I’m sure that virtually every person who takes off on a mission trip is doing it with a heart full of kindness and an overstuffed bag full of good intentions. The missionaries, to a man, have a sincere belief in their philosophy and a genuine desire to do good in the world, which are both admirable traits. Sadly, what they often do not have is a decent education in the realities, perspective on the long term effects of their short term project, or an understanding of the harm being done. And there is harm being done.
For the purpose of this article I’m going to narrow the field to Christian short term missions, because those are, by far, the most common offenders in North America. However, it’s well worth noting that there are other sorts of missionaries, both religious and secular, who are engaged in the same sorts of trips and who are inflicting the same sorts of wounds on the world.
It’s not a phenomenon limited to one particular ideology. Evangelical Christianity in North America just seems to have a corner on the market at the moment. For the purpose of narrowing the discussion, I’m also going to focus on the numbers as they relate to North American missionary efforts into Central America. If you’re interested in delving into the global statistics, the Pew Research Center is a great place to start.
I’ve spent a great deal of time, as a child and as an adult, in the developing world. I’ve driven through every state in Mexico. I’ve spent over a year in Guatemala alone. We’ve road tripped several other Central American countries. I can tell you, first hand, that the countryside is littered, and I do mean littered, with the remains of well intentioned missionary ventures.
Concrete block churches that stand, unfinished, without roof or windows on the outskirts of a town. Crumbling, poorly made houses, hurriedly slammed together by unskilled laborers. Piles of donated “stuff” that wasn’t the right stuff, for a variety of reasons, and that’s just the trash that’s visible.
There are two main reasons that people take off on missions trips:
- To convert the lost to Christianity.
- To do humanitarian work.
One of the biggest beefs that I have with the concept of Christian missions into the developing world is the ignorance of the numbers and the arrogance of ignoring them. Here are some statistics to help you understand, compliments of the Pew Research Center.
Percentage of the Population that is Christian, by country:
- Canada 68.9%
- USA 79.5%
- Mexico 95%
- Guatemala 95.2%
- Belize 87.2%
- Honduras 87.6%
- Costa Rica 90.9%
- El Salvador 88.2%
- Nicaragua 85.9%
- Panama 93%
Is anyone else getting the joke yet? The USA and Canada, the primary sources of short term missions trips in North America, by the numbers, should be the mission field. Central America doesn’t need missionaries to convert the population, so there’s one argument “in favor” of these trips that can be pulled right off of the table.
The glove pulled over the ideological hand is almost always a service project of some sort. Churches or houses built, medical supplies and support, educational aids and assistance, clothing and shoes hauled down for orphans and the poverty stricken, food or other practical aid rendered.
On the surface these all seem like good things, don’t they? Things that are truly needed in many places, and I assure you that they are needed in much of the developing world. But what is NOT needed is a short sighted, short term, first world solution to a very complex local problem that, in the end, leaves the situation worse than it was to begin with it.
“But isn’t all aid good aid?” You ask. “Isn’t any help we bring better than no help at all?”
In a word: No.
Here’s how it happens:
A well meaning church youth leader in Tennessee organizes a trip through an organization with a glossy brochure (missions is big business) to build a church, “providing free labor to the poorest communities,” in what looks like backwater Guatemala. He shows the pictures, rallies his troops, and gets a group of 20 kids and four adult volunteers to give a week of their time, at a cost of $2000 per participant, to fly to Guatemala and build this church. The team arrives, in matching T-shirts, and the church gets half built in the five days they have to work, but they are assured that the next team will finish it. The workmanship is shoddy because it’s done by young people who barely rake their yards at home and parents who are not construction professionals. Meanwhile, the men of the village, most of whom are unemployed and all of whom have more construction experience than the missionaries, would gladly work for 15Q ($2) an hour building their own church. What the poorest communities need is not free labor, it’s employment that pays a fair wage.
