In Defense of Short Term Mission Trips Part 1

A friend pointed me to an article called “Why I Hate Short Term Missions Trips” (posted March 18, 2015) by a blogger named, Jennifer Miller. My friend suggested I respond. When I saw the length of the article and the depth of response needed, I initially thought I wouldn’t (ain’t nobody got time for that!). But after some reflection on the article itself and the scathing tone of the author, I thought it appropriate to reply.

Ms. Miller’s article is very long, and every part of it needs a response. To facilitate this, I am breaking my responses into four posts. I very much want to respect Ms. Miller and her opinions on these matters, so I do not want to take anything she has written out of context. Instead, I have copied her entire article, and will respond to each part.

Before we begin, I want to say that I do not disagree with every single conclusion Ms. Miller draws, though I sharply disagree with her overall conclusion, which seems to be that short-term missions should stop altogether. Here and there, she has made some keen observations, and she has pointed out several things that need to be corrected within the sphere of short term mission work. I really appreciate that, and I hope that those in favor of short term mission work can overlook Ms. Miller’s tone and overall conclusion, because there really is much to learn from an article like this about how to serve more effectively for the Kingdom.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a pastor of a theologically conservative church, and I am the organizer of short term mission trips to Peru each year. I will reference these trips fairly often in my analysis of Ms. Miller’s article.

So here we go:

Miller: Black font

Me: Green font

Let me open by saying that I know that they’re well intentioned.

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.

I appreciate that Ms. Miller begins like this. Most short term missionaries do have good intentions and a desire to help people. These intentions and desires hopefully (usually?) stem from kindness produced in their hearts by the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22).

I am certain Ms. Miller has good intentions as well. She seems very sincere in wanting to solve these problems as she sees them, and I acknowledge and respect her intentions and desires.

However, her comment about the lack of decent education betrays a certain sense of superiority she may feel she has on this issue. I would agree with her that there is a general lack of education among lay Christians on the issues raised, but that doesn’t mean that every short term missionary is clueless. Among leaders in Missiology are those trained to the highest degree (many seminaries offer a PhD in Missiology), and the topics addressed in Miller’s article have been the ongoing topics of debate and discussion for decades among Evangelical missionary leaders.

For example, the very excellent book, When Helping Hurts: Alleviating the Poverty Without Hurting The Poor…And Ourselves is often used by short term mission leaders to train people regarding all of these issues. Many other popular level books within the evangelical world wrestle with the same issues from one degree to another. Ms. Miller doesn’t seem to be aware of this trend of training, or she just didn’t mention it in her article.

Her tone throughout the article has this sort of superiority edge to it. The sub-text is almost, “Why don’t you idiots see this? I guess I’ll help you get a clue because somebody has to do it!” Ms. Miller and others critical of short term missions must realize that many of us on the inside do indeed have a clue, and we are working very hard on the problems she has observed.

Uneducated buffoons can be found in every social group in the world, and Evangelical Christianity is not immune, but rest assured that this description is not true of the whole.

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.

Fair enough. But the word “offender” is a harsh label for people who are well-intentioned and desire to alleviate poverty and share the best news the world has ever known (the Gospel). But from Ms. Miller’s perspective, Evangelical short term missionaries are offenders.

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.

Also, fair enough for purposes of discussion. I am very familiar with Central and South American numbers since my church’s main focus is in Peru.

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.

Here, I basically concede and agree. Hundreds and maybe thousands of mission trips have been wasted because of poor planning, poor construction, and/or not considering the cultural mindset of the people.

Jonathan Edwards’ classic treatise
Updated for today’s readers
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I would add, however, that when a problem like this is observed, the bathwater alone should be tossed, not the baby along with it. In other words, I get the sense that Ms. Miller would greatly prefer all short term missions work to cease altogether. I disagree. I think we should solve the problems and keep the trips.

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.

Ms. Miller is semi-correct in her assessment of the two reasons Evangelical Christians do short term missions work. But really, there is just one reason: Share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with lost people so that they will enter into a saving relationship with the Savior and consciously glorify him for all of eternity. All biblical missions has this as a central goal. The humanitarian aspect of short-term missions is sometimes a penultimate goal that we hope will lead to the primary goal.

