Missing missions

themissionSome stories sort of get religion. Like a second-rate novel, they give readers only half the picture rather than the full one. Take this Washington Post story by Jacqueline L. Salmon.

Salmon’s story was critical of short-term religious trips overseas. Her lede began this way:

Not long ago, the families of Fairfax Presbyterian Church spent thousands of dollars to fly their teens to Mexico for eight days of doing good. They helped build homes and refurbish churches as part of an army of more than 1 million mostly Christians who annually go on short-term international mission trips to work and evangelize in poverty-stricken lands.

Yet even as those trips have increased in popularity, they have come under increased scrutiny. A growing body of research questions the value of the trips abroad, which are supposed to bring hope and Christianity to the needy of the world, while offering American participants an opportunity to work in disadvantaged communities, develop relationships and charge up their faith.

Critics scornfully call such trips “religious tourism” undertaken by “vacationaries.” Some blunders include a wall built on the children’s soccer field at an orphanage in Brazil that had to be torn down after the visitors left. In Mexico, a church was painted six times during one summer by six different groups. In Ecuador, a church was built but never used because the community said it was not needed.

The story held my attention. Like surely many GR readers, I know someone who undertakes such trips; my younger sister, Anne, returned recently from a group trip to El Salvador. I had long wondered why these Christians traveled abroad when they could help the poor and needy at home, so I was glad to see Salmon examine this topic with critical eyes.

Salmon’s story also featured lots of context — historical, economic, and sociological:

Despite the concerns with trips abroad, their popularity is soaring. Some groups go as far away as China, Thailand and Russia. From a few hundred in the 1960s, the trips have proliferated in recent years. A Princeton University study found that 1.6 million people took short-term mission trips — an average of eight days — in 2005. Estimates of the money spent on these trips is upward of $2.4 billion a year. Vacation destinations are especially popular: Recent research has found that the Bahamas receives one short-term missionary for every 15 residents.

At the same time, the number of long-term American missionaries, who go abroad from several years to a lifetime, has fallen, according to a Wheaton College study done last year.

The short-term mission trip is a “huge phenomenon that seems to be gaining in momentum rather than waning,” said David Livermore, executive director of the Global Learning Center at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, who studies the trend.

Later in the story, Salmon adduced evidence that some religious trips are expensive and ineffective:

But research has found that the trips tend to have few long-term effects on the local people or on the mission travelers. Some projects take away work from local people, are unnecessary and sometimes dangerous.

Mission groups also often bring their own experts and ignore local authorities on the ground.

In Monrovia, Liberia, three years ago, tragedy occurred when visitors built a school to their standards instead of Liberian standards. During the monsoon season, the building collapsed, killing two children, Livermore said.

Critics also question the expense involved in sending people long distances. Short-term missionaries pay $1,000 each, or far more, in plane fare and other expenses to get to remote destinations.

A 2006 study in Honduras found that short-term mission groups spent an average of $30,000 on their trips to build one home that a local group could construct for $2,000.

“To spend $30,000 to paint a church or build a house that costs $2,000 doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” said Kurt Ver Beek, a professor of sociology at Calvin College who conducted the research.

Were it not for one major flaw, Salmon’s story was first rate. It was interesting, informative, and well researched.

But the story had one flaw: Its emphasis was almost totally on social work and aid for the poor. What it neglected to emphasize is that some religious trips are designed to save souls.

Yes, Salmon wrote that participants “hold Bible classes” and “evangelize.” But she neglected to elaborate on what those terms mean. The reader is left with the overwhelming impression that overseas religious trips are designed to build homes and paint buildings rather than to win souls for Christ.

This second purpose of missions casts Salmon’s story in a new light. The article notes that many church trips are costly, but what’s the price tag of conversion? The article notes that church trips are increasingly popular, but what percentage are designed mainly for social work vs. evangelization?

Don’t get me wrong. As a Catholic, I appreciate both models. But there are two models, not just one as this story implies.

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  • Clavem Abyssi

    I’m skeptical of those types of missions, too, as I happen to think that a vocation to foreign missions should be under obedience and for life. To sloganize, I’d rather “bloom where I’m planted”, or “think globally, act locally”. I fear most people who go on these trips do so for the novelty and excitement of it.

    However, another aspect that that article overlooked is the “encouragement” that short-term missionaries often give to the local workers. Unless I’ve been brazenly lied to, it is very encouraging, stimulating, refreshing, etc… to have people come and help, even if, in terms of hard cash, it is inefficient. Perhaps that’s worth the money spent on travel and lodgings?

