The Short Term Missionary vs. Vacationary debate; More Thoughts on ‘Toxic Charity’ and ‘When Helping Hurts’

I understand why “mission trips” are so popular. They give American laypeople an opportunity to feel like they’ve done something to save the world without leaving their comfort zone for very long. Upon their return, they acquire the status of heroes of the faith (“Wow! You spent a whole week in Africa? Man, that is so hard core!”)

(Editor’s Note: For previous stories on these two books, go to Toxic and Hurts)

One of the “Seven Deadly Social Sins” cited by India’s Mohandas K. Gandhi was “worship without sacrifice.” In a similar vein, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (executed in a Nazi prison) said in his classic The Cost of Discipleship that when Christ calls a man, he calls that man to die. As one who has spent the last one-third of his life on the foreign mission field, I think about these quotes as I view with growing alarm certain trends that I see within American Christianity.

The Gospel of Matthew ends with the “Great Commission:”

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Mt. 28:18-20)

There are two books I wish everyone would read: Toxic Charity by Robert D. Lupton, and When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Both give critical appraisals of “mission trips” and the “vacationaries” that go on them.

Here at African Bible College in Malawi, especially in the months of June, July, and August, we get “mission trips” on top of one another. During peak season, we almost need a cop to direct the traffic.

Most “mission trips” I’ve seen reminded me of the Billy Crystal movie, City Slickers. I get negative feedback from Malawians. One student told me that when vacationaries show up at his village and start taking pictures, it makes the people “feel like animals in a zoo.”

In a country with 80% unemployment, they may resent watching Americans doing construction work they might have been hired to do. They needed the work, and they didn’t need to buy airplane tickets.

One group of 27 American teenagers came out and painted half a building on campus while surrounded by $60 a month Malawian workers. Then they got on a bus and went on a day trip to view Lake Malawi. The Malawians finished painting the building. I was told the teenagers raised $3500 apiece to come (total: $94,500) – to paint half a building.

Think about the Taj Mahal in India. Think about the Pyramids in Egypt. People living overseas can paint and do construction work.

Does it ever occur to anyone that most of the money spent on “mission trips” goes to the travel industry, not to the people living in the target area? Try googling “mission trip.” You’ll get hundreds of web sites of organizations that want to help your church organize your mission trip. It has become a major industry.

One pastor on a “mission trip” had me step aside while he taught my class for a week. I wonder how he’d respond if I showed up at his church and said I wanted to preach in his pulpit.

Meanwhile career missionaries struggle to raise and maintain the support they need for things like health insurance and retirement. When my late wife was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, we had no health insurance; we had dropped it because we couldn’t afford the premiums. I think about that when the vacationaries ride past my house in a bus.

I understand why “mission trips” are so popular. They give American laypeople an opportunity to feel like they’ve done something to save the world without leaving their comfort zone for very long. Upon their return, they acquire the status of heroes of the faith (“Wow! You spent a whole week in Africa? Man, that is so hard core!”)

It is widely believed that mission trips produce instant or increased sanctification for those who go. A colleague who grew up as an MK in Jamaica told me about the mission trip that involved sending Chicago street kids there. They did dope deals on the streets of Jamaica and destroyed the commodes they were supposed to install in a local school.

Here at African Bible College, we’ve had to send problem people home. I will always believe that if you want to change your life, staying home and doing local community service on a regular basis over an extended period of time is far more likely to do it than going on one one-week overseas trip.

It has been my experience that if I return to the US on furlough and express reservations about mission trips, it’s like what happened when Galileo told the Pope that the earth revolves around the sun. Galileo spent his last years under house arrest. I get, “If you don’t appreciate our mission trips, we’ll support a missionary who does, so there!” Of course my response is, “No! We love mission trips! Please keep sending us mission trips!” Telling the missions pastor at a megachurch some truths about mission trips is a great way to incur instant and intense wrath. His job depends on them.

Actually, I myself have led many mission trips. From time to time, I load up some African Bible College students and go into a village and do evangelism. But the ABC students know the language. They know the culture. There is an immediate connection between them and the villagers. It may be that this is the future of world evangelization: people from the “Developing World” going on mission trips to not-too-distant places for ministry where there is minimal difference in language and culture.

And of course nobody objects when churches send people with specific, relevant skills to do specific projects at the request of the people living in the target area. One Louisiana church used to send us an auto mechanic on “trips.” We wouldn’t allow him to leave unless he promised to come back. No one will object if a church sends a team of doctors to a disaster area.

But I am convinced that the Great Commission will not be completed by a “seeker friendly” church with an in-house rock band, a comedy team, a gift shop and a coffee bar. Nor will it be completed by a mission trip that looks like a church youth group retreat. It will be completed by the career missionary who has just buried his child who died from a tropical disease. It will be completed by the “developing world” pastor who has just been released from prison where they pulled out his toenails with pliers because his government didn’t like his evangelistic activities.

We all know that because of what Christ did for us, salvation is free. But the Great Commission calls for sacrifice. Who will pay that “cost of discipleship?”

(Author’s note: Written after reading the review of Toxic Charity by Robert D. Lupton and at risk of committing support raising suicide)

Larry Brown is a minister in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a member of Central South Presbytery, and serves as Professor of church history, world history, hermeneutics and missions at the African Bible College in Lilongwe, Malawi