Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Short Term Missions: A waste?

Ok, I'm going on the record, most short term missions trips are a waste.  

I am tiring of explaining to short term missions agencies and groups that when they say "we want to serve you" what they mean is "we are coming on our terms, our time schedule, our choice of age (often too young) and spiritual maturity (never a consideration -- evidently ministry in our community is viewed as something anyone can do. . . ).  I have spoken to at least one group each week over the past 2 months that want to come and "serve".  They have money, they have people, they have time. .  .  but they haven't a clue about how they come off or about our community. 

The average group wants to come and save our neighborhood (they say "serve" but I know better). Yet, they have no intention of long term relationship.  They have no cultural understanding of the community.  At the first sign of trouble they run out of patience because ministry here isn't "efficient".  Meanwhile at home their church is vigorously praying for their safety (and NOT for the community they are coming to save, evidenced by the fact that as soon as the students leave, the prayers and concern stop).  They appear to think they are better than the residents of our community.  They give the impression they think Jesus shows up with them and leaves with them. 

They think they are needed to give and have no clue how to receive, nor that they need anything from Christians in our community.   They seem to have no clue how much work it is on our end to host them.  

Think about this reverse portrait:  how about your group stays home and sends us the money you were going to spend coming here?  We'll pack up a van and show up with our kids and serve you!  We'll run a program for the kids in your church and tell them about Jesus and assume that they've never heard about him before.  We'll just ask that you let us go around your neighborhood drawing kids from random homes, we'll use the name of your church to get kids to come out.  We will use cultural expressions of music, language, communications style, social mores and others that are from our neighborhood -- making the assumption that to be effective we'll just do what is natural in our neighborhood.  And if you have time to tell us a little bit about the people who live in your community before we serve them, that would be great, but we don't really need to know. .  we'll just work off of our (mostly negative, patronizing) assumptions.  

The amazing thing to me is this:  virtually every missionary I have ever spoken to who is honest about short termers feels this way, but for fear of alienating home churches they don't say it out loud.  

Another element of the scandal:  many short term missions groups MAKE TONS of MONEY off the groups and don't give that money to the communities they are serving!  It's gross.  

So can short term missions be effective?  Yes.  First, find a permanent fixture ministry in a specific community and get to know them.  Second ask them if they have the time/capacity to teach you about the community.  Third, listen a lot (including reading books, watching movies, eating the food, listening to the music).  Fourth, through #3, learn!  Fifth, fall in love with the community.  Six, enter into along term relationship with the community THROUGH the permanent fixture ministry.  

Ask them HOW you can serve and WHEN they could use you.  And be patient, if they are any good at what they do it will be difficult for them to get you involved!!   Only a process like this will work out a way of being effective in service.  It is way too easy to serve badly, self-righteously, ignorantly.  Those who remain in the community need you, but you need them too -- especially to minister effectively.  

I know this probably sounds a bit tough, but as my pastors says, "It's tight, but its right!"


Paula Hamernick said...

Wow babe, jsut let loose!! LOL!! HEy the bathroom is done at least!

JudyBright said...

Are there companies that sponsor short term missions and keep the leftovers from money that was raised?

I believe you, I guess I was just wondering how it worked that someone is making money off short term missions.

Have you or any other group gone to a suburban or wealthy church and served them? I think I'd pay to see it. It would be awesome.

Nathan S said...

Wow Joel! I could've expressed the same thoughts over the years at the ministry I worked with. Being on the receiving end of well-meaning but misguided short-termers has made me extra careful as I lead trips now. We have been going to work alongside the same outstanding believers for 5 years now, following THEIR agenda and then staying in contact and supporting them financially in the process. Great book to read: "Serving with Eyes Wide Open" by David Livermore, and an article, "Religious Tourism" from Bob Lupton's Urban Perspectives. Great post!

Steve said...

Hey, man

We abandoned these kinds of visits long ago. Pastor Lyons calls them 'evangelistic hit squads'.

Since Armitage is loosely affiliated with the SBC, we were often targeted for short term vacationaries, er... missionaries by well-meaning but patronizing and clueless groups from all over the South. Not only was it a lot of work on our end with little to show for it, but I found most of the groups to be worldly and distracted in addition to all the lovely qualities you mentioned.

I know, it sounds harsh.

I did catch two kids about to make out in the dark stairwell one night, though... ha!

So we quit. Now the only groups we host are from churches we have a long-term partnership with, and so the ministry and learning go both ways. They come here; we go there.

We take the same approach to overseas missions trips: Only partner churces, and only on their terms.

Many of these partner churches were planted or are staffed currently by former Armitage members or interns or staffers. Some we came into relationship with in other ways, but either way there is RELATIONSHIP.

That's the big missing piece over the last several years since short-term missions became all the rage.

So we don't rage against them anymore, we leverage them!

Great post!

hammerdad said...

ok to everyone who thinks that I was too harsh, I softened the post a bit.

Judy, to answer your first question, yes. In the millions of dollars each year. they typically make about 10-15% profit on each student at $300 to $500. one agency that does this sent more than 20,000 students on these trips last year. That's only one of MANY groups.

We host these groups but increasingly say "no" to those that come on their terms and control the $.

As with Steve below, we've created a relationship with churches where we can send and receive students. We also pour into the groups that do come, spending at least 10 hours with them teaching them about our community, how God is at work, what effective ministry means here and how they can take some lessons home.

Steve: "Short term vacationaries" Dude, that's a keeper!!!!

Steve said...