So, $48,000 USD is spent on half building a church with unskilled volunteer labor when 20 Guatemalan men, working 10 hours a day, for $2 an hour… heck, let’s pay them $3 since we’re philanthropists, could have gotten the job done for $3,000 plus the cost of materials. Let’s be aggressive and estimate $10K for a small “mission trip” style church build, which brings us to a grand total of $13,000 USD. Mas o menos. The added benefit to hiring 20 local men is also, obviously, that the money then circulates repeatedly through the community, feeding and re-feeding the families who need it most, buying shoes so that kids can go to school, and some of it, inevitably, being donated back to the same church to do it’s own philanthropic work, because, of course, over 95% of the population here is Christian.
The financial issue
$35,000 is a lot of wasted overage, wouldn’t you agree?
Except that it’s not wasted, is it? Because of course there is the matter of the benefit that the “missionaries” on the trip get from the experience of traveling outside their own culture and experiencing the rest of the world. Virtually everyone who returns from these trips reports being “changed” in some capacity and having their eyes opened. That’s a good thing, isn’t it?
Yes of course, but is it $35,000 of a good thing? And is it a good thing at the expense of what it really costs, beyond the money?
It boils down to this: If we are going to raise money and go with a stated purpose of serving and doing good. If that’s the whole POINT, then we have an absolute responsibility to make sure that our service is needed and wanted and that what we’re doing with that money is actually, in fact, good. It has be be more than good. We have a responsibility to spend that money in the most efficient and sustainable manner possible to do the most good that can be done. In virtually every case, the best use of that money would involve leaving the missionaries at home.
They talked about the necessity of continually drumming up new missionaries to go, not so that actual good work could be done in these countries, but because these young people then become life long donors, who are the bread and butter of their funding plan over the long haul.
I sat in a board meeting once, with one of the directors of one of the biggest missions organizations in Canada with my mouth hanging open as he, and a couple of other missions “lifers” described the big business of short term missions. They waxed encumbered about what a “bother” it was to “find things for these kids to do” when they traveled to Central America to “serve,” but that it was “necessary” to fund their projects (and their huge missions overhead in Canada that paid their Toronto style salaries).
They told stories, from their experiences and those of friends in the industry, of smiling at groups of young people, hugging them good bye, thanking them for their work, and then painting over the bad job they’d done that week on a local mission building. They told stories of tearing down a newly built wall only to have it rebuilt by the next team. They talked about the necessity of continually drumming up new missionaries to go, not so that actual good work could be done in these countries, but because these young people then become life long donors, who are the bread and butter of their funding plan over the long haul. I was the only person in that room who’d been to the country in question. Bile rose in my throat. To say that I was disgusted, as my eyes were opened, is an understatement.
Short term missions trips are not a good use of money if the end goal is actually to do good work and to help people.
“I’m saying that it should be spent on projects that are sustainable, run by locals who understand the nuances of the culture, the problems, and can see the roots of the solutions.”
What a local church with responsible leadership, anywhere in Central America, could do with $35,000 would blow your mind. The trickle down of that kind of investment of capital in a community would change the course of lives for the longer term. In a country where a man’s average annual salary at the lower-middle income bracket is less than $2000 USD a year, the benefit to the community of that kind of financial infusion, in a sustainable way, would be staggering.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t be spending the $35,000.
I’m saying that it should be spent on projects that are sustainable, run by locals who understand the nuances of the culture, the problems, and can see the roots of the solutions. It should be spent in ways that actually help people forward instead of pretending to, while assuaging our middle class guilt and giving us something to talk about over lunch at Applebees after church next Sunday. A serious WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) look at how that money is spent would require a major overhaul of our thought process and our actions.
The damage done on the ground
I wish that the half built churches were the worst of it. They’re actually more like the cherry on top. The real damage that short term missions trips do is in their “bandaid” mentality to humanitarian work. The solutions seem simple from a boardroom in Toronto. I know, I’ve been there, and usually, I’m the annoying person in the room who points out how short sighted we’re all being.
The Bandaid Mentality looks like this:
- Orphans: they need love, so lets go rock them for a week, and do a VBS while we’re there
- Hunger: let’s hand out food bags and vitamins, too. We’ll tuck a Spanish Bible in on top
- Education: we’ll take suitcases full of books, paper, pencils, and crayons
- Poverty: let’s take down suitcases full of shoes and glasses and clothing
- Health: we’ll take two doctors and do a clinic. They’ll bring fifty pounds of medications to give away
Here’s the unintended damage that’s done in each instance:
What they do need are parents.
