by Richard Slimbach
Each year tens of thousands of women and men from North America participate in short-term mission trips sponsored by local churches, mission organizations, and Christian colleges.1 This short-term avalanche takes myriad forms, from weekend “urban plunges,” to weeklong forays into Mexico or Haiti, to summer excursions further abroad to distribute literature, teach English, or go “prayer walking.” Each offers a means of capturing and channeling the desire among youth and young adults for new challenge and authentic experience.
The projects are situated culturally and theologically within the great missionary movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries, a period in which so-called “faith missions”mobilized eager young people with a crusading spirit fueled by duty, compassion, confidence, and optimism. An urgent appeal was made by missionary societies for Christians to sacrifice themselves without reservation to save lost millions in distant lands before Judgment Day.
From modern to postmodern times.
Many missionaries within this modern era assumed that the reshaping of the world that would follow the conversion of peoples would be in the image of the West. It was believed that every nation was enroute to a one-world culture—an essentially Western culture—and that missionaries were to be its conscious propagandists. It wasn’t necessary to consult the perceptions and opinions of the host peoples. The gospel that made Western nations strong and great would do the same for them. No doubt this missionary movement spread better methods of agriculture, established countless schools, provided medical care to millions, elevated the status of women, and trained a significant segment of the leadership of the newly independent nations. But missiologist David Bosch points to a central problem:
The advocates of mission were blind to their own ethnocentrism. They confused their middle-class ideals and values with the tenets of Christianity. Their views about morality, respectability, order, efficiency, individualism, professionalism, work, and technological progress, having been baptized long before, were without compunction exported to the ends of the earth. They were, therefore, predisposed not to appreciate the cultures of the people to whom they went—the unity of living and learning; the interdependence between individual, community, culture, and industry; the profundity of folk wisdom; the proprieties of traditional societies—all these were swept aside by a mentality shaped by the Enlightenment which tended to turn people into objects, reshaping the entire world into the image of the West, separating humans from nature and from one another, and “developing” them according to Western standards and suppositions.2
Because Western missionaries were unaware of the pagan flaws in their own culture, the gospel they took to distant lands carried a benevolent paternalism that was unprepared to recognize, appreciate, and build upon the resources of foreign cultures. As we enter the 21st century, many of these same attitudes and practices continue to be perpetuated through short-term mission events. The added twist today is that short terms have increasingly taken on the character of a standardized religious service offered to a new generation of consumers anxious to find meaning in a borderless world. In the process, nearby peoples and places are often treated with contempt. The missioners’ immediate surroundings—and Western life generally—are perceived as dull, shallow, and uninteresting. Authentic experience is thought to lie elsewhere, in purer, simpler, and more exotic cultures. This thirst for cultural authenticity combines with a surplus of leisure time and discretionary income to induce moderns to become tourists.
Today, though “career”-type missions appear to be on the decline, short terms are attracting unprecedented interest and consuming more and more of the church’s mission resources.3 A growing number of long established Western mission societies are reinventing themselves as placement agencies for short-term workers. In part, this shift reflects a crisis of organizational identity brought on by using old ways of thinking to navigate new global realities. The stopgap assignments these agencies offer keep alive the illusion of still being in business but can actually feed the existential alienation many youth feel in an increasingly McDonaldized society.4 This is particularly onerous in highly managed and engineered Christian organizations.
The corporate style, the prepackaged events and programs, and the fake friendliness confirm the suspicion that the church or mission agency is really not that different from any for-profit organization. At a deeper level, it suggests to many that we have secretly lost faith in the power of the gospel in an uncertain and complex world. “Short terms” become a last-ditch effort to affirm a meaningful, living spirituality and to prop up a chastened confidence in “objective truth” and the superiority of Western culture.
Students who have enjoyed short-term experiences while in middle or high school often enter Christian colleges looking for similar opportunities to serve God and others. In response, these colleges eagerly provide a wide variety of outreach activities. Not only do these activities successfully recruit new students; they also aim to nurture a “world Christian” mindset among missioners while seeking to do some tangible good within culturally different peoples and places. My own church in Los Angeles and workplace (Azusa Pacific University) provide student volunteers to tutor kids, dispense medicines, feed the hungry, and proclaim the gospel to prisoners.
As sincere expressions of love, these efforts cannot be dismissed as “mere charity”; they are natural ways for Christians to begin working to relieve suffering. They get students out of the “bubble,” harness their spiritual ideals, and offer them first-hand experience and immediate rewards.
