Rethinking the Mission Trip

By Rachel Fergus.

Almost every church does an annual short-term mission trip. Every summer students stand on street corners advertising car washes, lemonade stands, bake sales, and spaghetti dinners in order to raise money for their trips. Though short-term mission trips are seen as a staple in numerous 21st century churches, are they really worth all the hassle of raising money, booking flights, and taking crash-courses in another language? I suggest they are not. If anything, these adventures that only last a couple of days hurt more than they help for numerous reasons.

Short-term trips take jobs

According to Mission Data International, construction is the fifth largest reason for church groups to go on a mission trip. I personally have known people that went abroad to: pour cement for sidewalks, work on constructing churches, work on constructing/repairing schools, and to build playgrounds. While having all of these things in a community is good, they do not require people from the United States to build. The majority of people on mission projects are not trained carpenters, electricians, or cement workers. Thus, it takes them much longer (and numerous more mistakes) to complete a project than if a professional team completed the task.

Not only do mission groups take longer to complete tasks, they take jobs from local people. Building a school is nice, but hiring people to build the school and paying them so their children can attend the school is even better.

Waste of money

Think of how much money is spent on plane tickets/gas, food, hotels, and any other cost of being out of one’s home country/state/city. This summer my sister was invited to attend a mission trip to Nicaragua. This ten-day trip costs $1,300. According to Unidos Nicaragua ( 75.8% of the population lives on less than two dollars a day. That is about $730 a year. This means that the ten-day trip to Nicaragua costs a little less than twice the amount of money 75.8% of the country lives on FOR THE ENTIRE YEAR.

What if churches, instead of spending thousands of dollars on trips, donated thousands of dollars? Donating the money that would have been used for travel and lodging would allow local people to build the school and be paid for their work. According to The World Bank 10.7% of people on the planet live on $1.90 US dollars a day; that is almost eleven out of every hundred people. So instead of spending thousands on trips, let’s put the money to a good use.

Simplifies Poverty

Though it would be great if churches and other groups donated money that would be for mission trips to those in need, poverty is not something that can be fixed through donating a few dollars and sending a prayer; the structures that create and maintain cycles of poverty are much more complex. This is another reason short-term mission trips fall short; they only look at a tiny part of a much larger, complicated picture. For example, every year people from the church I attend go and volunteer at an orphanage for a week in the Dominican Republic (D.R.). While it is lovely that they can show love to the children there, the group from the U.S. only sees the children for a week and then leaves feeling like they have done a great deed. Helping the children in the orphanage with their playground is great but it ignores a much larger network of factors that have caused the need for numerous orphanages.

For example, according to the World Bank the D.R. has a 32.4% poverty headcount ratio at national poverty lines (meaning 32.4% of the population lives at or below the D.R.’s poverty line). There are numerous facts that could explain this poverty ratio. For example, only 50% of men receive a secondary education. Those that do not attend high school have a much harder time finding well-paying jobs. One must also consider the rise of the sweatshop in places like the D.R.. Though more sweatshops means there are more jobs, these jobs have long hours, low pay, and no benefits (that alone would make raising a child challenging). Large corporations all over the world have been squeezing out smaller businesses causing families to loose their only source of income. This is no different in the Dominican Republic. So, looking at one piece of the puzzle, such as an orphanage, is important but one cannot know the best way to help a community without seeing the full picture.

It is also important to remember that short-term trips almost always lead to short-term solutions, or Band-Aids. Giving someone money is good but it is better to give him or her a micro loan so they can start their own business and earn their own income. Finding what would most help a person or community in the long run can only happen by understanding the larger tapestry of how the community works.

Mix-up of priorities

While mission trips usually focus on helping those in a different country or state, they are also used to share a religious message (when carried out by a church or religious group). I have no problem with people sharing their faith but I think that this sharing should be done only after physical needs have been met. Is someone hungry? Feed them. Are they cold? Give them warmth. I have known people that went on trips and held events for those in the community. They got people to come because they promised food. However, before the food was served, everyone that attended had to sit through a church service. It seems cruel to use one’s physical needs as a tactic to get people to listen to you.

Now, don’t think that any mission trip you went on was a waste; there are some that can be very helpful. For example, after the earthquake in Haiti (2010) my uncle went to the island to volunteer for a couple of weeks. As a physicians’ assistant, he was able to provide medical care where there was a huge need. You can help others throughout the world, you just have to be smart about it. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Get involved in a long-term trip with groups like the Peace Corp. By being in a country for a couple of years you get to know more of the complexities that make-up that country. You will also realize that there are no quick fixes that can be completed in one week. Change, any change, takes time.
  1. Help those around you. The reality is, you don’t have to get on a plane or cross an ocean to help others. Chances are, there are hungry, sick, lonely, or homeless people in your neighborhood. Focus on befriending and helping them.
  1. If you are considering going on a short-term mission trip, ask yourself two questions: Am I going because I want to serve people or because I want to make myself feel good? And: Is the goal of this trip actually helpful?
  1. Donate money to an organization. Make sure to research before sending money to an organization. Every group has different focuses and some only give part of the money you donated to those in need.
  1. Explore the United Nations (UN) website. The UN has created numerous goals to combat global issues.
  1. It is important to see and begin to understand other cultures and countries. There is nothing wrong with traveling to another country for a couple of days. However, I suggest that instead of going to a new place with the desire to fix it, go to learn. If you go to a Less Economically Developed Country, talk with the people there, explore cities and villages, live with local people instead of in a hotel or resort for travelers.
  1. Finally, and most importantly, remember that you are working with and serving PEOPLE. Too often, those on mission trips see the group of people they are working with as something to fix. Everyone is special and needs to be treated with respect. The need someone may have says nothing about who they are as a person.

Let us know what you think in the comments below!


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