Missions for Me: A Better Way to Do Short Term Missions (part 2)

In my previous post, I set the stage for why we need to rethink how we do short-term mission (STM) trips. In this post, I want to focus specifically on the “Missions for Me” mentality that’s probably the number one reason why people go on an STM. That is, if I go on this trip, I will come back with more faith, more conviction, and a greater desire to serve Jesus with all my being. And perhaps I’ll end up being more “missions minded” if I go on a trip: giving money to missions and maybe even considering becoming a full-time missionary. The primary reason why people go on STM trips is usually aimed at the spiritual benefit such a trip will have on the participant. Shockingly, however, research shows that the lasting benefits that STM has on its participants is not what we have assumed (see Priest, et al., “Researching the Short-Term Mission Movement,” 431-50; Livermore, Serving with Eyes Wide Open, 52-55).

First, Christians have assumed that taking a STM will increase the likelihood that the participants will end up as career missionaries. But such is not the case: while there has been a dramatic increase in STM participants over the last two decades, the number of career missionaries has stayed the same. If STM participants are more likely to become career missionaries, then the number of career missionaries should have increased along with the enormous increase of STM participants. But it hasn’t.

Moreover, the recent boom in STMs has sapped the pool of “missionary funds” from many churches, thus decreasing the church’s ability to support career missionaries. Much of the church’s money given toward missions is re-directed to short-termers. This has probably led to the longer time it has been taking for aspiring career missionaries to raise support (Priest, et al., “Researching the Short-Term Mission Movement, 438). Therefore, while STM participants usually come back with a desire to pursue missions full-time, the numbers show that such desire does not often turn into a reality.

The moral of the story: We should not count on STM to be a springboard, launching career missionaries into the field.

Second, many believe that taking an STM will increase the participants’ future financial contribution to missions, even if he or she does not become a career missionary. But again, research has proved otherwise. For instance, Missiologist Robert J. Priest performed a meticulous study documenting this claim. He concludes:

No methodologically sound research we have discovered has yet demonstrated a significant average increase in giving by participants cause by STM experience. In short, one claim about STM, that it helps to create higher levels of financial support for the career missionary enterprise, does not appear to be true (Priest, et al., “Researching the Short-Term Mission Movement,” 439-440).

Likewise, Christian sociologist Kurt Ver Beek analyzed several STMs to Honduras, and while many participants said they desired to increase their giving to missions, the documented evidence proved otherwise (Ver Beek, “The Impact of Short Term Missions,” 485-86).

Third, we have assumed that taking a STM trip will end up reducing materialism and ethnocentricity in the participant. But according to research, this has not always been the case. While participants usually come home struck by the grinding poverty in the majority world and make all sorts of commitments to live on less and give more, there is no evidence that participants in STMs were any less materialistic than their homebound neighbors. “Those with extensive STM experience were fully as materialistic as those with none” (Priest, et al., “Researching,” 440).

Likewise, ethnocentricity remains the same in the long run among those who engage in cross-cultural ministry through an STM. Participants may be impressed by certain characteristics of the nationals, but at the end of the day, they are quite thankful they aren’t one of them (Livermore, “AmeriCAN or AmericCAN’T?, 40; Ver Beek, “The Impact of Short-Term Missions;” idem, “Lessons from a Sapling, 469-496). Some studies have shown that there may be an increase in ethnocentricity among participants. David Maclure notes that STMs often “perpetuate the very things they’re intended to counter. Participants come home assuming poor people are doing just fine and are happy that way” and are often a bit annoyed at the weird, backward ways of doing things overseas. “Instead of advancing the cause of mission, the exercise simply reinforces worn stereotypes and old power relations” (Livermore, Serving, 54, citing Maclure, “Wholly Available?").

The data is striking: while STM does elicit good intentions for spiritual growth, there is little evidence that they have produced lasting change. Such change is better attained through long-term, not short-term, engagement in cross-cultural ministry.

Admittedly, though, positive spiritual change in the participant is difficult to measure. So we need to be cautious and allow some immeasurable change to take place. However, regardless of whether STMs produce positive change in the participant, we need to engage in STM primarily for those to whom we are seeking to minister, not for the potential benefit it may (or may not) have on us. The very “missions for me” mentality reveals more of our American consumer mindset than the “others-centered” mindset of Christ. Ministry, in whatever form, is primarily for others.

Therefore, even if the research above were reversed, we still need to ask the question, “What lasting benefit do STMs have on national churches,” rather than assuming that the spiritual benefit on the participants in itself is worth the cost of the trip. Instead of a “missions for me” mentality, we need to be driven by a “missions for them” one. STMs should be trips of service and partnership. We are to help them in their (the missionary and national) on-going mission, the mission that will continue long after we leave. And we need to go out of our way to ask ourselves and our host (especially our host) how this trip will help, or potentially hinder, the long-term ministry with which we're partnering.

So are we doing that? Do our STM trips actually help the long-term ministry of indigenous pastors and leaders? We’ll look at this in the next post.