Especially for students who have been raised in environments sheltered from those “outside,” short-term mission trips help them to break out of apathy and commit to caring for those of profoundly different life circumstances.5
IS EAGERNESS ENOUGH?
But there can also be a shadow side. Standard models of short-term outreach tend to operate independent of careful consideration of the nature of the social transactions set up between missioners, their hosts, and the organizations and societies they represent. In nearly 30 years of evangelical involvement, I’ve rarely heard any serious reflection on the ways in which short-term mission activities—or any mission activities, for that matter—might actually do more harm than good.
What might be some of these less than desirable consequences? Consider the following “worst-case scenario”: A youth leader or missions director of a suburban church or Christian college announces a missions trip to the Philippines. In the weeks that follow, 20 young adults (none of them Filipino) are recruited for two weeks of street witnessing and orphanage ministry. It doesn’t seem to matter that no one on the team has any proficiency in Tagalog or familiarity with the contentious history of U.S.-Philippines relations. Neither can any point to a close friendship with a Filipino immigrant back home.
After a couple of team meetings to review travel itinerary and behavioral expectations, the group takes off. They clump together at a local YMCA and are immediately identified with the tourist population. Their host is a local Christian leader who is also a “culture broker”—one who has learned through practice how to accommodate the needs and wishes of short-termers and their sponsoring organizations.6 These needs include meaningful tasks and basic Western amenities like flush toilets, fresh coffee, and directions to the nearest Pizza Hut.
The host-missioner relationship is mainly instrumental and impersonal, rarely colored by emotional ties. Likewise, the behavior of missioners and locals is almost always on stage. Both have prepared for their performances backstage: The missioners have read their orientation materials, consulted with previous sojourners, packaged their personal testimonies, and perhaps ransacked a Lonely Planet guide or phrase book; locals have consulted with fellow performers, assessed the commercial or political benefits of associating with these “outsiders,” and, of course, rehearsed a friendly smile. Caught in a staged “tourist space,” the encounters between these parties will be marked by disparities of power and levels of stereotyping that would not exist among neighbors or peers. Each party knows that the transactions will most likely be temporary and not repeated. This frees each from the constraints of a mutual, long-term relationship in order to act in terms of their own self-interest.
During the two weeks of outreach, the foreign land fulfills its purpose as a valuable “market” for promoting short-term services. For the 20 missioners, the ministry experiences have confirmed the sense that they are the ones who are good, healthy, and strong, and the ones being helped are weak, sick, and deficient. They leave the community with a reinforced—rather than challenged—sense of assumed rightness and good fortune, and replicate the unconscious superiority that plagued Western mission in a previous era.
Returning home, they will typically speak and write of what they did to or for the locals, but not with them. John McKnight has referred to this service/mission outcome as “disabling help” and Paulo Freire as “malevolent generosity.” These labels attempt to describe the well-intentioned and often altruistic efforts to “do good” that backfire. Instead of “citizen” autonomy, they end up producing “client” dependency.
AN UNBRIDGEABLE GAP?
This worst-case mission practice emerges predictably out of the life conditioning of participants. By and large, Euro-American short-termers continue to grow up in suburban communities insulated from both poverty and people of color. The result is chronic miseducation—a series of culturally encapsulating neighborhood, church, and school experiences that reinforce stereotypes, minimize differences, foster dichotomous (right/wrong, good/bad) thinking, fear the unknown or different, and safeguard group privilege. Short-term ventures conducted out of these psychosocial “worlds” have a vast social and cultural gap to bridge, especially as they respond to the challenge to “reach the unreached.” These “unreached” strangers, whether across the street or across the seas, are as different from their North American benefactors as can be imagined.
The majority of those occupying the least-evangelized world are characteristically poor, nonwhite, non-English-speaking women and men who live marginalized lives within multiethnic urban centers and hold collectivist cultural values and oftentimes nativist political views. Their Western counterparts, by contrast, are typically affluent, white, monolingual (in English) persons raised in homogeneous suburban communities with individualist cultural values and conservative (if not reactionary) political views. Just how will such a gap even begin to be bridged during even a two-year mission venture? And if we can’t hope to bridge it, how will short-term workers hope to genuinely encounter the host people in something other than a paternal and intrusive mode?
SHORT TERMS IN WHOSE SERVICE?
