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The Problem with Mission Trips

By Christian Harvey

Last week Andrew posted a great reflection on the trouble with short term missions. This is something with which I have struggled with a lot and would like to come at it from a different angle.

Most youth and young adults head out on short term missions because they want to make a difference, they want to help, they want to battle injustice. It would most likely be devastating for them to know that their short term endeavors may actually make things worse for the people they are meant to serve! Many are thinking “How could this be? How could arriving in a poor country with a group of people and building a school/ painting a church/ serving an orphanage/ building a well/ etc. be bad?” In his book Toxic Charity, author Robert Lupton notes that most people think that their short term project will:

  • Empower those being served
  • engender healthy cross cultural relationships
  • improve local quality of life
  • relieve poverty
  • change the lives of participants
  • increase support for long-term mission work

The reality is that many, if not most mission trips end up:

  • weakening those being served
  • fostering dishonest relationships
  • eroding recipients’ work ethic
  • deepening dependency.

How do these end up being the results of the service trips of well meaning, caring youth groups? First, it is a power issue. What does it say to those whom we are wanting to serve when we show up and build their houses, paint their schools, and care for their people? We want it to say we love them and care for them? But might it taken to say that they cannot do it themselves? That they need us to do it for them?
As Tony Campolo says:

“These well-meaning young people may actually have contributed to dis-empowering the very people they wanted to help by leaving them with a sense that outsiders are the only ones who can meet their needs or solve their problems.”

Second, our service, whether we think so or not is often based on our needs, not theirs. We want to do something hands on, something life changing and meaningful, and so we approach our “partners” and ask them to provide such an experience. They end up having to do all kinds of work to serve those who are coming over to serve, as well as having to come up with “make work” projects. The result is the many unused buildings littering the developing world, the work that has to be torn down after the group has left, and the many indigenous workers who have to watch as well meaning “foreigners” take their jobs.

So what are we to do? It is a great experience for our youth to encounter a world outside of themselves, to see how the majority of the world lives. The first thing we can do is be honest. Let us not sell these trips to our youth saying that they are going to make a difference. This trip is about them, about the youth who are going, about changing there world view and perceptions. Let’s name it for what it is: “religious tourism”, and remove the false idea that it is about those we are going to “serve”.

Second, reverse the power structure. Go with the idea of learning from the indigenous people, they will be the teachers, sit at their feet, learn about their culture. Hear from them what they truly need. These two suggestions are just the beginning, the first step, to re-imagining missions. We need to step back and take a hard look at how our churches engage in issues of global justice on the whole. Are we making a difference? Are we doing more harm then good? But they are a start. If you are interested in looking at this issue a bit more check out:


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3 Responses to The Problem with Mission Trips

  1. Christian Harvey raises some good points about short term mission projects. They are more of a learning experience for participants, than anything else. And they shouldn’t be sold as really making a difference, except for those who go. But that having been said, I would say one short term experience in 1970 in the West Indies on what was then called the Anglican Overseas Work Tour, changed the direction on my life. It cemented my ties to the church and the Christian faith. It broadened my world. And it has led to a career which included 20 years as a journalist in the secular and religious press, and 11 years as an ordained priest. It was literally my first air flight, and since then I have had countless more and the opportunity to visit church partners overseas as a journalist and priest. So—yes limited impact on the initial people and country visited, but great impact on my life and I’m sure the lives of other participants.

    • Thanks so much for your story Bob. It is true that these trips can be life changing for those who go on them. I have heard of many who have given their life to justice and the church as a result of one of these trips, this is great. The issue though is not that these trips have limited impact on the people and country that is visited, but rather that often they have a negative impact on them. How are local construction workers impacted by the loads of free volunteers flooding into a country taking their work? What is happening to the esteem of the people, to their dignity? Is the positive impact on the participants worth the sacrifice of the livelihood, esteem and dignity of those they are trying to serve? These are the questions we need to ask. If we believe that we should first do no harm, then we should explore new ways of creating the life changing results for the participants without sacrificing those we visit.

  2. It is often religious tourism. My criteria for support is, “are you doing anything to help the needy near you?” if not, I’m not going to fund your holiday. But I’ve heard it said that those experiences can be transformational for the team members own spiritual growth depending on the kind of work they’re doing.

    There are stories of christian schools in Africa not hiring qualified africans because they could get “free volunteers” in the form of missionaries from the west. One dear man wanted to do medical work and church planting, but was swallowed up by this school’s “needs.”

    When we’re visiting other cultures, a posture of humility is appropriate. When we were missionaries, this wad my dad’s stance. On one occasion, Dad extolled the virtues of the Irish culture to a godly irishman, the man responded, “Gary, our culture is corrupt.” We must be humble, love without smug superiority but also recognize the brokenness of the context and people as we preach the gospel.

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