Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience

by Brian M. Howell

IVP Academic, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL, 60515, pp. 236, 2012,  $20.00.

Reviewed by Sarita D. Gallagher, assistant professor of religion at George Fox University.

In recent years, short-term mission (STM) has been a topic that has simultaneously drawn sharp criticism and devoted praise. In Short-Term Mission, Brian M. Howell steps back from the escalating debate and approaches the subject from an entirely fresh angle, anthropology. As a social scientist, he explores the common narratives that have long surrounded the STM experience. Noting “how regularized the language used to describe these experiences has become,” Howell “began to ask [himself]…how the narratives of STM had come to take up such a predictable and seemingly powerful form in contemporary Christianity” (p. 19). With this desire to examine the dynamics and contours of the Christian travel narrative, Howell presents an insightful exploration of the personal and shared motivations, expectations, goals, and potential future of the STM experience.  

The text is divided into four sections: Introducing Narratives, The History of a Narrative, Traveling Narratives, and The Future of the Narrative. In Part One, “short-term mission” is defined and discussed in light of the overlapping concepts of pilgrimage and tourism. Part Two focuses on the historical development of STM as it expands beyond its agency-based origin to an increasingly church-based and youth-focused enterprise. Part Three introduces the primary ethnographic study, a Central Wheaton Church STM trip. The chapters within this section document the repeated influence of the STM meta-narrative as participants prepare, experience, and re-narrate their STM trip. In the final section, The Future of the Narrative, the potential missiological and theological implications of the author’s research is presented.

Through this ethnographic study, Howell succeeds in identifying the considerable role of the shared STM meta-narrative in shaping participants’ expectations, goals, and experiences while abroad. While this alone is noteworthy, the implications of Howell’s research provide the text’s greatest contribution to missiology. By identifying STM as a cultural practice, the author changes the way in which STM trips are perceived and understood. Howell further suggests that while the thinking and language associated with STM is important, “to imagine STM as a different sort of cultural process…we must imagine structural and institutional change” (p. 198).  The author thus concludes that it is only through cultural change that reform can take place “in light of the larger economic, institutional and cultural context of [one’s] travel narrative” (p. 198).

Well-researched, engaging, and insightful, Short-Term Mission is an essential resource for STM leaders and participants alike. Filled with thought-provoking case studies and narratives, the conclusions of Howell’s research have the potential to significantly redirect the conversation surrounding STM. As such, this text is ideal for church leaders and members, scholars and students, and others interested in the development, impact, and future of STM.

Check these titles:
Aeschliman, Gordon. 1992. Short-Term Mission Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide for Participants and Leaders. Evanston, Ill.: Berry Publishing Services.

Livermore, David. 2006. Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.


EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 4, pp. 508-509. Copyright  © 2013 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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