American churches often send untrained individuals from among the financially privileged on short-term trips as a means of discipleship. In doing so, we swamp long-term workers with people who have flexible schedules and eager hearts, but not a lot of skill. Many missionaries wish they could tell you the same thing, but they’d lose support from churches if they publicly expressed this view.
I’ve been told I’m the guy who hates short-term missions.
Seven years ago I wrote a series of articles on short-term missions, but one in particular struck a chord: “Why You Should Consider Canceling Your Short-Term Mission Trips.” I sought to slay one of the golden calves of American evangelicalism, and quite a few folks weren’t happy about it.
Do I still believe it, seven years later? Yes—but 10,000 times more strongly. I’ve seen, experienced, and hosted trips, and I’ve watched the reporting back home (and not just from American teams) in the local church. If I had the power, I’d wipe out the majority of short-term mission trips with the wave of my hand.
What’s my rationale for this bold contention? Several things.
Research at the Mercy of Testimonies?
Our culture primarily communicates in images and stories. When many Americans see something sad, our response is, What can I do? This is honorable. We see pictures of malnourished children or orphanages that need repair or refugees that need help. So we go, and the stories seem to come to life.
We also hear stories from people who have gone on such trips. They report a renewed love for Jesus, a new passion for missions, even a call to long-term service. The impact seems enormous.
But it’s not.
- They don’t change participants’ lives.
- They don’t cause more people to commit to long-term missions.
- They often harm both local economies and orphans.
But here’s the problem: research rarely trumps the anecdotes that participants recount after their cross-cultural experiences.