  • http://seatongarrett.wordpress.com Seaton

    What about the long term change in the short term missionaries? What about the effect of seeing third world poverty, or cultures far different from their own?

    The biggest difference a short term missions trip makes is in the one who goes.

    If you go somewhere besides the beaches and tourist hot-spots you come away with a profoundly different view of the world. An eight day trip can and does effect a life-long change. What might the long term implications of more and more people thinking differently about world wide poverty be? What about that side of the story?

  • Gerry

    and the C of E deciding to install women bishops is not newsworthy?

  • http://www.InklingBooks.com/ Mike Perry

    This isn’t a particularly Christian phenomena. Seattle transit buses have a interior ad that shows life as a long line. The ‘get educated’ part is long enough, it must assume a post-grad degree. The years of working seem unusually short, particularly in contrast to the retirement years. This is life as young adults might want it to be.

    But what’s most interesting about the ad is that there’s a short period–it can’t be more than a year or two–called “Change the World.” Since few people could accomplish much in that little time, it’s easy to suspect that it’s just there to ease the guilt of the pursuit of wealth that follows. Having ‘changed the world,’ one can now be greedy and materialistic. It’s a bit like the jet set rich occasionally driving a Prius or buying carbon offsets.

    Also, having spent an entire summer on a mission trip and spent eight months living in Israel, I’m skeptical of the impact eight-days or so has on the attitudes and prejudices of travelers. It takes several months of first-hand contact to begin to get the feel of a society. After about five in Israel, people began to assume I was Israeli.

    One US church-led evangelistic blitz I saw that summer in the West Indies is a good example. After we’d visited a house, the high school girl I was with tried to lecture me about not eating the fruit they’d given me–all too typical of a ‘these people are dirty’ attitude. I told her bluntly that I lived there, eating everything I was offered and drinking water from community water faucets, and never gotten sick.

    Worse than prejudices based on total ignorance are prejudices based on a too-superficial exposure.

    –Michael W. Perry, editor of Theism and Humanism by Arthur Balfour.

  • Herb Brasher

    Anybody who writes on this topic should make use of the really informative research of Miriam Adeney and Robert Priest (anthropologist and head of the Ph.D. program at Trinity Intl. U.) Priest used to be totally against “short-term” trips, but has since qualified his position. But most churches aren’t reading critiques of this sort; it is too often about “feel-good” ministry.

  • William

    Ever since my cousin went to England for a two-week mission trip, I have been extremely skeptical of these short trips. His group’s goal was to evangelize to the “Arab” immigrants instead of social work but I couldn’t stop from thinking this was just a free vacation for him.

    England has many Christians so why can’t they evangelize to their immigrants?

    Nevertheless, Mark made a very good point that some trips are not social work related.

  • Stephen A.

    This article raised some very good questions, as your exerpts showed. I also wonder how much benefit the “natives” get from having the often 13-17-year-old young people there – young Christians for whom their faith is not yet mature and is in some ways less developed than those they are going to “help.”

    As we’ve seen in the Anglican Communion, sometimes those being preached to and “helped” are the ones showing the most wisdom and depth of faith.

    About the AC, someone should snap to it and get a posting up, as soon as coverage begins. This is a HUGE schism-in-the-making.

  • Jimmy Mac

    Is there any parallel between this approach and the Mormon church’s missionary program?

    I was in Hong Kong airport a few years back and saw what was obviously a group of “Elders” on their way back home. I struck up a conversation (they were quite personable and willing to talk) and ask the inevitable question: where they successful in making Asian converts? Almost to a person the answer was “no.” They were QUITE ready to head back to Zion.

  • Jerry

    I’m skeptical of the impact eight-days or so has on the attitudes and prejudices of travelers. It takes several months of first-hand contact to begin to get the feel of a society.

    There’s truth in that but in my first trip to India I learned in minutes what poverty was like in the third world and that memory is still strong decades later. But you’re right that it takes much, much longer to really have a strong feel for a society.

    And as other have said, motive is important and varies depending on the person or group.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    One: These trips often are to increase the faith and raise awareness of those going to help.

    My son worked with the Appalachan project, supervising the students who came for a few weeks to help fix houses. Many from elite universities had never known about poverty in the US.
    And, of course, the folks got their roofs fixed….