They need people to go live with them for the twenty year long haul and really man-up to the job of raising them and helping them heal. I have friends who do that, in India, Honduras, and Cambodia, and they do good work. In each case, they don’t accept short term volunteers, because it hurts the kids.
You want to help orphans? Cover the food budget at their orphanage for a year. Pay the salary of the house parents who are seriously invested. Cover the school books and uniforms fee for one child, or fifty. That helps. Blowing in and blowing out, leaving emotional turmoil in your wake does not. It hurts. Own that.
Blowing through town and handing out bags of corn and beans and salt and sugar would feel good. It would fill bellies for two nights. It would do nothing to solve the real problems; the mothers who would thank you, with big smiles, know that. Sticking that Spanish Bible in on top just makes them laugh:
Most of them can’t read it, they speak Ka’chi’kel.
They’re already Christian.
The Bible doesn’t feed their kids.
If you want to spend your $35,000 into my community to actually solve the hunger issue, it can be done. Konojel Nutrition Center feeds 60 kids a day, every day, and they do it employing local mothers. They could run their current program for over two years with that money. Atitlan Organics is another organization that is working hard with local farmers on permaculture and advanced farming techniques to maximize food production and security while minimizing environmental impact. They’re in it for the long haul, and they would use the money that one food bag costs to provide food for a family in a sustainable way.
Am I saying the food bags are a waste? Not necessarily, but if there isn’t also a solution to the underlying and long term problem, then they aren’t really helping either, because when you go home, and the food is gone, the hunger is still here.
It should be noted; however, that it’s not usually a lack of pencils and crayons that is impeding the educational process in these countries. It’s often a lack of shoes (they’re required for school attendance in some countries) and uniforms. It’s often the very real fact that the kids’ labor is needed as soon as they are physically able, to help support the family financially. Rocking up with a bag full of crayons and paint makes you lots of fun to the kids, but it doesn’t help keep any of them in school. Not really. And it also doesn’t provide the skills or the options they need to go on to higher education, which is their real meal ticket out of poverty.
If you’re interested in working with an organization that does, then I highly recommend the Cooperative for Education, which supports communities in providing books for classrooms and computer labs in the poorest villages in Guatemala, where they are needed most. They do it in a way that’s not a hand out and that the communities can continue to invest in for many years to come.
A long term expat once told me a story of how the first year the missionaries came and handed out shoes to all of the kids in the village, there was rejoicing. The second year, everyone was delighted they’d come back, and even more people took advantage of the blessing. The third year, he noticed people not replacing their kids shoes as they wore out, because there was an expectation of the “shoe people” coming back. The fourth year, there was resentment when they never arrived.
Handing out free clothes, or selling off the cheap clothing bundle cast offs from American donation giants like Goodwill also destroys local industry. Local tailors are out of work, as are the cobblers. Skills and economic opportunity in the places that need both most are diminished.
There is not a single bandaid solution to poverty, but what is needed in almost every country is a combination of improved education, greater opportunity, the availability of work, and long term sustainability. If your solution involves creating one of those things, then great. If it doesn’t, then in the long run, you’re probably making things worse.
When teams of doctors come and give free clinics, people line up at the crack of dawn. Much good is done. However, much more good could be done by sourcing as much locally as possible. There is no shortage of medication in most of the developing world. The problem is access to it.
Again, I’ll beat the drum of buying locally as much as possible for the multifaceted benefit of the community you’re serving in. My fourteen year old son had the opportunity to work for most of a week at the elbow of a doctor from the USA who was here to provide free healthcare to the community. This man and his wife, who is also a doctor, come every year and spend their vacation serving, on their own, not with an organization. Elisha spent a lot of his time running up and down the hill to the pharmacy buying the prescriptions that the doctors wrote and providing them to the families. This particular team of doctors is doing it right.
