Short-term mission trips are all the rage– whether secular or religious, domestic or international, several days or several months. The trippers range from middle schoolers to college students. It’s no wonder that today’s younger generations are so attuned to global justice and mercy, since watched epidemics, tsunamis, cyclones, earthquakes, bombings, and revolutions played out every night on their TV screens.
Christians, too, are increasingly eager to serve others in distant places — to travel there and be Christ’s arms and legs. This is mostly a positive trend…but there are also some downsides.
There are many articles about how STMs perpetuate western imperialism, and I think many of them are unfair or overblown. But I’ll list just a few of the more obvious negatives: free labor or products can eliminate jobs that would provide living wages for local workers; free labor can create (or perpetuate) local dependency on outside support; and, the artificial, rushed foreigner-local relationships fostered by STMs can perpetuate longstanding, negative stereotypes.
I suggest three simple alignment questions for short-term mission trippers — questions which might help bridge the visitors’ attitudes and methods with the locals’ expectations and needs.
1. Assume that your STM team is not the first to visit that community. This assumption prompts visitors to be sensitive to hosts’ past experiences and memories. In most cases, locals have already been thoroughly exposed to western brands and values. In some cases, you’ll be following in the steps of much-loved Christians who preceded you…and some times you’ll be following Christians who were culturally insensitive or even despised. And, the locals will rarely be frank with you about these issues.
2. Remember that you’re providing services and teaching which they can also get from other sources. This reminder helps visitors to remain realistic about what they attempt, and humble about their impact. Rarely do STM trips go to places completely unreached by the Gospel, so visitors are often building upon a foundation laid by others. By God’s grace, your team’s words or deeds may indeed be used to foster conversions or even revival… or you may simply be advancing the cause for others to complete.
3. Assume that you or your team will be back. This assumption frees your team from pushing its agenda too hard, and reminds you to be sensitive to the locals’ receptivity. It is a good reminder for visitors to focus on relationships and not try to force results.
I’m a fan of STMs. That is why I hope these simple attitude-checks will help to foster richer ministry and better experiences, both for the visiting team and also the locals.