    Two: Short term trips allow those interested in working in the third world a taste of that life. I went on a short term vaccination project to Nicaragua; the poverty didn’t scare me, and I recognized that I could put up with bugs and trying to work in a differnet environment. So later I signed up for Africa for three years.

    Three: Short term evangelization is nonsense. YOu don’t know the culture, and often there are already Christian pastors in the area.
    However, going for two years like the LDS is a better idea: They learn the language, the culture, and live in ordinary homes. Our LDS missionaries are now locals, not from Utah…so years of hard work has succeeded.

  • http://liberalpastor.blogspot.com/ Jay Steele

    Regarding the conversion angle of these trips: As a Catholic, does it bother you that many of these mission trips are being done by evangelical Christians who are traveling to predominantly Catholic lands to convert Catholics to “true” Christianity?

  • Julia

    Jay Steele:

    Yup. Particularly galling are the churches that are tricked out to look like they are CAtholic. And the use (mis-use) of Our Lady of Guadalupe and even rosaries.

    A Protestant cousin of mine from Kansas has a daughter who is on the Mexican border roping in Mexicans in the borderlands. It’s very painful to read her blog stories about the poor, benighted Catholics she’s “helping”.

    I’m not aware of any mass efforts in the opposite direction – to convert Evangelicals to Catholicism, because Catholics consider Evangelicals to already be Christians.

    Even more disturbing is the ignorance about the ancient Christians in the Near East. For sure, they don’t need evangelizing and the Evangelicals on mission in that area are causing problems for the indegenous Christians. Although there are plenty of Westernized Christians (and many, many in union with Rome), the British papers always interview an Anglican priest in Baghdad about the situation on the ground with Christians there. Why is he considered the expert? How many Anglicans are there in Iraq anyway? What about the thousands and thousands of Chaldean Rite Catholics? What about the Syrian Church of the East?

  • Maureen

    Be fair. Some people really do start projectile vomiting at the drop of a shadow of a ghost of a germ. I read a blog post this week from an ex-Navy lady who never got sick from eating anything. (She credited playing in the sewer as a child.) Overseas, she was once given the assignment of going to the port market and buying fresh food for her comrades. She happily bought fresh strawberries and fruit, happily chowed down on them, and digested her portion equally happily. But everyone else who ate the strawberries was violently sick. They never again gave her the job of finding fresh food. :) So yes, fruit that’s been cultivated in fields with real manure can be very iffy for suburban American stomachs.

    Unless you drink a lot of high-proof alcohol, of course. But I guess there’s not a lot of medicinal doses of whiskey provided to high school kids on mission trips. :)

  • Daniel

    The article (and perhaps the study) also seems to have left out research on the relative dividends paid between the cost of a youth group traveling to Country X at, say, $30,000, and those paid if the youth group were to raise a fraction of that money and donate it to charities on the ground who might already be engaged in the work of “saving souls”.

  • Stephen A.

    Question for reporters covering this issue of young missionaries on week-long trips (or for the “inner reporter” in all of us commenting here): Are the natives themselves are upset about these missionaries’ preaching to them? If not, then it’s not a story. Period.

    And of course the story here isn’t about preaching, per se, but about the in/effectiveness of these short “work trips.”

    The problem is, I guess, that anyone can drum up outrage about proselytizing, but if it’s not there, it’s not our place (as reporters, assuming we are such for the sake of this blog) to be harping on how WE feel about it. Were WE cover the story, of course our feelings would be irrelevent. Right? …Right?

    From the comments above, I’m utterly shocked, SHOCKED, however, to learn that Evangelical missionaries are not happy that the natives in these places are Roman Catholic, and are seeking to CONVERT them(!!!!) Who ever heard of such a thing? (/sarcasm) Seriously? Seriously? THIS is what we’re outraged about? Again, irrelevent to reporters covering this, UNLESS the natives express outrage (on their own, not ginned up by the reporter.)

    As to the question of young Mormon missionaries being ill-equipped at conversions, I suppose mere exposure to the faith is just as important, and looking at the LDS Church’s incredible growth numbers, one cannot really throw stones at the overall success of their missionary program.

  • Karen H

    It would have been nice to have some report on the effect on the short-term missionaries, indeed. My son went on one such mission trip to Philadelphia’s inner city. Having been raised in a peaceful, racially diverse middle class neighborhood south of Seattle, he was dumbfounded to find that people lived in neighborhoods where one race lived on one side of the street and didn’t mingle with another race living on the other side. It was eye-opening indeed to find that even a different part of the U.S. was not at all like the neighborhood he grew up in, and no doubt was a factor in his decision to major in Political Science now. It also strengthened his faith.

