Monday, July 28, 2008

Church Short-term Missions Trips: God's Work?

In this interesting Washington Post article, its staff writer takes a hard look at the burgeoning popularity among all stripes of Christianity in the "short-term missions trip." As the leader of two such trips (to Staten Island, NYC) in 2003 and 2004, and a participant on another in 2007, I read it with great interest. And sad to say, she makes some good points.

My thesis for some time has been that many "short-term missions trips," including most of those which primarily use teens, are little more than glorified vacations with enough "work" thrown in to be able to advertise them as such. [Side note: Why do so many summer missions trips for teens go to Caribbean islands or are in the proximity of beaches? Are there more sinners there? Are these people more needy for the Gospel, or more worthy of it? I speak with tongue in cheek...but it is still a serious question.]

Here are a few statistics and quotes from the article:

"They helped build homes and refurbish churches as part of an army of more than 1 million mostly Christians who annually go on short-term international mission trips to work and evangelize in poverty-stricken lands."

"Despite the concerns with trips abroad, their popularity is soaring. Some groups go as far away as China, Thailand and Russia. From a few hundred in the 1960s, the trips have proliferated in recent years. A Princeton University study found that 1.6 million people took short-term mission trips -- an average of eight days -- in 2005. Estimates of the money spent on these trips is upward of $2.4 billion a year. Vacation destinations are especially popular: Recent research has found that the Bahamas receives one short-term missionary for every 15 residents."

"At the same time, the number of long-term American missionaries, who go abroad from several years to a lifetime, has fallen, according to a Wheaton College study done last year."
[All emphasis mine. Are all the Bahamians saved yet?]
So it's popular. I have gotten a number of letters from people over the past several years asking for financial support of the trip they are taking (this topic of support-raising is the subject of another blog entry some day), and have decided to limit contributions to my own church members or to close relatives whose motives I know and whose church I agree with.

Here are several issues and what I see as wise ways to deal with them:
  • Short-term missions trips should be organized with major input from the person on the ground at the destination. Apparently, from nearly everything I have read, this is not always the case. It makes sense to follow the lead of the person who knows the most about the situation. And if that person doesn't know much...why would you go?
  • Not everyone who has/obtains/raises the money should go on such a trip. Those who are spiritually immature, or who lack skills relevant to the trip, should remain behind and pray for (and support) those who go. When I took the two groups to NYC, I wanted spiritual college students who could teach elementary and junior high children. And that's who was recruited, and who went. Which brings me to...
  • Trips involving teens (and many involving adults) should be preceded by significant, substantial training in both the spiritual and cultural matters attendant to their trip. Those who do not show a servant's spirit, spiritual growth, or who are not willing to have a proper attitude toward the culture should not attend—these people will detract from the mission, and be easily used of Satan to thwart God's work.
  • Short-term missions trips are a privilege—not a rite of passage, an adventure, a birthright, or a fun getaway. They must be treated this way. Want thrills? Go to Cedar Point.
  • Those who go on these trips should be examined and deemed worthy by their church; trips organized by para-church organizations should determine whether the individuals' churches support them. It is folly to send the spiritually immature—or the outright carnal—to do God's work, and it is more folly to spend God's resources that way. Which brings me to...
  • The church of the individual being sent should offer financial support, if they feel the individual is worthy of it. The person could decline such support, if they already feel they should use their own resources for the trip (some believe this as a matter of conscience, and I certainly can't argue with them); but if the individual is worthy while the church won't support them, there is a problem somewhere.
It would seem that with all of these people going on missions trips, that there would be many more stories of God's working in this world. I know that there are a percentage of these trips which are done wisely and are blessed by God with the results He and we want. But I also see a sizable percentage which are a poor use of the church's resources, and many which include the participation of those who are not spiritual. Let us not use our churches' resources foolishly—let us encourage missionary work by the Spirit-minded in cooperation with the missionaries and churches at the destination. God can use this for His glory.

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