In summing up the damage we do on the ground let me say this:
I’ve had more than a few conversations, sometimes with friends and family who I’m quite close to, that circle these issues and then return to the idea that, “Well, our intentions are good, and nothing is perfect, so we have to believe that god will take our offering and make the best of it.”
Respectfully, gently, humbly… I have to call bullshit.
That’s an excuse for not owning the realities of the damage that the industry of short term missions is responsible for. If we know better, we must do better.
It’s not okay to say, “Because I mean well, that’s all that matters.”
No. That is not all that matters. Intentions are one thing. Realities on the ground are entirely another, and we are directly responsible for the damage we do. Every time.
The damage done to the missionaries
On more than one occasion I’ve heard the benefit to the missionaries themselves used as a way to justify the shortcomings on the other end. I do agree that travel is of great benefit and I’d love to see every single person who is able and has the interest take a trip outside their home culture, as far outside as they can possibly manage.
However, missionary travel is not the best way to achieve that.
When a person travels for the sake of travel, or for the purpose of education, as is sometimes the case, he leaves with an open mind and an understanding that there is much he doesn’t know and much he will not understand. He approaches a culture with humility, as a guest. She’s traveling to experience something different and to learn.
When a person travels for the sake of mission work, there is a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) overtone of “us” the wealthy, privileged, enlightened, first worlders, going to “help” “them,” the poor, underprivileged, people of the “dark places of the world.”
Spend a little time in the developing world, just living and hanging out, and then watch the attitude of the local population change with the mission team rolls into town. It’s enlightening.
That last part is a direct quote from a pastor in Indiana. No joke. Almost every mission trip is centered around going to fix something, solve something, teach something, or provide something.
When we send people, especially young people, on mission trips with that attitude, we allow them to believe that they are in some way better than the people they are going to serve. There is an arrogance and a pride that’s inherent in the sending that cannot help but be transferred to the participants and cannot help but be felt by the locals. Spend a little time in the developing world, just living and hanging out, and then watch the attitude of the local population change with the mission team rolls into town. It’s enlightening.
In addition, the big organizations that are leaving half finished work, badly done work, and work that just plain has to be redone after the team leaves, are actively doing damage to the hearts and minds of the team members.
By allowing them to believe that they did work that they did not do. By allowing them to go home thinking that they did something that mattered when, really, the whole project was just about babysitting them so that they could get the funding. I know more than a few people who’ve been turned off of humanitarian aid and missions organizations on that realization alone.
So, what’s the solution?
I’m sure there are many, but one that I’ve seen practiced by several organizations in Central America that are heavily invested in the long term, sustainable, community development that is needed, is to invite teams of observers and supporters. The donors to these organizations, a couple of times a year, have the opportunity to join trips to visit the sites, listen to the stories and the achievements of the local people, to grow in understanding the complex layers of the issue at hand, and to learn.
Take faith centered journeys for personal development if you want. Great idea. Just don’t go with the attitude that you’ve got the answers or pretending to have an impact that you aren’t having.
They aren’t falsely representing their ability or intention. They aren’t damaging anything, or anyone, because they’re only there to open their eyes and increase their understanding. They go home motivated to continue to raise money for their cause, and the money is spent in a responsible, sustainable manner. Churches could learn a lot from that. Take faith centered journeys for personal development if you want. Great idea. Just don’t go with the attitude that you’ve got the answers or pretending to have an impact that you aren’t having.
There is a great deal of need in this world. There is a need for money to get the jobs done and people who are willing to dig in and do the work. There is a need to travel and educate oneself and then go home and put our resources to their best possible use. We should not; however, be operating under false pretenses, whether they are religious or not.
The idea of a week long faith based missions venture to a country with 95% of the population being practicing Christian is just ludicrous.
The idea of a humanitarian venture, from any ideological standpoint, that doesn’t bother to put in the time and effort to really understand what is needed and how to best provide it in a way that truly serves the local community, instead of just looking great on paper and making us feel good on the other end, is insidious indeed.
There are good organizations out there, organizations that are doing it right, organizations that would make good use of our money, or our skill set, or whatever other tools we might have to offer. It’s our responsibility to spend our money, and our time, and our other resources wisely, so that we’re part of the solution and not expanding the problem.