Why hide my cards? This is what we are all about. We actually believe people are lost and are in danger of eternally facing the wrath of a holy God. Some of the world’s most brilliant people have believed exactly the same thing, and no true Christian is ashamed of it. I’ll not cover up our goals to anybody. We want to see every person in the world find forgiveness for their sins and enjoy eternal life through Christ.

Now, I am aware that people on the moderate and liberal side of Christianity would disagree with me here. They would say that all Christian mission work is about reaching humanitarian goals, and that the Gospel is not a way of salvation for one’s soul, but a way of loving others in order to make the world a better place.

But if that is all a mission team is doing, then it is an unbiblical approach to missions (see for example the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20). Christ calls his people to be witnesses of his death, burial, and resurrection and to call people to repentance and faith.

Of course, I don’t expect Ms. Miller to fully grasp this, primarily because it is an in-house issue. In other words, you have to be one of us to understand what we believe and why it is so important to us. But for the record, all conservative, orthodox Christians agree that mission work is primarily about evangelism and only secondarily about offering humanitarian aid.

Neither do I think Ms. Miller could be persuaded that the Gospel of Christ is what drives us into missionary work. From her current worldview (from what I can deduce from her article), I can see why we evangelicals look uneducated and thick-headed. But this doesn’t surprise me. Both our Lord Jesus and the Apostle Paul made clear that preaching the Gospel looks foolish and stupid in the eyes of the world (1 John 3:13; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25). But I do think it would help her to understand our drive if she could see that we actually, deeply believe these things.

Understanding this also explains why we send missionaries to places that have such a high percentage of “Christian” population. The reason is because we do not believe the majority of these people are genuine Christians. Most Latin American and South American nations are majority Catholic. Catholicism at its best can be evangelical, and many Catholics are, I believe, genuine Christians, having accepted the Gospel and rejected works as meritorious before the Lord. But this is not true of the majority in Central and South America. In fact, the type of Catholicism often practiced, especially in more rural regions, is a version of Christian doctrine and practice that has been grossly mixed with all sorts of superstitions and pagan beliefs.

The systems of belief I have personally seen in Peru within many Catholic circles is anything but Christian, and yet it is statistically calculated as such. We are not arrogantly “ignoring” the numbers, but rather disagreeing with them.

As Evangelicals, we are not looking to hang the label “Christian” on people, but rather we are looking to lead people into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, whereby they denounce their works as sufficient grounds for justification, and trust completely in Christ to save them.

Ephesians 2:8-10 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

If a person shows they do not believe or understand what these verses are saying, we do not accept that they have entered a saving relationship with Jesus, even if they attend a statistically “Christian” church.

Ms. Miller asked if anyone else is getting the joke, but Ms. Miller has made a joke of logic here by committing a hasty generalization that confuses rather than clarifies. Of course, I don’t expect her to believe that the Gospel is true, but I simply ask her to understand how we who do believe the Gospel is true must be focused on helping people see Jesus and his saving grace clearly, not simply leading them to wear the label “Christian.”

Next issue.

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.

Service projects are the primary focus of many (but most certainly not all) trips, and very often they are carried out poorly. I concede. But I would say a couple of things.

First, service projects are usually meant to love people in order to gain a hearing to share the Gospel (the ideological hand). Too few mission teams make this transition, and simply focus on the project, but the transition should be made every time.

Second, I have studied many mission agencies who carry out service projects according to very high standards, keeping the complex local problems very much in mind during planning, execution, and follow-up. I know some don’t, but many do. I would hope Ms. Miller would commend the ones that do.

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.

Here, I agree with several points Ms. Miller makes. But the straw man caricature she has created, though accurate far too many times, does not represent all short term mission trips by a long stretch.

I’ve seen many of the groups that she describes, and yes, they frequently cause more damage than anything to a local community. Plus, they look really weird in airports, because for some reason they always go with some kind of bright neon T-shirt.

I’ll just say this: Any trip that looks like the one Ms. Miller pictures does indeed need to stop.

