Are Short-Term Mission Trips Useful at All?

As a missionary with Youth With A Mission (YWAM) for nearly two decades, I have had much experience with short-term missions, both good and bad. Over those years I have remained a believer and advocate for responsible short-term mission (STM), while also pushing hard for reform to the all too common expressions of STM that are less than helpful.

That is why I was keen to read Brian Howell’s new book, Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience (InterVarsity Press, 2012). As is my custom, rather than a review, I thought a conversation with the author might be more helpful for us.  Check it out:

Jamie Arpin-Ricci: As your book points out, much of the discussion around short-term missions happening comes down to, “Are you for them or against them?” How do you respond to that question?

Brian Howell: As an anthropologist, I’m always glad to have people learn more about the world; as a Christian I believe it is a precious gift from God to come alongside His work around the world and learn or be involved in what He’s doing; the question is what we’re learning about God and others through short-term missions. This was the central question of my book, and not surprisingly what I found was complicated.

When I did my research, I found the narratives used matter in how people learn from and about others on these trips. I saw that the history of how we understand “mission” matters. I found the ways we organize these trips, particularly who controls the agenda, matters. So I would say I am definitely for the opportunities Christians have to travel and learn and share the Gospel in practical and evangelistic ways.

The challenge is shaping these trips to become opportunities for mutual sharing, partnership and honest conversation. This involves thinking about and confronting the inequalities of wealth, histories of oppression, racism and other cultural and social dynamics that make those interactions difficult or impossible.

JAR: The subtitle of your book is “An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience.” Help the uninformed person understand what that means and what they can expect.

BH: “Ethnography” refers to the central method of study used by anthropologists. Traditionally anthropologists would travel to some remote place and live with people for a year or two, learn their language, eat their food, engaging in some “exotic” rituals, and come back with this detailed description of this group for people who had never heard of them.

Today, we apply that method—hanging out, listening to people, being part of their everyday lives—to some more familiar groups, such as corporate bankers, Southern U.S. farmers and even suburban evangelicals going on a short-term mission trip. I spent two years in a larger congregation here in Wheaton, joined a team, traveled with them and talked with them when we got back to understand how they made sense of their experiences.

In particular, I noticed how the ways we learned to talk about these trips—the ways our trips were structured through the application process, preparation, travel and re-telling our stories—shaped how we thought about what we had done and seen. I use this specific example, this team, not to show what every STM trip is like or how all Christians think about this, but to help us see processes and cultural dynamics that occur in these trips.

JAR: So much of short-term missions seem to be shaped and driven by marketing the best “product.”  As a result, STM groups that take a more responsible approach are often far less “attractive” and struggle to sustain.  What advice would you give them?

BH: I definitely understand the tension, and since I do not have experience running an organization like this, I hesitate to be too specific. I have spoken with leaders of parachurch STM organizations, some of whom have had the chance to read and endorsed my book, and they tell me these insights are helpful as they think about the preparation, marketing, and practice of their trips.

One of the findings of my study was that the dominant narrative of our trip actually worked against some of the goals of the trip—to understand poverty, engage in cross-cultural relationships, improve the long-term prospects of the poor. To the extent that some of the people on the trip could see this, they were a bit unsatisfied with the whole experience. I think many of these organizations would find their participants would have a better experience if they shake up the narratives and change the understandings of these travels among those who participate.

I would say I think STM organizations have a moral obligation to those we work with around the world to avoid advertising that relies on exploitive images of poverty, overly exoticised view of “the other” or portrayals of our brothers and sisters in Christ has lacking mature faith or Christian understanding (such as references to the “dark continent” of Africa, or photos of teenagers riding elephants as if that were the normal mode of transportation for people in Thailand). I don’t think I see this sort of thing very often, but when I do, I worry about the ways this damages our witness in the world, and wounds the Body of Christ world wide.

JAR: I’ve work for Youth With A Mission (YWAM) for almost 20 years, seeing some of the best and worst examples of short-term missions. What advice would you give established missions such as YWAM?

BH: Read my book! Just kidding. But I would say there will undoubtedly always be ways we can love and serve better. As sinners, we cannot expect we’ll develop a system that will make us incapable of being insulting, condescending, patronizing or simply lacking in understanding. At the same time, we are always called to strive to love and serve as Christ did. Toward that end, I think every organization can take a look at the structures in place and seek to develop more balanced or constructive relationships with local partners around the world.

YWAM is a large, complex organization that has many different kinds of experiences for people. This variety means there would be different answers for different leaders. But as I’ve spoken to travelers, such as those who went out on the 13-day trip to the Dominican Republic I studied for my book, I suggested we should focus our attention on the capital “M” Missio Dei—God’s Mission—which is always much larger than our small “m” missions. Even just that small shift can help to open our eyes to the ways in which everything we do in the context of these travels, from the Vacation Bible School, to showing the Jesus Film, to visiting a beach resort, to buying our souvenirs, should be considered part of our witness, and part of God’s Mission of reconciling humanity to Himself and people to each other. With a larger understanding of how these trips fit into the Missio Dei, we can develop a more holistic sense of how and why these travels serve Christ and His Kingdom.

JAR: How should churches decide if and how they should participate in short-term missions? And if they do, what are good reasons (and bad)?

BH: I would argue the good reasons are to build long-term relationships with local partners engaged in Kingdom work around the world. Kingdom work might be evangelistic, humanitarian or educational, but the building of these relationships creates the opportunity to serve our brothers and sisters who know the situation there. In terms of short-term mission (not in terms of financial support), I would encourage churches building their STM programs to prioritize local leadership, rather than running their program only through long-term North American missionaries. This is not to say the team should not visit or encourage the missionaries, but when missionaries have to develop their work around hosting STM teams, and the teams only learn about the place through other North Americans, I believe it shapes the experience and mission work in ways that work against our own goals.

If we could come to see these trips, particularly for high school students, as first and foremost about what we learn and how that learning can shape our lives, I think we would change some of the ways we engage these trips. We would spend more time listening to the adult leaders in these places, and less time on construction or childcare that could be better performed by local adults. I am not saying young people cannot be useful in these places, but when we spend $1,500 to send a young person abroad, we should think very carefully about what this person will take away from the experience, how she will think about poverty in this country, the work that is happening there and how it might shape her. God’s Mission, to reconcile humanity to one another, necessarily involves learning about one another in ways that does not produce patronizing views of others.  

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Jamie Arpin-Ricci
Jamie Arpin-Ricci is an urban missionary, pastor, church planter and writer living in Winnipeg’s inner city West End neighbourhood. He is the author of “The Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis & Life in the Kingdom”. He is founding co-director of Youth With A Mission (YWAM) Urban Ministries Winnipeg with his Australian wife Kim. They recently adopted their first child from Ethiopia. He has served with YWAM in Canada since 1994, bringing him to 11 nations.

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