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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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