    Other young people in my church have gone on to longer-term mission work after going to those short-term foreign missions, or have decided to work for aid organizations. Perhaps their work might not have been as long lasting or effective as they could have wished, but certainly the effect on them have led to a broader perspective on the world and a wish to lend a greater helping hand either in their adult work or at least in contributing to such organizations as Word Vision, UNICEF, or other aid organizations. (Might such trips be the reason behind Arthur Brooks’s research results, that religious people give more to charity than secular? http://www.leighbureau.com/speaker_documents.asp?view=video&id=400)

    It’s too bad the article didn’t cover more than the problems that can happen in such short mission trips.

  • rw

    It’s the news industry, so reporting the problems with something is the name of the game. I agree that we should call it what it is – a vacation among a developing country’s poor by America’s (relatively) rich kids. How about a contrasting report on how others in that demographic spend their money on vacations?

    Much more than a few thousand dollars is spent per person per year enriching hotel chains and alcohol companies by kids visiting tourist spots in some of those same countries. Where are the complaints that *their* money should instead feed the poor of America?

    By that same token, how many of those booze-and-party vacations are financed with credit cards? A key component of the short term missions trip is that you (at least try) to raise the money for the trip from your friends, family and church community.

    I am sure a given father would much rather send his daughter to live in a hut and gain a greater understanding of how the majority of the world lives, rather than part with one penny to put her in the 24/7 company of frat boys trying to get laid. With regard to potential illnesses, Is it better to come home with a diarrhea that last a few weeks, or an STD that lasts a lifetime?

    Of course, not every short-term missions trip is a blunder, and not everyone comes back with digestive problems. Not every partying student comes back from Cancun with an STD. But when you compare the two, which trip is more likely to make the traveler a better person, have a closer bond with their community, and a small connection to a place far removed from the consumer-based narcissism of American culture?

    If these trips are going to be dismissed as “vacations,” let’s compare apples to apples.

  • Julia Duin

    There’s a Charlottesville, Va., organization called Christian Aid that pleads with Americans to not go overseas but to send their mission dollars to native missionaries who are doing a far better job but have way too few resources to get the job done. CA has a list of natives and their funding needs.
    On the other hand, I went to the Philippines for a mission trip while in seminary. Since then, I have put 4 people through college, one girl through high school and one through elementary school, all based on the relationships formed when I visited there. I have also paid for the wedding of a pastor who was disconsolate because he could not afford the $500 required for a ceremony (the groom pays over there). He and his wife just had their first child.
    None of this would have happened had I not gone there in 1991, even though I was told by career missionaries that I was wasting precious mission dollars by going myself.

  • Karen H

    Julia D wrote:
    “None of this would have happened had I not gone there in 1991, even though I was told by career missionaries that I was wasting precious mission dollars by going myself. ”

    I wonder if anyone’s done a study regarding whether there is an increase (and if so, how much) in volunteer work and charity in those who have gone on the short-term mission trips? Because if there is an increase, then whatever gains (or losses) there are during that trip are probably added to (or made up by) the time and money donated to charitable causes later.

  • Elle

    My church has been sending a group of adult missioners to Honduras for 8 years now. Each year we have medical and dental clinics (with pharmacy); we work alongside Hondurans on construction projects; we do Christian education (adults seem just as fascinated with Godly Play as do the children); we worship with Hondurans. Six years ago we founded a sewing co-op (teaching the women to do applique and embroidery to make pillow covers and table runners), allowing the women to work in their own community rather than spend most of the week in the city away from their families. The first sewing co-op has spin-offs; I’m not sure how many there are now. A small group from our church helps market the products in the U.S. and, I believe, in Central America.

    We work with the Episcopal Diocese of Honduras in terms of location. In the first village (where we went for a week or two each summer for five years), we financed and supervised the drilling of a water well so that people could have good drinking water. Two years later, we helped construct a holding tank on a hill that feeds water by gravity to homes throughout the village. Our first leader worked with leaders of the community to help them learn to do strategic planning. By the time we returned the next year, we saw that the villages had worked together on projects.

    I think one of the most important aspects of short-term mission work is that can build community — among the missioners and between the missioners and the locals. And I think Julia and Karen H are right — many of our missioners come back and become far more involved in local outreach programs than they were before going to Honduras for a week. When I retire, I hope to continue doing this kind of work for most of the year, not just one week in the summer, either here at home or in Honduras.

