In the previous post, we looked at the problems of having a “Missions for Me” mentality when we venture overseas or across the border. In this post, I want to address the question of whether our short-term trips (STM) do much long-term good—or long-term harm. The answer, of course, is they can potentially do both. But we cannot say that STM accomplishes much good based on our self-perception of such trips. Self-perception can be deceitful. The benefits that we perceive may be distorted, misinterpreted, or nothing more than a superficial (or materialistic) reading of the situation.
Let’s take, for example, STMs that focus on teaching. It’s common for educated Americans to venture out on 1-2 week teaching trips to impart our (American) wisdom to indigenous pastors. And I’ve been on such trips and they seem to really blow the socks off of the nationals. But are their socks really blown off? Or are there other cultural factors that play into the perceived positive results of our amazing teaching.
Missiologist David Livermore decided to do a study on such a trip, considering both the self-perception of the American teachers AND the honest evaluation of the indigenous students. Here are some quotes from the American STM teachers (Livermore, Serving, 72):
• “They were really hungry [for the training].” • “The training [was] outstanding…I think they were hungry, very hungry. I would even say more hungry overseas than they are here…because they’re looking for more effective ways and tools” • “They would sit and listen. They wouldn’t get up and go to the bathroom every five minutes or say, ‘I need a break’ every couple hours. They were enduring heat…humidity…the small environment…And they didn’t get up and leave. I mean they were spellbound…in listening to the message, the methodology…the format…the how to’s and the philosophy.” • “It was fresh and new [like] they had never heard it before. They really soaked it in.” • “They were so thirsty. They just hung on every word.”
Does this sound familiar? It does to me. I feel like I’ve said these very same things after debriefing with my team after such teaching trips. But let’s now consider some responses from the indigenous students—of the same training session:
• “You conclude you’re communicating effectively because we’re paying attention when we’re actually just intrigued by watching your foreign behavior.” • “It was a nice day, but I don’t think what they taught would ever work here. But if it makes them feel like they can help us in ways beyond supporting our ministry financially, we’re willing to listen to their ideas.” • “I’m glad the trainers felt respected. They should. What they need to realize, however, is that we would never think about talking or getting up to leave in the middle of their lecture. It would be repulsive to do that to a teacher in our culture.” • “I wish we could have shared more about the real challenges we’re facing in our ministry. How do I lead a church when most of our godly men have lost their lives in battle? How do I help a parent care for their AIDS baby? Those are my pressing issues, not growing my church bigger or starting a second service. I didn’t get that whole discussion.”
Self-perception can be quite deceiving. The Americans didn’t understand, for instance, that respect for one’s teacher is a cultural matter. Such studious respect does not necessarily mean that they were dying of thirst for our American wisdom. The actual benefit of our STMs should be determined by those whom we are serving, not by the participants. But here’s the challenge: If you ask the nationals for an honest evaluation of your teacher, you’re unlikely to get an honest answer. After all, they wouldn’t want to criticize their guests. This would be insulting from their perspective.
Now, to be sure, this is only one negative example. Surely many other positive encounters on both ends could be reported. However, these “other sides to the story” have largely gone unnoticed and should at least cause us to venture into such settings more prepared. We need to be informed about the potential limitations of STM teaching trips in order for us to maximize them to produce positive results among the host ministries.
STM trips that focus on construction projects are another troubling example. Have you ever been on one of these trips? And did you perceive that such a trip was a tremendous benefit to the nationals? Now, did you ever ask yourself how your free labor, expensive power tools, money, materials, and relational collateral influenced the local economy where you were serving? (And if you don't know what relational collateral is, or the power that it has, then you need to learn about this before you go on another STM.)
Think about it. Imagine that you’re a struggling carpenter in Bolivia and you have 5 kids you’re trying to provide for. Carpentry is your trade, but you only have a handsaw and 3 screwdrivers. You struggle to find work, but once a month you find a job that barely keeps you and your family alive. Now imagine that you happened to be driving by (I mean, riding your bike by) a construction site where there’s plenty of work to be done. And instead of hiring you, these Christians brought in a bunch of white rich Americans, who are throwing up house after house with all of their power tools shipped in from the West—tools that you could never afford, not even one. How would you respond?
Oh sure, you’d be nice. You’d be cordial. You’d never disrespect a guest in your country; that would violate your cultural view of hospitality. But you would know very clearly that deep down these rich Westerners were taking your work. You would wonder why they hate you? Don’t they care about your starving children? Don’t they have enough work in America that they have to come here and take my jobs?
Jo Ann VenEngen, a sociologist in Honduras, has observed some negative effects of STMs that spend a great deal of money to come and do the work that could have been done by the nationals. On one such Spring-break excursion, an American group “spent their time and money painting and cleaning the orphanage.” But the “money could have paid two Honduran painters who desperately needed the work, with enough left over to hire four new teachers, build a new dormitory, and provide each child with new clothes” (VanEngen, “The Cost of Short-Term Missions,” 21). It is striking that virtually all of the positive reports of STMs come from the participants’ self-perception, not from the national host churches. According to socialogist Kurt Ver Beek:
“It is very distressing that only two of 44 STM studies to date include data on those who receive STM trips. While this trend is beginning to change, we need more high quality research regarding the lasting impact of STM on the receiving communities.” (Ver Beek, “Lessons from a Sapling,” 13).
The few studies that have been done, in which the nationals themselves are interviewed, have turned up some negative and quite embarrassing truths. While the nationals often appreciate the thought and effort, American building ventures often bring unforeseen long-term harm—felt only by the nationals after the Americans leave (see Ver Beek, “The Impact of Short-Term Missions”).
Now let me be clear. Sometimes third-world countries desperately need outside resources to help with building projects, especially when a major tragedy hits (e.g. the earthquake in Haiti). There is a place for building projects. My point, though, is that we need to always ask the question: How is this STM trip going to help or hinder the local ministries and the local environment? Because there could be unforeseen and unintended harm that comes about through our help (see Corbett and Fikkert, When Helping Hurts).
I'll sum up this series in one more post, where I'll summarize some foundational principles that should shape how we think through short-term missions.