Short-term mission trips are almost always more beneficial to the participants than the beneficiaries. I say this knowing it’s controversial. I say this as a participant of countless short-term mission trips. I say this as an employee of a short-term missions organization. Believe me, it’s as hard to say as it is to hear.
Think of your community. What could a group of 20 outsiders do in just a few weeks that could really make any difference? Remember these people have never been to your country, they don’t speak your language, and they probably don’t want your help. That’s not all true, there’s almost always one person in the group that’s “practically a local” because they went on this same trip a year ago; they know all the cool places to eat, shop, and evangelize.
There are plenty of horror stories about short-term mission trips, I’ll only tell one:
A family living in the barrios of Mexico, woke up to the sound of people outside of their home one Saturday morning. They walk outside to see 4 Americans near their home about to begin what looks like a painting project. This family is obviously surprised to see Americans outside of their home but the language barrier makes it hard for anyone to truly communicate. No bother, the Americans say to themselves, love is the international language; this family will feel Jesus’ presence through our being here. So the Americans go about their business while trying to ignore the family because it’s a little awkward. They pull out their paint supplies (that they brought with them from America), and start painting the outside of this family’s home. A few hours pass and the project is over; their home is no longer a boring cement gray color. Finally this family will have some hope! The Americans take a bunch of pictures of the family and then pile in a van worth more than the house they just “served” to go back to the hotel for the afternoon.
This family just became a victim of short-term missions, and they aren’t alone. If they wanted their house painted, they probably didn’t want it painted whatever color the Home Depot in America had on special the day before. If they wanted their house painted, they probably didn’t want it painted by inexperienced Americans. If they wanted their house painted, they probably wanted some say in it.
The worst thing about all of this is when the Americans sit around the campfire and talk about how much joy they saw in the family’s faces when they arrived. These Americans end up taking credit for the joy this family has in their lives despite their circumstances. This family worked hard to have that joy and we take credit for it after just a few hours of doing something that no one wanted us to do. Are most Americans joyful despite their circumstances? We might be able to learn something from this “hopeless” family but we’re too arrogant to think beyond our own perspective.
I think most short-term missionaries go with pure intentions. I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad. I’ve been on more short-term mission trips than I can count. I’m the worst of sinners. We have to start thinking beyond ourselves. Mission trips are fun and you always come back feeling better, BUT we have to start asking ourselves who is really benefiting?
How do you know if a mission trip is helping or hurting?
If you are doing something for a community that it can do for itself, you are doing harm. Think of that the next time you’re digging a well, building a church, or doing a VBS.