No doubt short-termers can work on very personal agendas and often have “life-changing” experiences. But too often such experiences elude any significant reflection on the deeper assumptions and attitudes that structure one’s view of God, of oneself, and of host strangers. Under certain conditions, what is touted as a “mission” becomes little more than Christian tourism, “vacations with a purpose,” or worse. But even when participants return from a short-term experience claiming to have had “the time of their lives,” we must ask ourselves whether that is indeed the goal. While we may cite the example of Jesus as the basis for our short-term projects, his sending was expressly not about providing the messengers an unforgettable experience. His goal was to effectively represent and promote a new sociocultural reality—the kingdom of God—within local communities. It wasn’t primarily about the goers; it was about the receivers. Jesus took great care to ensure that his disciples’ going would express the compassion, empathy, humility, and truth of God, and that their service would not do a disservice to host community members. The authority behind their mission activity was not an a priori given (“Jesus sent us”); it had to be established by the quality of its performance and by its effects. The proof of the pudding would be in the eating.
MORE HARM THAN GOOD?
This brings us to the clear and direct moral imperative found in the Hippocratic Oath: “. . . first, do no harm.” Pledged by those in the medical (and other) professions worldwide, this principle calls for interventionists of all kinds to take responsibility for the unintended consequences of their attitudes and actions. Jesus’ endorsement of such an evangelistic ethic or “standard of care” can be seen in the nature of his training and sending. He prepared his followers to confront their myths and stereotypes, to take the local culture seriously, to adopt “insider” roles in the community, to learn and adapt to its styles of life, to serve in interdependence with host members, and to share the Jesus story in culturally relevant ways. In their efforts to do some good and realize some personal benefit, they would be careful to safeguard the virtues of good doctoring, teaching, or evangelizing: benevolence, truthfulness, respect, friendliness, justice, and reverence.
Let me now suggest a number of conditions or circumstances under which short-term mission interventions run the risk of doing more harm than good—whether to the host community, to the missioners, or to supporting congregations and organizations. Two qualifications bear mentioning. First, I am intentionally framing the discussion in negative terms. The aim is to unsettle some popular ways of thinking about short-term missions, believing that the “old” has to be unlearned before the “new” can be learned. I am not arguing against short-term missions per se, much less against a clear witness to Jesus Christ. Rather, my concern is how we conduct such activities. Second, an entire article might be devoted to elaborating each condition and illustrating ways in which harm might be wrought by it. We’ll have to content ourselves with briefly delineating the issues, trusting that they will stimulate further formal discussion about how to enhance the short-term witness of Christian bodies in the years ahead. Short-term mission trips run the risk of doing more harm than good . . .
Size of group. When the size of the mission team is such that it is forced to set up a separate and self-sustaining social structure that exists as a foreign enclave within the local community.
Length of term. When the length of term (weekend to two years) allows the missioner to acquire only a superficial and usually a stereotypical view of community culture (rules of hospitality, local hierarchies, patterns of family life, etc.).
Participant background. When missioners come from monocultural neighborhoods, churches, and schools that limit intercultural contact and conflict resolution, multicultural habit development, and foreign language learning.
Sociocultural distance. When missioners are sent to peoples who are radically different from them in terms of language, cultural patterns, social class, and religion/ideology, and whose perception of the missioner is colored by negative prior contacts with others from the same racial or national group.
Primary motivation. When missioners are more attracted to the promised thrill of travel and adventure than by the opportunity to learn from and commit to host community members.
View of the world. When mission-ers see the world in dualistic terms (the “spiritual” realm separate and distinct from the “temporal/social” realm), with evangelism belonging to the realm of the spiritual and the eternal and social action belonging to the realm of the temporal and the material.
View of sin. When missioners view sin as exclusively personal (separation from God) and not also social (affecting the material world of economics, politics, and culture, as well as the church).
View of conversion. When mission-ers see Christian witness as restoring people’s relationship with God (“soul winning”) apart from promoting God’s vision of a transformed creation in all relationships—spiritual, economic, political, social, and ecological (whole life discipleship).
View of “mission field.” When missioners and their organizers view the “mission field” as a geographically distant (“over there”) field to be worked or as a harvest to be reaped rather than as a faith distant (“here” and “over there”) site of personal discovery and intercultural learning.
Predeparture preparation. When the missioners’ prefield preparation is limited to a discussion of program logistics (obtaining passports, raising support, etc.) and teaching techniques (in order to bring God by performing skits, giving testimonials, etc.) rather than learning the local language and culture (in order to find God at work and present in other forms).
Field residence. When missioners separate and isolate themselves in expatriate enclaves rather than integrate themselves into the homes and indigenous organizations of community members to identify with them.