There are times when construction trips are done well and in tandem with a local economy, etc., but many times, Ms. Miller’s description is sadly accurate. (Even though the statement, “95% of the population here is Christian” is a hasty generalization as already discussed).

But the solution to this dilemma is not to stop all short term mission trips, but to refocus them.

For example, the number of people on a team should purposefully be kept to a minimum in order to save money. Our teams that travel to Arequipa, Peru each year are usually in the range of 8-11 members, and all of them are adults. We realize that taking younglings will lead to a massive waste of cash for our church and for our friends in Peru.

When it comes to building projects, I strongly caution against them. They can very quickly look like the one Ms. Miller describes. In fact, they should only occur if strong and wise leadership is in place to make sure the project is actually helping and not hurting.

In Peru, we don’t build. We are not “uneducated” about the damage it can cause. Instead, we have sought a better approach, which I will describe later. To be clear, we don’t build, but we do help them build, by carefully funding a trusted partner (in our case, a sister church who is planting / constructing another church in a remote area). We support instead of build because we know their people need the construction jobs, and the money invested will help local economies much better than whatever poorly constructed buildings we could throw together in a week.

But here is a critical point: One major reason we support them financially is because we go and visit. It is our annual trip that keeps the relational connection alive, so that our congregation is actually motivated to provide the funding for friends that we actually know. If we did not go and see for ourselves what is happening, the strong desire to help would quickly disappear. So the money we spend to make the trip is very much worth it from the overall perspective.

Ms. Miller seems to be a traveler. I might challenge her like this: Save the money you spend on traveling and just look at pictures online of the places you want to see. She would probably say, “Pictures are not the same as being there.” Indeed, they are not. We go to connect with a people and a place, and then we come alongside them in facing their challenges in ministry.

My point here is simply this: Ms. Miller is right about the damage that well-meaning groups can cause. And she is right that many groups look similar to the one she described. But she is wrong if she thinks all short term mission teams look like that. There is a healthy trend towards more effective short term mission work.

Well, that’s it for part 1. In part 2, we will dig deeper into the financial issues involved in short-term trips.

In Defense of Short Term Mission Trips Part 2

7 thoughts on “In Defense of Short Term Mission Trips Part 1

  1. Your comments are very much on target with what I was thinking about when I read the article. Our church has also had a continuing ministry in a number of countries, equipping and building the local church and people to be able to carry on the true work of spreading the Gospel and providing the needs for the community. What they lack is finances (which we can help), training (we also provide this) and support (how many of the local missionaries, churches and missions get discouraged as they try to bring the Gospel to their neighbors?). Our missions pastor recently resigned his position at our church to be able to bring the vision of good missions to other churches and it’s been really amazing to see how much he has been able to do in such a short time! Yes, going in with our American ideology of what people need is wrong but to stop our physical support is wrong too.

  2. Thanks so much for writing this and for taking the time to carefully respond. Dialogue is exactly what I was hoping to spark. Out of dialogue comes growth. I’m sorry you found my tone harsh, that was not may intent. However, having lived in and among the communities who have suffered some of the abuses, it’s a bit hard to speak as if that isn’t terribly offensive.

    I appreciate your willingness to agree with me on some points. I have not ever, and did not in the article, suggest that all missions trips should stop. Nor did I discount the need for “being there” and for the value of relationships formed by the traveling. In fact, later in the article I suggested ways to achieve that without the collateral damage.

    I do look forward to reading all four parts of your rebuttal and I appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedule to write it. The only clarification that I would like to make is on your assumption that I cannot see this issue from the inside. I was raised in an evangelical Christian church, a conservative one. I for many years (35 or so) identified as a conservative Christian and a Christ follower. I have moved away from faith in the traditional Christian sense as my thought process has evolved and as my experiences have challenged what I once believed. I did not leave the church out of anger or some wounding by the church and I hold no animosity in that sense. I very much understand the missional viewpoint and the Great Commission. I understand what the inside of conservative evangelical thought process looks like. I was there, for most of my life.