    If all we were interested in was the well, the water tank, and the buildings, yes, just sending our money would have stretched farther. We might or might not have been able to sponsor medical and dental clinics in these villages. I don’t know about the Christian education element. But we certainly would not know our Honduran brothers and sisters in Christ, and they would not know us.

    Please forgive the long post, but this is one of my passions.

  • rw

    Consider these numbers:

    -Americans donate nearly $100 billion dollars annually to religious organizations, foreign and domestic.
    (Giving USA Foundation )

    -Americans spend nearly $700 (b)billion dollars on foreign travel annually, a bit less this year is likely. (Travel Industry Association tia.org)

    From which pie would you like a slice for humanitarian and evangelization efforts? Do financial numbers like these belong in a news story/critique about short-term missions trips?

    I agree with the previous poster who suggested a study on the long-term impact that short-term mission trips have on giving patterns. Surely there is some effect.

  • Dale

    I think what the article misses is that, frankly, Christianity isn’t utilitarian; there’s nothing in the gospels that says actions that produce the most measurable “good” are mandatory, or even preferred.

    I spent two years overseas with a Christian organization, and the longer I was in the country, the more I realized how insignificant anything I did was compared to larger social movements and the commitment of the national Christians. Fortunately, the leadership of the organization was aware of this, and had very humble aims–through more than 20 years of activity, it proved itself trustworthy to a xenophobic government, so that it could provide material assistance to local pastors and seminaries. My fumbling attempts at Christian witness were insubstantial by themselves, but the organization did accomplish something.

    God is not a conventional economist.

  • http://roundtripmissions.com/ Andy Crouch

    @Karen H, @rw -

    There are some intriguing longitudinal studies being carried out at the moment by several researchers (Kurt Ver Beek in Honduras and Brian Howell at Wheaton College, and I’m sure there are others I don’t know as much about–Priest’s work, mentioned above, is very important but I’m not sure it has measured these kinds of variables). So far it seems that the effect on long-term giving and participation in further mission activity is amazingly weak. Kurt tells me that one study found something like a 10% increase in giving at a group of denominationally-linked churches after a ten-year program of short-term missions–but that was in nominal dollars, meaning that in real dollars giving actually declined. To be sure, these studies each have their idiosyncrasies and one shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

    I thought Jacqui did a good job with the story, though one thing was striking to me. I bet every person she talked to (most of whom I’m working with some way on our forthcoming documentary, ROUND TRIP) is cautiously supportive of short-term missions in spite of the risks and complexities. But the vast majority of direct quotes that made it into the story were critical. News wants to be negative.


  • Frank M.

    I was a Mormon missionary in the coastal areas of Southern Ecuador (centered in Guayaquil) in 1984-1986.

    Even for those of us doing the 2 year stint, I got the impression that many locals, even the local Mormons, put up with us kind of like tourists.

    And the other thing is that most Mormons admit that the 2 year mission is mainly for the missionary. It’s a Catch-22. You go for serving others, and you have to focus on constantly serving others, but in the end, the greatest benefit is to the servant.

    I think both the organizers and the locals who are being served realize that, and the locals “put up with” the missionaries (both the vacationaries and the Mormon 2-year-ers) as a service to the missionaries.

    Maybe the locals allowed their church to be painted 6 times in a year because they saw themselves as providing a service so the Americans could feel could, and would come back and spend more money.

    I think the bottom line is working through local people “on the ground” who can at least coordinate so as to avoid duplciation and avoid the silly make-work projects that are useless, or cost even more to be un-done/fixed.

    If a vacationary wants to spend $1,000 (including air-fare, etc) for 2 days of vacationing and 5 days of donated labor, ya know, that’s his/her right to spend his/her money that way, as long as they do no harm.

    But it sounds like maybe a few vacationaries are not getting the overall cost/benefit picture of what their charitable spending could do if more wisely invested, such as infrastructure (wells, roads, sanitation), building schools/homes, and micro-credit investments, etc.

  • Ellen Halloran

    I’m coming late to this article, by way of Eve Tushnet’s blog. In 1968, Catholic social critic Ivan Illich addressed a group of American volunteers to Mexico. His speech has been preserved and can be found online as “To Hell with Good Intentions.” While the group he was addressing may have been prepared to spend more than a week or two on their mission, what he said then about sentimental concern for the impoverished others, paternalism, and hypocrisy still holds true today.
    Ellen Halloran