I went on a missions trip to a country in South America when I was 15. Most of our time was spent on things that can be best described as tourism. We went out to restaurants and tried new foods, drove through crowded city streets, went to tourist shops to buy souvenirs, and visited schools and villages. We spent very little time doing anything that resembled missionary work.
I found this trip transforming—for one thing, it gave me a global perspective and reinforced just how wealthy we were in the United States. Seeing the smiles of children who had nothing—children in orphanages or living in mud huts—had a big impact on me. If they could be cheerful in those circumstances, I wondered, what right had I to complain? And if people here were living in such circumstances, what right had I to live in comparative opulence? This trip gave me a taste of a culture and way of life very different from that of the Untied States. It broadened my horizons and deepened my understanding of the world.
But that’s just the thing—the significance of this trip was in the impact it had on me, not in the impact I had on those I met while I was there. For them I was just passing through, and in most cases I was merely an observer. I attended services at numerous churches while I was there, and some in our group gave their testimonies. Mostly I just watched and took it in. Seeing their churches, hearing their music, experiencing the commonalities and differences of global Christianity—these things left a big impression on me, but I doubt I left a lasting impression on anyone I met while I was there.
Why were we there? Good question! The adults on the trip were financing a new agricultural high school and spent a few days meeting with various local individuals. I was along to babysit the locals’ children during these meetings. These meetings took only a few days of a two-week long trip, and the rest of the time we visited various missionaries, villages, and schools, and probably a third of the trip was spent in one of the major cities.
During our time there, we visited a number of small villages. I was fascinated. I saw mud houses and heard about how the village had been wiped out by a flood a few years before. I saw a one-room schoolhouse in a village that had only just had a well put in. I saw individuals in native dress and experienced native cultures. I played hackie-sack with South American children, some of them my own age. In the city, I road in the back of a pickup truck through crowded streets that didn’t seem to have traffic laws. Horns blared. I scrutinized Spanish menus and came upon dogs mating in the street (I was horrified). I watched children selling oranges on the street, going from vehicle to vehicle peddling their wares. The sights, the smells, the tastes—I was drawn in completely.
I wouldn’t give up the experiences I had on that trip for the world. But ultimately, those experiences were about me. I had what amounted to an all-expenses-paid international vacation and cultural experience. I don’t wish I hadn’t had these experiences. I simply wish I could have gone in a way that was more honest.
I’ve watched evangelical friends and relatives travel around the world to help out at orphanages or build houses. Over time, I’ve begun to doubt the productivity of these sorts of trips and of short-term missions trips in general. Does it really do children in an orphanage any good to have foreigners from wealthy nations in and out of their facility? A week or two isn’t long enough for them to bond with a caregiver, but then I suppose that’s a good thing because if it was they’d be continually bonding to a caregiver only to have that caregiver ripped away. And as for building houses, wouldn’t that money be better spent paying local individuals to do the work? It would cost far less and would be a boon to the local economy.
As for me, I didn’t pay for this trip to South America—I sent out fundraising letters asking church friends and relatives to donate money for my missions trip. I never paid a cent. This is generally how it works—I should know, I’ve received my share of fundraising letters from various family members over the years.
I really think evangelicals need to be open about the fact that short-term mission trips are for the benefit of the individual going rather than those on the receiving end. Even then, I suspect that most countries would benefit more from receiving funds for various community-building projects than from playing host to foreign visitors. Evangelicals need to consider their priorities—do they want to invest in the infrastructure of impoverished countries or use those countries as learning experiences for wealthy American teens? And what impact does a parade of tourists-playing-missionary actually have on local Christians and the country itself anyway?