Attitude toward host culture. When missioners carry an ethnocentric (“Our way is the best way”) and crusading spirit rather than an attitude of genuine humility (“Their ways are no better or worse than our ways”) and cultural appreciation.
Self-understanding. When missioners see themselves as beneficent parents bestowing tokens of wisdom or service on waiting offspring rather than as part of a group of schoolchildren, discovering the world together through each other.7
Roles within the host culture. When missioners assume the roles of teacher and server (what they do to and for host culture members) rather than as student and friend (what they learn from and share with host culture members).
Initiative and control. When the missioners (and their sending agencies) determine what the problems of the host community are, select the solutions for these problems, and undertake projects to address those issues, without consultation and collaboration with members.
Nature of interaction. When the missioner interaction with locals is characterized by encounters that are transitory, nonrepetitive, and unequal in power, with the missioners oriented to achieving immediate goal gratification rather than maintaining a continuous trust relationship.8
Nature of witness. When the missioners’ declaration of the gospel (“go and tell”) is divorced from the demonstration of the gospel (“come and see”). One gives answers to questions that aren’t being asked; the other responds to questions being prompted by the missioners’ lives and deeds.
Criteria of “success.” When a “successful” trip means that participants are kept feeling happy, useful, and “in control” rather than helping them examine their motives and values, investigate difficult questions related to local problems, and form honest friendships.9
REINVENTING SHORT TERMS
If these are some of the conditions under which short terms might go awry, how might they be corrected, even reinvented, for today? Bosch employed the concept of the paradigm shift to signify the collapse of certain assumptions and values that guided missionary practice in an earlier era, and the dawning of new ways of thinking about the character and aims of Christian mission within the postmodern age. He noted, “The harsh realities of today compel us to reconceive and reformulate the church’s mission, to do this boldly and imaginatively, yet also in continuity of the best of what mission has been in the past decades and centuries.” 10 What might be included in such a bold, imaginative revision-ing of short-term mission for our time and context? Here are five key practices:
1. Get the story right. Many of the problems associated with short terms are traceable to weak or faulty theological foundations. Too many youth leaders impassioned for the mission of the kingdom unwittingly undermine that mission by reducing it to saving disembodied souls. This inadvertently leads missioners to view the gospel as only concerned with the individual and spiritual aspects of faith, rather than seeing Christ’s lordship extending over the whole of creation—from individuals and families to community institutions and local ecosystems. In fact, if God is not involved now, in the whole of ecosocial space, he is not in human life, which is lived in this space. How the story is conceived and transmitted by leaders powerfully shapes the character of the short-term mission. They must help missioners to reflect on their understanding of God’s redemption plan, and how the gospel relates to the world.11 Lacking this kind of age-appropriate envisioning of God’s reign, short-term activities are likely to operate “a mile wide and an inch deep.”
Perhaps before leaving on their short-terms, missioners could begin to wrestle with the question of what their own community might look like if fully reconciled to Christ, to each other across the deepest differences, and to God’s good earth through the work of the church.
2. Understand the times. A fresh comprehension of God’s ultimate purposes in creation must be accompanied by a clearer understanding of the emerging world system affecting the earth’s peoples. Short-term missions must represent God’s reign within a global context in which the getting, having, and spending of a single commodity—money—has become the defining value of both nations and individuals. The fashionable term to describe what is happening is globalization—the reorganization of world society in which imperial corporations enabled by modern technologies, trade agreements, and massed capital are able to pursue the maximization of profit with little regard to the social and environmental consequences. The result is that a vast stretch of the least-evangelized world is being pressured to abandon its land, languages, and livelihoods for a monoculture essentially made in the image of the United States.12 Under these conditions, will short terms be perceived as just one more of the many colonizing systems exported from America to the rest of the world? How will Western short-termers engage these complex cultural realities? How will they learn to live and speak “good news” at those points where the gospel is in tension or outright conflict with the vision and values of the global economy?
3. Grow locally, go globally. The world can no longer be neatly divided into “Christian” and “non-Christian” lands. Mass migrations have brought peoples of all faiths to the great urban centers of the West. This new social reality not only reconfigures the “mission field” to include Los Angeles, Toronto, and Chicago; it challenges Christian organizations to reclaim the call to mission starting at their own Jerusalem. Seeking to be authentically missionary at their own doorstep, a number of training organizations now seek to prepare members of Generation X to encounter postmodern Western culture as perhaps the most challenging mission frontier of our time. They’ve discovered that many nearby metropolitan areas offer model milieus for helping culturally innocent short-termers to expand their base of life experience and overcome ethnocentrism. In extended relationship with members of these next-door nations, missioners confront the truly global issues of cultural marginality, urban poverty, substandard housing, school failure, and organized crime. They learn to genuinely love (rather than romanticize) the stranger. They also begin to confront the false dichotomies—between the material and the spiritual, between word and deed, between now and the future—that can compromise their witness to the world. In the process, they acquire multicultural understandings and ministry skills worthy of export. These are setting the pace for mission in the 21st century, and youth leaders do well to follow their lead. As they do, we can expect to see fewer and fewer high school or college-aged short-termers venturing forth from sequestered suburbs at home to exotic places abroad without first going through the center of the city.
