by Jim Spickelmier
It’s time to re-evaluate summer missions.
It’s time to re-evaluate summer missions. Though I have for eight years enthusiastically helped to swell the tide of eager young Americans going out on summer mission projects, I am beginning to have some serious questions about it. Here’s why.
Summer missionaries are taking valuable time from our career missionaries. Most of them are novices. Field missionaries must orient them to the country, transport them between assignments, deal with their homesickness and culture shock, feed them, and entertain them. Career missionaries, trained to work with non-Americans, are spending hundreds of hours of valuable mission time caring for American young people.
Summer mission projects are too short to be effective. Some projects last for only four weeks; most last no longer than eight to ten weeks. That is barely long enough to get over initial culture shock. It is not long enough to get a realistic picture of what it means to minister in a foreign culture. It is certainly not long enough to make a substantive contribution to their host country.
Summer missionaries are woefully unprepared for their task. Most of them cannot speak the language of the people with whom they will work. Many have never had a crosscultural exposure before. They are high in zeal and low in expertise.
Summer missionaries are very costly. I helped 25 college students to go out on one project. Their total bill exceeded $30,000. That’s a whole lot of money to spend, unless the result makes a distinctive contribution to the work of missions.
Our students were approached by a mission agency that wanted to send 12 of them to Haiti to build churches during Spring break. The travel expenses alone would have cost $7,000. They would have arrived on Saturday, been bewildered on Sunday, and worked Monday through Friday for perhaps ten hours a day, at a questionable level of efficiency, since none of them had any construction experience. The mission would have received 50 hours of work per person at a cost of over $12 an hour, when Haitian workers can be hired for a fraction of that cost.
Mission agencies often don’t have to worry about cost efficiency and fiscal responsibility in these ventures because the students raise their own support. Whatever work the mission receives, at any cost, is a contribution they probably wouldn’t have received in any other way, and it builds a link for them with potential future contributors. It is probably good public relations for the mission agency, even if it is an inefficient use of mission dollars.
Churches and mission agencies have been overlooking these obvious problems with summer mission projects because there have been a number of benefits. Among them:
Though six weeks is an inadequate exposure to cross-cultural missions, it is better than no exposure at all. Most American Christians have a very limited view of the world-wide task of missions. At least a summer stint opens the eyes of a few to a better understanding of what life is like for 90 percent of humanity, and of what the church is doing about it.
Though summer missionaries can’t do much, there are some jobs for which they are uniquely suited. In Japan, for example, there is a tremendous fascination with American young people and a strong desire on the part of the Japanese to learn fluent English. I don’t know of a more effective person to do evangelism through the teaching of conversational English than a young American collegian.
Though summer missionaries probably don’t change many lives in their host countries, their own lives are being changed, A summer in cross-cultural missions work is, almost without exception, a profound educational experience. Short-termers come back with a changed view of the world, with a new appreciation of both their own and other cultures, with a more mature view of the church and the work of missions, and often with a deeper commitment to Christ. One pastor I know believes in sending every young person he can overseas, if for no other reason than to help them straighten out their own values.
It is the best recruiting device we have for career missionary service. Quite a high percentage of those who do short-term mission work eventually return for career missions work. The percentages no doubt are better for those on one- and two-year programs than for those with only six weeks. Nevertheless, the need to interest a new generation in missionary careers is a powerful argument in favor of the popular summer programs.
The important question for churches and mission agencies, and also for the friends and relatives who support these ventures, should be: Is there any way we could realize the benefits of summer mission projects while avoiding the drawbacks? We begin by demanding a few common sense guidelines for all summer projects.
We should demand fiscal responsibility. This could take a variety of forms, but might include a published cost-benefit analysis on every program. The sponsor should justify the project and help to raise the cost of transportation.
We should, refuse to send young people overseas to do jobs they would not be qualified to do here in the States. If you wouldn’t let your teenager paint and paper your bathroom, you shouldn’t spend $1,500 to send him to another country to paint and paper.
We should require some U.S. cross-cultural experience and experience in ministry. We should not send a young person to South America to teach Bible stories who has had no experience in teaching Bible stories in his own culture. We should not send a young person to an overseas culture who has never attempted to relate to people of other cultures who live in the United States.
We should only send summer missionaries to agencies that are specifically organized to deal with novices. The average American missionary can’t begin to anticipate the problems associated with being responsible for a novice, nor does that missionary have the time to deal with those problems. Our missionaries should be free to concentrate on the job they were sent to do.
We should build a strong teaching emphasis into all summer programs. We are dealing with young people who need to be assisted in understanding and appreciating their experience and incorporating it into a proper perspective on missions. We will not train a new generation of missionaries well, if we do not help students to think through the nature of the mission task and its relationship to a rapidly changing world.
We should find some other way to finance these projects so that only the very best candidates get the opportunity to go. The present system which places all, or almost all, of the financial responsibility on the young person, means that only those who can raise the money get to go. Otherwise qualified kids are left at home, while some who should not go are able to do so just because they have raised the money.
We should relate the cost of a project to the length of service. Some students currently spend three months in Mexico for less than $1,000, while others go to Japan for four weeks at a cost of $2,500. We may still want to send them to both Mexico and Japan, but it seems only reasonable to require a longer term of service for projects that require a great deal of expensive travel.
I am still very much in favor of summer mission projects, but in their present form there is too much room for waste and inefficiency. We should invest our mission dollars and our young people only in the longest-term, most cost-effective, well-organized, biblically-grounded programs. Sloppy, ill-conceived, and even counter-productive programs will continue as long as some church or individual can be enticed into supporting them. Responsible Christian stewardship demands that we only invest in the very best summer projects.
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