Should I go on a short-term mission trip this year? If so, where?
Our church recently announced this year’s short-term mission trips, and I was staring at the list. The glossy brochure, with its glowing descriptions of each destination and the life-impacting ministry we could do there, was very impressive. In keeping with our congregation of over 10,000, there were a lot of trips to choose from: Afghanistan, Myanmar, Israel, Egypt, India, Honduras, South Africa, Germany… with more to be added later. Our church is in partnership with missionaries and indigenous ministries in these and other places. Every year short-term teams are sent to help with projects, train local leaders, encourage missionaries, prayer-walk the neighborhoods, teach health and hygiene classes, provide medical care, lead Bible studies, love on orphaned kids, and “share the love of Christ in practical ways.”
At the same time, I finally read a book that a friend of ours had recommended (and that I mentioned on my blog) last year: When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Ourselves, by Steve Corbett. One of the points the author makes is that our good intentions don’t always translate cross-culturally into effective ministry. For example, when asked about the US team who came to rebuild hurricane-damaged houses for a congregation in El Salvador, the pastor there explained that it would have been better to just send them the money spent on plane fare. Not only could many more houses have been built, but local contractors and construction workers would have had jobs.
Corbett also points out that when westerners (a general term for those from the wealthy parts of the world) come bearing clothing, food, and other supplies, it creates dependency, reinforcing the mindset that the recipients can’t take care of themselves. There is a time and place for donated goods—in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, for example—but once the urgent crisis is over, it is much better to empower people to meet their own needs. Who knows the situation better than the people already living there?
Even “culturally neutral” ministry, such as leading Bible studies, holding vacation Bible schools, and training pastors, are not as straightforward as we would like to believe. Our western mindset inevitably intrudes when we read and interpret scripture.
So, what is a good-intentioned believer to do? While I don’t want to waste resources or underestimate the competence of local believers, I very much want to obey God when He calls me to love my neighbor, give to the poor, help widows and orphans, and be his witness to the ends of the earth. The question is more one of “where” than “what.” These are all things I can (and should) do in Colorado Springs, yet the need is so much greater elsewhere.
Caught in this tension, it’s easy to come down with a condition I call “holy paralysis.” Afraid of doing the wrong thing, we do nothing. I have to balance the above story about building houses with the statement made by a Sudanese man who benefited from one church’s trip: “You didn’t just send money. You cared enough to come yourself.”
I don’t know yet if God wants me to go on a ministry trip this year. On the plus side, our missions pastor told me my photography skills would be welcome on any of them. On the negative (or should I say faith-stretching) side, we certainly can’t afford the cost, and I hate to ask our supporters to cough up even more money. Still, if God wants me to go, the funding will be there.
Then there’s the bigger picture—how does a short-term trip fit into a long-term vision? Is it possible to make a significant impact in only a week or two? Or is going on a short-term trip just a way to check off “help other people” on my to-do list? What is my motivation? Am I truly desiring to love those I’ve never met, or could I be using this as an excuse for a guilt-free vacation (ouch!)?
Clearly, I have a lot of prayerful soul-searching to do.
What about you—have you been on a short- (or long-) term mission trip? How did your going help the people you went to serve? What did you learn? Did it change your life over the long run?