4. Organize for learning. Most would agree that hit-and-run, cloak-and-dagger type missions often do great harm. But perhaps we haven’t gone far enough in rethinking new models of “missionary.” Given the ambivalent (love-hate) feelings of many peoples toward things American, short-termers in particular need to establish mutual relationships and communicate cultural respect. In most cases, they should be deployed as discoverers-learners first and teachers-servers second. Organizing for learning rather than for teaching means that we take a long view of short terms: We affirm that earnest and idealistic young people with limited life experience and intercultural ability can be developed into valuable resources in Christ’s church if they refuse to settle for simply being “tourists for Jesus” or unaffected “soul savers.” What’s required, however, is a fundamental shift in missioner disposition. Rather than relating to the host culture either as a hot adventure land or as a cold, dark place destined for ultimate destruction, missioners would aim at identifying the good, the true, and beautiful within the local culture as a means of broadening their comprehension of the kingdom of God.13 Going as learners, missioners will automatically do many things in a Christian way. They will go only at the invitation of host community members. Before departure, they will learn how to learn from the host community. When possible, they will live with local families and serve under local leaders. Their daily activities will balance language and culture learning, voluntary service, and biblical reflection.14
5. Develop a specialized mission force. Learning-oriented short terms can awaken mission consciousness and build up intercultural competence among missioners. Upon returning home, most will complete their degrees, find employment, marry, and perhaps acquire professional training. Christian organizations should regard such experienced, purposeful, and spiritually maturing young adults as the basic building blocks of short-term teams with specialized mission roles. Perhaps it will be to teach English in Beijing, hold conflict resolution workshops in Los Angeles, or provide emergency medical assistance in Istanbul. Rooted in a vision of God active everywhere in all spheres of life, and competent as learners in both local and global contexts, they will be poised to discern how the Spirit of God is leading them in witness.
Some might affiliate with a specialty agency in a given place; others will prefer to develop their own network to secure summer “tentmaking” contracts.15 I think of a colleague, bilingual and professionally prepared, who teaches ESL in downtown Los Angeles to Latino newcomers during the year, and then devotes her summers to helping Latin America church leaders launch evangelistic English language institutes. Seamlessly connecting the local to the global in her mission, she represents a new species of missionary—envisioned, with partners, bivocational, and self-supporting. May her tribe increase.
At the dawn of a new millennium, we find many Christian organizations uncertain of their mission and unable to muster the optimism and momentum of a previous period. They stand at the end of a long era, wondering what shape mission will take in the coming decades. Although the pace of change in the world today defies facile forecasts of the future, the goal of history is clear: “to reconcile all things to Christ, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Col.1:19) through the energized witness of the church (Eph. 3:10). The way forward will not be for us to declare a moratorium on short-term missions until its dysfunctional patterns are completely overcome. Nor will it be to align ourselves with the new “manifest destiny” of global Americanization. Instead, our call is to boldly imagine new wineskins for the new wine of God’s Spirit—mission structures dedicated to comprehending God’s vision of and for the world, to discern the changing frontiers of the gospel, to cultivate new depths of cultural sensitivity, to establish mutual and interdependent relationships in mission, and to persist in the complex process of individual and social transformation.
1. While “short term” typically denotes a limited length of time (two days to two years), many other elements capture the distinctive character of this mass phenomenon. These would include the frequency, purpose, and type of trip; its guiding mission philosophy; the motivation, field roles, and relationships of participants; and the nature of their witness.
2. David Bosch, Transforming Mission (Orbis, 1993), 294.
3. This trend in mission circles finds a parallel development within academic study abroad. Never before in U.S. history have so many young adults participated in short-term, international travel, study, and service programs.
4. Borrowing from Ritzer, McDonaldization indicates “the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world.” George Ritzer, The McDonaldization of Society: An Investigation Into the Changing Character of Contemporary Social Life (Pine Forge Press, 2000). Those principles in