I wish I came up with the "vacationary" term myself, but I'm afraid I can't claim it...

It is pretty catchy though, huh?

Aaron said...

Wow! this is awesome! I am with you 100% Joel (as you know). I think it was pure genius to "put the shoe on the other foot." When reading that it made me kind of angry because never would I want anyone to come to my community with that mind set.

Well said my friend!

Pastor Lyons is great! "Evangelistic Hit Squads" is the greatest phrase in the history of all phraseiology! :)

I am under some serious pressure right now because I am a part of a Baptist Conference as well and they are really thirsty to come to Richmond and "help."

When I was in Chicago I had other's who were saying the same things I was saying and had the same concerns when it came to "urban/suburban excursions" but out here I am the lone voice and I will admit it has been hard to be the lone ranger in regards to concerns, cultural ignorance, etc.

The funny thing is that a lot of times they are ok just coming and doing physical labor! It doesnt even have to be "building a house" but just work.

This to me tells of the disconnect there. That a group would be happy with coming and cleaning out an attic at an urban church and to top it off "cry" when they leave is just bizarre to me.

I really appreciate it though but not sure what God is teaching them through it. But I have learned that God uses the craziest things to reveal Himself so I don't question God's presence but I do scratch my head.

Let me just say this... I have no desire to "work" on any house, building, etc. without knowing SOMEBODY. Maybe that is just me though.

Eric Fager said...

But I have so much to share from my middle class suburban existence. LOL

This proves you only have to leave your neighborhood to be an "Ugly American."

A man from our Church is leaving for Iraq with the MN Army National Gaurd. The Division Commander is requiring them to read 30 plus books on the history, culture and religion of the middle east. You should create a 'mandatory' reading list for your vacationaries. (I wonder what Tom would think of this word.)

Aaron said...

one more thing... Having labored with you for some years with the "mission trips" I do know this. It is not popular to have this "incarnational" mindset when it comes to hosting groups. Often times the "helping" is what brings folks to the city or to the community. So when you start messing with that you do loose some because they are very interested in "helping" and will go where they will get to do just that..."Evangelistic Hit Squads" :)

JudyBright said...

I just wanted to share my experiences with short term missions.

I have actually gone on five short term trips, so maybe I'm one of the people you're talking about. None of these trips has been in an urban American setting however, so maybe some of the concerns don't apply. The two short term trips I did in The USA were in rural settings with Habitat for Humanity.

With the trips that were outside the US (Mexico and Honduras) we were instructed on cultural differences, though not extensively. I think we were basically told what we needed to know so that we wouldn't offend people unknowingly or not understand what was going on.

I always left these trips humbled by the faith of the people we were with and how welcoming they were to us. I learned a great deal from these experiences and believe they've shaped how I see the world for the better.

And I think we helped out some. Not the great white hope swooping down from above kind, but I don't think it's wrong that one of the main purposes of these trips is to help people.

I totally agree that the ministry needs to set the agenda, and not the short term group. And that the groups that come should be more of a blessing than a burden.

I'm not trying to refute any points you made at all; I guess I'm trying to encourage you that you're probably actually making a difference to the clueless white suburbanites that maybe you don't realize.

hammerdad said...

Thanks for chiming in everyone. . .

I think that short term trips CAN be beneficial but they are almost always more work than direct benefit to the locals. There can be good reasons (as a local) to pay this cost. . . like ongoing relationship, the opportunity to teach/inform. . . financial benefit that helps locals sustain the ministry in a way that the financial benefit isn't really just a gift but becomes the exchanging of resources.

I've been teaching this week under the theme of "Its easy to give badly" and was told about a book called "When Charity destroys dignity". . . which captures in a phrase what often happens with short termers.

Maybe that will be another post!!!

pb said...


Steve said...

"You should create a 'mandatory' reading list for your vacationaries."

That is absolutely brilliant. I love that idea.

Bruce K. said...

Open and honest communication is always a beautiful thing. Nice work, my friend.

For those questioning Joel about the short-term missoins "tax" by the Missions Agency, I have also witnessed this. I know of one organization that uses this as a fund-raising tool ($500 per person). The stated goal is to raise funds for the mission field. If so, then perhaps it isn't quite as "gross." Though I admit frustration over this approach when people are sending out support letters, and need to raise an additional $500 for this purpose.

As a pastor one of those suburban churches that has sent out over 50 short-term groups (200-300 people) over the past dozen years, I often wonder if we are not at times mere "tourists of poverty."

The so-called "vision-trips" certainly seem to fit this category. Though, often times a few individuals are highly motivated as a result of these trips to help fund important ministry opportunities.

I have watched teams from our church that were pathetic, and teams that did amazing work. I have also watched the field receive and plan well, and plan poorly- botching the whole experience. It defintely goes both ways.

In sum, I have two thoughts:

(1) as in any relationship, comunication both ways is crucial. We are in the process of forming a long term relationship wit a congregation in the DR. We are actually taking the time to clarify and agree on terms of a four year relationship, that will be signed between us. This kind of a relationship has a chance at minimizing frustration both ways.

(2) We should always remember that we are the Body of Christ- together. May I repeat- togehter. Working together in unity is never easy, getting frustrated and segregating ourselves IS easy, as our track record tragically reveals. This is a spiritual battle to work together and learn from each other. It is a sad thought that the only forward for some is to sever relationships and not work together. Surely, God is honored when we can work together in the Body of Christ, and not let cultural or ethnic or economic differences trump our bond in Christ.

Our brothers and sisters are not our enemy... much love to all.