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Short Term Mission Trips: Just Say No?

Vinoth Ramachandra is a well respected Sri Lankan writer and theologian. He has just posted a highly critical post about the short terms mission industry (my term, not his) on his blog.

Here is a staggering statistic that I came across recently. Robert Wuthnow, the eminent sociologist of religion at Princeton University has estimated that up to 1.6 million American Christians take part in overseas “mission trips” each year, with churches spending at least $2.4 billion per year on such trips. What is unsurprising is that many of these 1-3 week “mission trips” are to the Caribbean and Central America, with luxury resorts such as the Bahamas reporting one “short-term missionary” for every 15 residents. One would expect Mexico, which receives the most American “mission teams” every year, to be the most Christian nation on earth

In the distant days when I was a university student in London, I had friends among people who came from all over the world. They embraced all religions and none. Some of them still remain friends. Occasionally I would take a backpack and “bum around” Europe. I would travel by train and public buses, stay in youth hostels or sleep in railway stations like thousands of other young tourists…

My thoughts return to these experiences whenever my wife and I receive a request from some Western (or rich Asian) church to find someone in Sri Lanka or India willing to host a team of young people who want to undertake a “mission trip”. We don’t doubt the sincerity of those who want to practise neighbour love or share the gospel with people in other lands. But good intentions, history reminds us, often do not translate into good outcomes. But those who are enthusiastic about such “mission trips” usually don’t have the patience to study history…

It baffles us why such Christian kids cannot learn about the world by doing what I, and several millions of their non-Christian peers, have done over decades: simply travelling as tourists and exploring…

This is just one dilemma. It is extremely difficult for us to say to zealous American, Singaporean or Korean Christians that they are really not needed. While there is a lot of talk about “mission partnerships” these days, the theologies of mission that we hold are rarely scrutinized and challenged in a genuine rich-poor encounter. The world of “ missions” seems hopelessly fragmented- and more pragmatist than ever. As long as this state of affairs continues, will not the practice of “partnership” be loaded in favour of those churches with the bigger wallets and the louder voices?

Please read the whole post.

It is incredibly important that we listen to the voices of those who are on the receiving end of our mission efforts, no matter how uncomfortable that is.

I don’t want to become defensive, but as the leader of an organisation that sends out short-term teams, I’d like to pass a couple of reflections on what Vinoth has to say. The first thing I’d want to say is that there is often a difference in approach to short-term mission on the two sides of the Atlantic. Many of the Brits who sign up for our teams are people who have ‘bummed around Europe’, they have gained a deep love of language and culture and they want to know more. These are generally not hand-holding exercises for people who have never been out of the UK, but opportunities for Brits who have travelled, but who want to explore something more of  what God is saying to them. That being said, I don’t want to ignore Vinoth’s concerns.

I also think that it is important that Christians in different countries and cultures have the opportunities to meet with one another and to learn from one another. To me, this is the great advantage of the whole summer trip concept. In Wycliffe we try and build in a strong relational element by having teams visit the same area over a number of years and seeing contacts and friendships build up over the years. The Wycliffe Youth Network, Wynet have built up great contacts with people in the Bassar region in Togo which they visit every few years and the group have helped to sponsor some of the Bible translation activity that is going on in that part of the world. If people don’t travel, then the opportunities for mutual learning and encouragement are sadly diminished.

However, as Vinoth implies, the dynamic of this learning and encouragement is sadly distorted by finance. Rich people can go on mission trips and poor people can’t. Not only that, but the rich people feel often feel that because they are rich, then their role is to give and not to receive. This video (which I linked to a couple of years ago) gives a different slant on short-term mission. Could we do it here, I wonder?

This piece links to some other thought provoking articles on short term mission.

This post is more than a year old. It is quite possible that any links to other websites, pictures or media content will no longer be valid. Things change on the web and it is impossible for us to keep up to date with everything.

2 replies on “Short Term Mission Trips: Just Say No?”

Thankyou for this post – it’s like as if a short term mission trip is something all Christians must do – like what the Grand Tour once was, a rite of passage.

[…] I was pointed to that post by y colleague Jonathan who offered a characteristically thought-through and rich metitation, so I responded here and here (I neglected to make explicit – for anyone who is a casual visitor here – that I have an interest to declare). Since writing those posts I have seen another response (from someone with a stronger declared interest) the Kouya Chronicle’s “Short Term Mission Trips: Just Say No?” […]

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