    You note that I am a traveler. That is true. We’ve been traveling for the past seven years with our children, for the purpose of their educations. If you’d like to know more about my family and what makes us tick, I invite you to get to know us through our website:

    Do feel free to friend me on Facebook or to email me the links to the remaining parts of your rebuttal as you prepare them. I’m interested to read along.

  3. P.S. I also shared this on my FB feed and will continue to share your rebuttals, in the interest of giving people the opportunity to read both sides of an issue. 🙂

  4. This is an excellent response to this article. My husband and I met in graduate school at Columbia International University. Missions has been a major aspect of our lives. As fellow Evangelicals, we agree that the gospel must be proclaimed. The foundation to this discussion must begin with an understanding of what a Christian is and does according to the Scriptures. Thank you for doing so.

    Jennifer is a friend of mine and I respect her very much. She did an excellent job bringing to light some of the weaknesses in some youth mission trips. We agree that her concerns should not be ignored. We strongly support her suggestion that Christian mission groups should work with locals and support the local ecconomy where possible. She has clearly had some negative experiences at the hands of some evangelicals in missions who owe her an apology.

    I look forward to the next part of your article.

  5. Jenn,
    I am so pleased you responded. Mostly, on these sorts of exchanges, that doesn’t happen. It is nice to “meet” you.

    I very much appreciate your openness about your history with the church. That history certainly changes the way I read your article. I also appreciate your clarification regarding whether you would desire all mission trips to stop. In fact, if your goal is not to see a full stop to short term missions, then it almost seems irrelevant to keep responding (but I will, since I’m already working on the next posts).

    As far as the harsh tone, it does seem harsh, but I can also tell you don’t mean it that way. Instead, it just seems you are passionate about this issue, something I respect.

    As far as agreeing with you on some points, I really do, and based on some responses I’ve seen to our little discussion on FB, others do as well. There are real problems that must be addressed in an ongoing way by churches, mission boards and agencies, etc. Part of the reason your article is provocative (should I use that word?) is because many of us know you are right about certain observations. Being corrected for errors is a good thing in any case, and those of us who remain Evangelicals should humble except the correction. Much much more work needs to be done to educate, train, and practice the methods that work and stop those that don’t.

    Thank you again for kind comments, and I look forward to checking out your website, etc.

  6. Jason,
    I too appreciate your tackling a response to the article by Jenn Miller, providing food for thought that adds to the discussion. However, I do find one point in your response here troubling; your division of physical and spiritual needs, and treating the one as simply a precursor to the other. You mention those that would prefer humanitarian aid with a compromised view of the power of the Gospel in spiritual transformation, which is certainly the case with many liberal congregations. But I would challenge you to consider the wholistic implications of the Gospel of the Kingdom as proclaimed and demonstrated by Jesus. When you describe the great commission in your post, you state “Christ calls his people to be witnesses of his death, burial, and resurrection and to call people to repentance and faith.” While this is certainly true (as evidenced by the way the apostle Paul describes a concise presentation of these realities in 1 Corinthians 15), that is not what Jesus emphasized in his words recorded in Matthew 28. “Make disciples, teaching them to obey everything I commanded” is far more comprehensive than the absolutely necessary information in 1 Corinthians 15. Obeying Jesus as a spiritually regenerated person, is the recipe for human flourishing on planet earth, both spiritually and physically. The Gospel of the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed (with redemption being the vital starting point – John 3), leads to shalom in all spheres and sectors of life. The poverty and corruption we see in Latin America may have been greatly diminished by now had Evangelical missionaries done a better job teaching people how the Gospel impacts all of life, and not just their spiritual lives. In neglecting that responsibility, the syncretism that you mentioned has also proliferated. Many people have simply added Jesus to a false worldview and treated him like their lucky rabbit’s foot. As E. Stanley Jones, missionary to India said; “a spiritual gospel without a social gospel is a soul without a body. A social gospel without a spiritual gospel is a body without a soul. One is a ghost and the other is a corpse.” For more on this topic, please read Ralph Winter’s paper on Kingdom mission and church mission here;

    1. Mike, Thank you for that very important point of clarification. I agree very strongly with you, and wish that I had explained these points out further than I did in my response to Jenn’s article.

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