A subject that is guaranteed to stir the SBC masses is anything remotely critical of our beloved and ubiquitous practice of short term missions. Why would anyone find reason to criticize that in which the smallest Southern Baptist church participates – a short term, volunteer mission trip to another country, another culture, a location with vastly greater human needs than we generally see in our church fields here in the states?
You can judge by the headline, Ministers, churches seek end to ‘mission tourism’, that the article is not likely to be friendly to the typical short term mission project. I know the author and I am aware that the subject involves Baptists but not Southern Baptists; however, it is a report worthy of our reflection.
Parachute missions, poverty tourism, vacationary.
These descriptors are frequently invoked to characterize a misguided (western) approach to missions – an approach that many say encourages an unhealthy dependency and paternalism.
Ouch. Every church I pastored did short term overseas missions. I led each to do so.
“Contrary to popular belief, most mission trips and service projects do not: empower those being served, engender healthy cross-cultural relationships, improve quality of life, relieve poverty, change the lives of participants [or] increase support for long term missions work,” Robert Lupton wrote in his 2011 book Toxic Charity.
While this quote is a rather broad generalization (with an escape hatch ‘most’), I am inclined to agree.
A quarter century ago I participated in a two week mission trip to a famous overseas destination. We stayed in a reknowned beachfront hotel, dined in a white tablecloth restaurant, were surrounded by plainclothes security personnel…and traveled each day a couple of hours in an air-conditioned bus to our places of service, small churches in humble neighborhoods.
While there, some church members begged to be permitted to sleep on the floor of my hotel room for a night, an experience far out of reach to them. We were advised not to permit that. The nationals would not be permitted onto the hotel premises if found out.
A mature reflection on that trip made me conclude: the national pastor with whom I worked had a larger church than I had, was a better preacher that I was, had a more vibrant evangelistic reach than I did. My role was simply being a western pastor, much more affluent, who would draw a crowd. Add to that the realization that my trip expenses constituted about six months of income for the average national. A subsequent trip cost me more than the average annual per capita income of a citizen of the destination country. The relative expense of the trip doesn’t render it misguided or wasteful but is worth a bit of thought.
I would call myself a “vacationary” except for the fact that it was one of the most arduous and tiring two weeks I have ever spent in Christian ministry.
It is inescapable that many short term missions may do more harm than good and there is a good bit of research on this.
I made it a practice to find an occasion to ask overseas IMB personnel about their experiences with STMs. All were reluctant to offer even mild criticism of those that support them but loquacious workers would have a stream of tales that did not reflect well on folks coming from the states to ‘work’ with them. More reticent workers would admit some degree of a problem. One seemingly innocuous negative incident might take years for our overseas worker to undo.
I like the succinct comment one person made, that STMs were likely to do harm when “the primary purpose of the trip is the fulfillment of the trip itself.”
I would have to admit that after some years of hearing other pastors and churches tout how their church sent people to [fill in the country or countries] I got the impression that the church did STMs in order to promote their church, their student group, or their zeal for missions. Any benefit to the people group or overseas mission was incidental.
The reasons many resent such a view of STMs is that (a) we invest a lot of time and money in doing them and we hate to consider that we are not accomplishing something for the Lord, (b) we want the satisfaction of feeling like we are accomplishing something good, (c) it is an area where Southern Baptists can say we have had ‘success’ if success is defined in numbers of people participating and ‘mission’ expenditures for the same, (d) there are a number of people and organizations who profit through STMs, including destination churches, and, (e) we cling to the justification that participants benefit in non-tangible ways.
Contrast the above to the practice of using STMs for purposeful, repeated, and longer term engagement in a place where STM churches and participants can partner with churches and Christians overseas. This requires a greater commitment, is not as appealing as going to a new exotic destination every year, and has less appeal in some ways as a church program. As Southern Baptists, we already support workers in many places and if I partner with them, at least I have the expectation that the STM will be accomplishing something that was requested and that it fits into an overall strategy rather than a ‘one and done’ trip.
In the way that we autonomous churches and ministers do things, we come to our own conclusions and practices about STMs. I admit that I am ambivalent or regretful about some of my own over the years.