Home Outreach Leaders Articles for Outreach & Missions Darren Carlson: Why You Should Consider Canceling Your Short-Term Mission Trips

Darren Carlson: Why You Should Consider Canceling Your Short-Term Mission Trips

[Editor’s note: This is a three-part blog series by Darren Carlson that will appear on churchleaders.com for the next few weeks. This article originally appeared on The Gospel Coalition.]

We’re continuing a series on short-term missions. The first by Darren Carlson dealt with the history and opportunities provided by short-term missions. The subsequent article suggested a way toward better short-term, cross-cultural ministry.

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I have seen with my own eyes or know of houses in Latin America that have been painted 20 times by 20 different short-term teams; fake orphanages in Uganda erected to get Westerners to give money; Internet centers in India whose primary purpose is to ask Westerners for money; children in African countries purposefully mutilated by their parents so they would solicit sympathy while they beg; a New England-style church built by a Western team in Cameroon that is never used except when the team comes to visit; and slums filled with big-screen TVs and cell phone towers.

I have seen or know of teams of grandmothers who go to African countries and hold baby orphans for a week every year but don’t send a dime to help them otherwise; teams that build houses that never get used; teams that bring the best vacation Bible school material for evangelism when the national church can never bring people back to church unless they have the expensive Western material; teams that lead evangelistic crusades claiming commitments to Christ topping 5,000 every year in the same location with the same people attending.

Short-term missions is fraught with problems, and many wish such trips did not exist, at least in the common form today. Writing in his book Toxic Charity, Robert Lupton says, “Contrary to popular belief, most missions trips and service projects do not: empower those being served, engender healthy cross-cultural relationships, improve quality of live, relieve poverty, change the lives of participants [or] increase support for long-term missions work.” Ouch!

What follows will surely frustrate many. Each of these headings deserves much study, and I would encourage you to do so before you launch out into cross-cultural ministry.

Money, Power and Dependency

Let’s start with some statistics from Lupton’s book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It):

1. Africa has received $1 trillion in benevolent aid in the last 50 years, and per capita income is now lower, life expectancy has stagnated and adult literacy is lower.

2. Eighty-five percent of aid money flowing to African countries never reaches the targeted areas of need.

3. U.S. missions teams who rushed to Honduras to help rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Mitch spent on average $30,000 per home—homes locals could have built for $3,000 each.

4. The money spent by one campus ministry to cover the costs of their Central American missions trip to repaint an orphanage would have been enough to hire two local painters and two new full-time teachers and purchase new uniforms for every student in the school.

No one wants to think their generosity hurts people, but books like Dead Aid and When Helping Hurts have alerted us to the problem. So what is going on? The answer is complex and involves issues of basic economics, power, dependency and bad motives.

Economics

If you have too much of something, the price of the product will drop. An East African country used to have a large clothing industry that employed many people. Then, in our generosity, the West started donating clothing. As a result, people lost their jobs, and if you drive around major cities in Africa, you will see hundreds of vendors selling donated shoes, belts, shirts and more for less than a dollar.

On one level, the issue boils down to relief and development. Relief aid should only last for a few months. The problem with most trips is that we perpetuate relief instead of moving toward development work. Haiti is a perfect example. In the four decades before the 2010 earthquake, $8.3 billion had been given, and yet the country was 25 percent poorer than before the aid began.

Power

How does someone say no to Christians from the world’s most powerful country? It is very difficult to create authentic relationships between people with such disparate power. So if the most powerful Christians (in your mind) say they are coming to help you (even if you don’t want them to), how are you supposed to respond? Plenty of national leaders I know have been notified by U.S. churches that they are sending teams. The national leaders then have to scramble to create something for them to do.

It’s normally a disaster. So the New England-style church in Cameroon is never used (and was not asked for), but it sure did make the U.S. team feel good about serving. The American woman who goes to Uganda every year to teach flag dancing to Christian women is only frustrated that no one is making flags and dancing.

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darrencarlson@churchleaders.com'
Darren Carlson is the founder and president of Training Leaders International. Carlson oversees the general direction of the ministry and serves as an advocate for pastors with little access to formal training and thoughtful cross-cultural theological engagement. He is a graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he earned a master of divinity and master of theology in New Testament.