At 2:52am, Sunday morning, I arrived back in Fort Dodge, after traveling for seventeen hours from a compound near Xenocoj, Guatemala.
For one week, I worked alongside twelve other friends in various capacities. We built a kitchen for a family, built 1.5 houses for workers in the Hope Haven Wheelchair Factory in Antigua, refurbished wheelchairs for the elderly in a underfunded hospital, and spent a considerable amount of time getting to know people from multiple walks of life.
I’ve heard it said by some that short-term mission projects aren’t an effective tool for spreading the Gospel or for helping people in need. Critics usually site some of the following reasons.
1. Short-term mission projects aren’t a good value. Our trip cost roughly $1200 per person for a week of work. Most of that cost was airfare. We paid $800 just to get to Guatemala. Thus, the work we provide during that week better be pretty unique work that the locals can’t do. There has to be a significant reason to justify spending that much money just to get us to Guatemala.
Rather than spend close to ten thousand dollars in airfare for the group, we could have purchased five more homes and let local Hope Haven workers construct them. American money can often go much further in developing countries, so the money to travel could be better used if it were just donated to ministries that are already doing great work in the local area.
2. There’s no opportunity to establish lasting relationships. Too often, groups come to an area, build something, and leave. The group works hard, finishes the project, snaps a few pictures, maybe prays with a family, and says goodbye. And that’s it. It’s a drive-by act of service.
There’s nothing wrong with this, per se, but people are mainly impacted by ongoing relationships. And when there’s no opportunity for relationship, lives aren’t really changed.
3. Short-term mission projects can rob people of their dignity. People gain a sense of self-worth when they face their challenges and prevail. When a mysterious group of people comes in, takes care of somebody’s problems and leaves, often the person feels embarrassed or like a failure.
I’ve heard stories from mission agencies who’ve observed that men are often not present when the groups bring food, or do other work for a family. This is something I’ve seen personally when we’ve brought food and presents to families during holiday seasons, and this was also the case at one of the homes we worked on while in Guatemala.
A speaker at Catalyst in 2011 who described this phenomenon. He said that the reason men are often absent from these times when groups bring charity is that they feel like they are failing their family when they can’t provide for them and have to receive the help of others. However, mothers are often willing to endure that embarrassment for the sake of their children so they will graciously accept help from various groups.
4. Short-term missions often maintain an inward focus. Even though the whole point of a mission trip is to teach people to live for others, they still focus on ourselves. We go with a sense of expectation, that God is going to do something great in our lives. And we look for those God moments in our interactions throughout the day. We don’t see our interactions with others at face value. Instead, we see others as the objects of our good works, as a means to our seeing God at work in us, not as people with the same amount of dignity as ourselves.
5. The impact doesn’t last. This is probably the most unfortunate aspect of short-term missions. We often have an amazing experience, vow to change our lives, and find that a month later, our lives are the same as before.
These factors and more lead some people to believe that short-term mission trips aren’t as effective as we’ve been led to believe. In part two of this post (releasing on Friday), I’ll let you know what I think about short-term mission trips. I’ll base the post on my recent experience in Guatemala and other past experiences.
In the meantime, what do you think about these five reasons? Do you agree? Are short-term mission projects ineffective? Sound off below.