The Gospel Coalition recently posted an article by Darren Carlson entitled “Why You Should Consider Cancelling Your Short-Term Missions Trips.” Carlson argues that many short-term mission trips are centered around making the “senders” feel good about serving—while actually failing to benefit the recipients and even sometimes causing more harm than good. He gives several concrete examples of this, such as,
“houses in Latin America that have been painted 20 times by 20 different short-term teams; fake orphanages in Uganda erected to get Westerners to give money; internet centers in India whose primary purpose is to ask Westerners for money; children in African countries purposefully mutilated by their parents so they would solicit sympathy while they beg; a New England-style church built by a Western team in Cameroon that is never used except when the team comes to visit; and slums filled with big-screen TVs and cell phone towers.”
In this post, Carlson doesn’t offer any practical ways to avoid these traps of short term missions, though he promises that he will offer some solutions in a following post.
For those who haven’t read it, Alexandra Heywood’s article “Love and Money in Ukraine” in the Spring Issue of Fare Forward offered a similar point. Heywood spent a year working with Ukrainian orphans, trying to create a program to teach them skills they could use to fend for themselves after aging out of the orphanage system. She pointed to two problems that she had to grapple with while there: the corrupt system of bribery rampant in Ukraine, and dealing with the thoughtless philanthropy of those far away. Much like Carlson, she points to the unintended consequences of giving what will make us feel generous, rather than what will truly be of service to the recipients.
The point both Carlson and Heywood make about knowing those we’re trying to help feels particularly relevant in light of the discussion Fare Forward has been having about faithful presence (See “Public Christianity and Faithful Institutional Presence”by Emily DeBaun and “Two Responses to Andy Crouch on Institutions” by Cole Carnesecca and Jake Meador). When we look outside of our own institutions and communities to offer our help and service—and then return home feeling satisfied with what we have done—we are often neglecting the poor, the needy, and the spiritually barren in our own places and institutions.
Another of the speakers at last weekend’s Fare Forward symposium addressed this point particularly well. In “Church as Polis,” Jake Meador spoke about the role that the church institution has to play in individual and community life. He suggested three concrete steps to pursue in order to live faithfully in our communities:
Being a member of a community is essential, and one example given was that of sharing work. We often have “work friends” and “church friends” and many other kinds of friends, but we rarely share our work with those who are closest to us in other ways. I see this as an extension of being faithfully present in our institutions, including our work institutions, and using the resources of the church to help us figure out how to do that best.
2. Being in Place
Meador described this practice as “putting down roots.” Meador and his wife, as an example, live in their hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska. They live in a not-particularly-great part of town, and they strive to do their shopping, worshipping, and living all within a few miles of their home. They are getting to know their neighbors, and they have committed to living intentionally in that neighborhood—being “faithfully present” there
Worship, through the practice of liturgy, has been far better described than I can do so here, so I will merely recommend this review by Charlie Clark and the works of James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom, for more on what liturgy means.
The Meadors—or any of us—may, of course, go on a short-term mission trip or two, planned with the proper foresight and insight into the true needs of the people they intend to minister to. They may serve people in other places in addition to the people in their hometown. But more importantly, they are developing the opportunities and ability to minister to their own place, to understand of the needs of people who are not like them, and doing so in a way that isn’t glamorous, that probably won’t ever feel “finished,” and that will likely make a greater difference in the long run than any two weeks that they could spend doing something else. If this is the work we are neglecting in favor of short-term, “feel good” missions trips, our churches and communities will undoubtedly suffer.