacations, they could be high profitable -- because we know that vacations are for our good.

If I go on a mission trip, I tend to focus on my actions and works. If I go on vacation, I am restored. I get to learn - I am enhanced. And yes, if I see mission work done elsewhere, it can enrich me - it can remind me of my blessings, it is something that I can then use to share and encourage others to support charity and aid to the places. Go for knowledge, not do to your good deed.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this.

Anonymous said...

Excellent. Particularly in the mainstream evangelical world I was raised in Mission Trips were treated more like pilgrimages than genuine service activities.

Anonymous said...

I heartily agree. As a former "career missionary" with LCMS World Mission I came to describe these as Mission VISION Trips.

In a developing nation these trips can't help but consume the time and energy of the missionary. Your qualifications are on the mark, but the educational component is important nonetheless.

As Americans it sometimes takes the sort of kick in the pants observing mission work firsthand can provide to get us to move beyond our self-centered consumerism and recognize WE are those of whom much is expected because we have been given much.

Pastor Peters said...

I have always maintained a difference between mission vacations and those mission trips where the individuals bring needed skills to the mission field (medical, technological, etc.). But, frankly, what happens most in our congregations are mission vacations.

Anonymous said...

We have an arrogance/guilt as white Americans to help these poor souls in 3rd world, when in truth usually a higher percentage of our own backyard people don't go to church. It is of self-gratifying, self-enrichment to call these "mission" trips to sanctify our work to think it is somehow more holy that just going to build a house. I agree, if it's not a Word and Sacrament endeavor, then it isn't "missionary" in the Scriptural useage. It's the old AC XXVII that my vocation is holier than yours.

Anonymous said...

A Mission Field needs to minister
to both body and soul. If we can not
help them with their bodily concerns
such as disease, poor nutrition, and
other health hazards, then we will
not have an audience for Word and
Sacrament ministry later on.

Haiti is a good example. To help
minister to body and soul is simply
doing ministry like Christ during
His 3 year ministry in Palestine.

Tim Boerger said...

I have some experience with short-term mission trips, both as a participant and as staff (I spent the summer after college working as a facilitator/translator with the Latin American Lutheran Mission), so I have spent some time thinking about these things.

I guess my feelings about these sort of trips are complicated. They can either be very good or very bad. Most of the problems are, I think, conceptual (and this makes it especially important to be careful in choosing what organization one works with).

I recently heard a quote from the founder of the Appalachia Service Project, something to the effect of, "ASP is a relationship ministry with a side of construction." I think that's a good description of the best sort of mission trips. Is it the same as career mission work? Of course not. Are there some inherent dangers and potential abuses? For sure. (Wherever there are Americans abroad, there will be Ugly Americanism.) But there is something inherently beautiful about believers from different parts of the world spending time learning from one another and working side-by-side with each other. I know of situations where the same volunteers have been coming back to a particular site for years---so that the American participants and Mexican hosts have watched each other's children grow up and have formed relationships that are by no means limited to a week each summer. I would argue that the greatest benefit from these trips is received by the American participants (because the material benefits that we bring pale in comparison to the examples of faith and love that are seen in the hosts)--but the mutual consolation of the brethren works both ways.

Sure, one could dismiss mission trips as mere vacations, and there's probably some justice in that characterization. But for most of our affluence-soaked parishioners, these trips are not like any vacation they've ever had. I think a better model for conceptualizing mission trips is "retreat": a brief time away from the obligations and distractions of everyday life to live simply, to work, and to pray (ora & labora, anyone?) alongside other Christians (in this case, with Christians from a different part of the world) and supporting the host ministry in the process. There are worse ways to spend a vacation. Hospitality has long been an important component of many Christian ministries.... So perhaps what we're seeing in short-term missions is a very old idea re-conceived for a global age.

Anonymous said...

except for Tim Boerger's comment it is obvious that most of what is said here is very narrow minded, uninformed, and comes off very judgmental. In fact in the original post it is admitted that He has never been on a mission trip. i am not saying all missions that host teams are doing a great job but i do know that God is doing amazing things through short term missions. with the Nationals they are working with, the people they hope to help present Christ to, and the Church members that are on the trip. I realize that this has been criticized as if the Americans growing in their faith is a small matter. But I notice the positive impact that this has on the sending Church over time. in short dont thumb your nose at someone going on a mission trip help them pray for them and go with them and let God change your heart.

Anonymous said...

Most of these posts seem to come from the idea that money should be spent on the ministry in some other way. But let me translate- it comes from the want to keep our money to ourselves rather than sending to help other overseas missions. The idea that churches will want to continue helping and stay connected to their christian brothers and sisters overseas, without sending short term mission trips every once in a while doesn't work in real life. In fact, I have seen a church "drink the cool-aid" of withholding support via short term mission trips (originally talked about in "When helping hurts"). Eventually, that church simply stopped giving because they no longer had a connection with that ministry. All because they didn't want to support short term mission trips.

THE MOODY'S said...

As a missionary to West Africa for four years, I agree that poorly planned mission trips can end with less than desirable results. However, I have hosted American teams who were greatly used of the Lord both to the nationals and in promoting spiritual growth in the one going. Americans can be used to open doors that are otherwise closed to nationals. Many Muslims will listen to a visitor who they perceive has sacrificed much to travel such a distance to share this news of the gospel. There are several pitfalls to avoid but let's be honest, how do we get around the command to "go?" God is working in ways that we do not fully understand and we need to be careful condemning an activity ordained by Christ himself....even if we think there is much room for improvement.