by Jim Lo
I am concerned that short-term missions has gotten out of hand.
My brother-in-law, Andy, is a rancher. One day he asked me to help him corral his cattle. Enthusiastically, I agreed, honored that he was asking a “city slicker” to help him. My task was fairly simple. I was to stand at the gate and open and close it while Andy, riding his horse, herded stray cattle in my direction. There were already over 30 head of cattle in the corral. As Andy rode off, a penned up little calf moseyed over to me. He was so cute, I wanted to stroke his head. To do so, I needed to open the gate just a little. How could that hurt anything? Before I knew what was happening, however, all the other cattle began pushing their way out.
When Andy returned to the empty corral, the cattle were running in every direction. Looking at me, he shouted, “What have you done?”
I am concerned that short-term missions, like those cattle, has gotten out of hand. Years ago, I encouraged as many as I could to go on short-term mission trips. My hope was, “If they get to the mission field, they may feel the tug on their hearts to come back as career missionaries.” But in recent years, I have been asking myself, “What have we done?”
Allow me to share my concerns:
1. Lack of training: A common phrase I hear at the Christian university where I teach and in many of the churches where I speak is, “We are all missionaries.” Yes, Christians are to be mission-minded. They are to be concerned for the world and seek ways to spread God’s message of salvation to the lost. But using this statement to avoid training concerns me. I see too many Christians signing up for short-term mission trips without getting any training. Their attitudes are summed in the words of one student who told me: “I do not need to be trained to be a missionary since God has made me a missionary already.”
I have seen the damage caused by individuals who go on short-term mission trips without training in cross-cultural sensitivity. Some have made rude remarks about the nationals. One exclaimed when food was placed before her, “Yuck. This food looks horrible.”
Another student, upon being served squid, began playing with the “bouncy” seafood, making fun of it in the presence of those who had spent hours preparing it for the team.
Church leaders need to provide cross-cultural training for those planning to go on short-term mission trips. Minimally, it needs to include how to share one’s faith and present one’s testimony. Short-termers should also learn the do’s and don’ts needed when they enter a new culture. Warning them about culture shock would also be helpful.
2. Tourists or servants: I am also concerned that some short-term mission trips have become spiritualized vacation trips. One church advertised a mission trip with phrases like, “Visit an exotic country”; “Plan to have fun”; “Come and experience adventure as you have never experienced adventure before”; “Bring extra money to be able to buy souvenirs”; “Come and see the world.” Nothing was said about working with nationals and national churches. As I read the poster, I thought, “This isn’t a short-term mission trip. It’s a tour.”
I have met short-term missionaries with a tourist posture instead of a missionary-servant posture. One lady, within the first hour of arriving, asked, “When are you going to take us to the market? I want to buy some jewelry. In fact, I have a list of things I need to buy for family and friends.”
Another short-termer, when told that the team would be attending a national worship service on Sunday morning, cried out, “Do I have to? Those services last so long. It’s so hot today. I think I will just stay at the hotel where it is cool.”
Part of the tourist posture is also reflected in how some short-termers overuse their cameras. A team to Cambodia became so obnoxious taking pictures that one of the leaders of the national church said to me, “Please tell your American friends to quit sticking their cameras in our faces.”
Before we entered an area in Phnom Penh notorious for its prostitution, I instructed our team not to take any pictures. Halfway through our walk, however, the pimps began shouting and waving their fists at us. I had no idea what we had done until I turned around and saw one of the team members using his camera, oblivious to the danger. I ran over and ordered him to put his camera away. Defiantly, he mumbled, “You can’t tell me what to do. I paid good money to come on this trip. If I want to take pictures, I will take them.”
3. Self-centeredness: I sometimes hear the statement, “Going on a short-term mission trip does the team member more good than the nationals.” Yes, many individuals have been changed through going on short-term mission trips. But if the goal is only to change their lives, then the ministry is self-centered indeed.
Self-centered team members don’t care if they destroy culture with their ethnocentric ways or insult nationals with snide comments. A self-centered team pushes for large numbers of responses to their calls to salvation before nationals are ready. Why? They need numbers to impress the church back home.
The danger of self-centeredness is reflected in statements like:
“The way we do it in America is much better than the way they do it here.”
“In one week’s time, we led 125 people to Jesus Christ. Our churches will be so proud of us when we report what we have done.”
“I want to go home now. It’s no longer fun being here. I’ve seen all that I want to see.”
“I’ve bought what I came here to buy. Take me to a new place.”
4. “Youth camp” mentality: One youth pastor told me that he was going to take his youth group on a short-term mission trip. When I asked him how old the youth were, he shared, “ . . . .between 12 and 15. . . .” My jaw must have dropped open, for he asked, “Is that a problem?”
One career missionary told me about a team of young people who were loud, culturally insensitive, and a bunch of “nags.” When things did not go their way, they complained. At night, instead of staying in their rooms as they had been instructed, some had snuck out to roam the streets. When caught, they explained, “That’s what we did at youth camp. . . . It was no big deal . . . . No one got uptight about it.”
A mother shared, “I sent my son on a short-term mission trip to give him something to do during the summer. I did not want him to be bored staying at home.”
One of my university students, reflecting upon a trip he made as a 14-year-old, said, “I now realize that I wasn’t mature enough to go on that trip. Though I had been part of the church for quite a few years, I didn’t understand all the ramifications of what it meant to do ministry. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure where I stood with the Lord when I went on that trip. I went for fun and adventure. Those are not good enough reasons for a person to go on a short-term mission trip.”
We need better reasons, and better preparation. There are at least three areas in short-term missions that need closer examination:
1. What should the purpose of short-term mission trips be?
2. How should short-term missionaries be selected?
3. How can short-term mission trips better help the national church?
You may think I am against all short-term mission trips. I am not. But I believe that this type of ministry has gotten out of hand, kind of like the cattle that escaped from my brother-in-law’s pen.
Jim Lo (D.Th., University of South Africa), is professor of intercultural studies and coordinator of intercultural programming at Indiana Wesleyan University (Marion, Ind.). He is a former missionary to Zimbabwe and Cambodia.
Copyright © 2000 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.