Friday, February 26, 2010

Short Term Pros and Cons: An Epistle

My cousin, Drew, who is also in what he calls a “do-gooder” profession ;-) sent me this link to an article called The End of Service Trips? by Tim Ogden:

The author challenges the value of overseas service trips (such as missions trips) in terms of value for dollar. He says, “My epiphany on the pointlessness of such trips came while spending a month volunteering at an international NGO’s famine-relief operation in Ethiopia. Despite my good intentions it was abundantly clear that I had no useful skills for the situation.”

He also sites an op-ed from the Wall Street Journal, The 'Great Commission' or Glorified Sightseeing? by Evan Sparks. Sparks, who has himself taken numerous short-term missions trips, is even more critical: “The billion-dollar question, however, is whether they're worth the cost. Are short-term missions the best way to achieve the goals of Christians? Critics argue that sightseeing often takes up too much of the itinerary, leading some to call short-termers ‘vacationaries.’”

My husband maintains that the value of such trips is the exposure of Americans to how “the other half” lives. He feels that every American church member should make such a trip to the Third World. Andy Crouch, executive producer of Round Trip, a documentary film-based curriculum designed to improve church service trips, echoes this sentiment: “To experience the absolute poverty in parts of the developing world, to see people who couldn’t possibly be doing anything more to escape poverty, can be a transformative experience. It begins raising systemic questions that don’t necessarily get raised when you see the relative poverty in the United States. It’s very important for people in the rich world to be exposed to absolute poverty and I don’t know how you do it without an encounter with a real person.“

But Ogden responds, “Evidence suggests that these trips have no lasting impact on the participants, however.” Sparks cites Calvin College sociologist Kurt Ver Beek, who surveyed U.S. [short-term] missionaries who built homes in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch in 1998. “After coming down from a post-trip ‘high,’ the short-termers did not evince much change in their lives. Only 16% reported ‘significant positive impact,’ including in prayer, friendships and financial giving.”

Sparks says further, “Indeed, if you were to ask an economist about short-term missions, many of which involve such manual-labor projects, he would have a simple answer: Ditch the traveling team members and send a check. A career missionary knows better what manual labor needs to be done on-site, and he can hire local laborers for much less money than what flying in unskilled Americans requires. Using local labor contributes to the local economy and avoids perpetuating a culture of dependency and powerlessness. A career missionary is also fluent in the local language and culturally aware, so he can be more effective at evangelism, discipleship and social-justice ministries.”

So where do I stand on this issue? Firmly straddling the fence! The above statement is correct about providing employment to and empowering locals. Yet we want short-term teams to come here, to see what our lives are like, and to meet the people in whom we have invested ourselves. We believe that long-term missionaries are often called through such an experience (though I have no empirical statistics to back my claim).

As for the advice above for people to stay at home and send a check, things just don’t work that way. I remember a time when we were building a church, and a builder’s team came from the States. The local pastor commented, “With all the money these people are spending on travel, we would have more than enough to finish the building.”

What we told him was that if those people had not come, they would not have sent us their money instead. If they paid for the trip themselves, they would have simply spent it on another trip. If the members of their church contributed to help them, it was because of the participation of people they knew. Contributors get more excited about the involvement of a person they know than about a building project. If they can’t go themselves, they feel good about enabling someone else to do so. There’s not as much vicarious satisfaction in buying a brick.

Crouch suggests, “The trips only make sense if they are part of a comprehensive program of changing peoples attitudes and behaviors. Evidence is shockingly clear that a single trip has no impact. No matter how well you do a trip, especially when you’re talking about teenagers, they are at such a high-velocity developmental stage that I don’t think any single experience is going to have an ‘impact.‘...If you want to see any lasting change you can’t have the trip end when people get back, or even after that one meeting where everyone shares their pictures. The organizations that have thought about this the most and are doing the best job are making these trips part of a much longer engagement with the issues. For instance, there’s one organization that requires a year-long commitment and the trip occurs in the middle—they meet just as often after the trip as they do preparing for it. What we need to do is go out and have our world rocked and then come back and in a sustained way make some real commitments to change and be held accountable for enough time for those changes to sink in. The grooves in our culture are too deep for us to escape from without that level of commitment.“

We have been impressed by a program of the Cooperative Missions Network of the African Dispersion (COMINAD), called Adopt-A-Village.

Adopt-A-People has been a popular concept in missions circles for the past decade or longer. This means “that a church, congregation or fellowship group makes a serious commitment to do all they can to reach their adopted people group by working in partnership with the mission agency of their choice.” One criticism of this approach, however, is that it is too big. It’s hard for people to feel intimately involved with a whole tribe of people.

So COMINAD (and others) came up with the idea of allying a single church with a single village. In the COMINAD model, members of the American church visit the village annually, or more often, so they are returning to the same place over and over again. Pictures are taken of each villager, and each member of the US church commits to pray for one of the villagers. The villagers also receive pictures of their prayer partners. The American church also agrees to support a church-planter to live in the village. He will build relationships with the local people, and work or farm alongside them. There may be development projects eventually, but the focus is not on financial benefits, but rather on relationship.

As an African-American organization, the focus of COMINAD is on reconciliation: reconciliation with the descendants of their African brethren who sold them into slavery centuries ago, and reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ. They say to the Africans, “We all know that our ancestors could not have been captured as slaves without the participation of the local people. [Here the villagers nod their heads and/or avert their eyes.] But what they intended for evil, God intended for good (Gen. 50.20). When our ancestors went to the United States, they learned about the Gospel of Jesus Christ so we can bring that back to you.”

This more focused approach on a smaller group of people, with repeated contact, has proven fruitful for COMINAD and other organizations.

Finally, our daughter, Ruthanne, and son, Benjamin, both went on overseas summer trips with Teen Missions International. We are very impressed with this organization as well. For the same amount of money that a young woman in our church was paying to go help missionaries in Costa Rica for two weeks, our kids had two weeks of “Boot Camp” training in Florida, then a month or more of work in their country, followed by a week of follow-up debriefing. We would recommend TMI highly and would love to get one of their groups to come here as well!

If after all this, I have not discouraged you about short-term missions, here are a few helpful links!

Reconciliation Ministries International:
Christ for Humanity:
Teen Missions International:
The Alliance for Excellence in Short Term Mission:
Christianity Today’s ST mission site:
Short Term missions database/search engine:
United World Mission’s short term opportunities (note: these are for one-to-two year terms, as recommended in the Ogden article):
And oh, yeah, don't forget about us:

Further reading on this issue:
Churches Retool Mission Trips: Work Abroad Criticized for High Cost and Lack of Value By Jacqueline L. Salmon

1 comment:

Carin LeRoy said...

Hi Jennifer, Great blog! I didn't realize you had such a wonderful blog until your new post about short term missions caught my attention. That is an interesting topic, and at times I am on the fence, too. It's what I help PIONEERS do. I'll have to check out the blog more often...