Fruitful missions? Trips are popular but criticized

This week, 169 youths from churches across the Southeast will arrive in south Augusta and devote their days to roofing and repainting homes.

In turn, teens from Augusta will travel to Cherokee, N.C., and Birmingham, Ala., on short-term mission trips this summer. Glenn Brantley will lead one of those trips for First Baptist Church of Evans.

"A lot of people ask me, 'If their kids come here and our kids go there, why doesn't everyone just stay put?' " he said. "I tell them it's because it's not about just fixing homes."

More than 23,000 youths nationwide will work on a World Changers project this year. The program, an initiative of the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board, gives them low-cost mission opportunities over summer break.

Short-term missions, such as World Changers, have skyrocketed in popularity in the past four decades. With the increase come questions about the efficiency of missions conducted by lay people, who use vacation slots to volunteer for one- or two-week trips in the U.S. and abroad.

"It's the popular thing to do," said Mark W. Radecke, a chaplain and an associate professor of religion at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania who researches best and worst practices of short-term missions. "If they're not careful, short-term missions can turn into vacations."

Scott Parrish, the minister of outreach and missions at Trinity-on-the-Hill United Methodist Church, is familiar with the criticisms: Short-term missions are too costly; they objectify the people they aim to serve; unskilled missionaries leave with questionable impact.

He counters that a relational, reciprocal mission has the potential to change lives.

"Mission isn't tourism, nor is it simple handouts," Parrish said. "It's something more complex and life-changing for the one who is served and the one who serves."

His church relies on the guidance of its host pastor or missionary.

"That has helped us avoid 'hit and run' mission that constructs or develops something we deem useful which really isn't appropriate for the context or isn't sustainable," Parrish said. "Bottom line -- this is risky stuff! Still, I'd rather risk exploring what it means to love God and love neighbor -- a basic belief and challenge -- than to sit back and criticize those who give it a try."

Countless Augustans agree, says Dr. Emmanuel Ngoh, an endodontist who practices in Augusta. The Cameroon native is a member of the Christian Medical and Dental Association and says he has a passion for short-term missions that have led him to Haiti, Trinidad, Honduras, Nicaragua and Cameroon.

"Here in Augusta, there's a lot going on. On a monthly basis there are at least two groups going somewhere around the world, and that's the conservative estimate," said Ngoh, a member of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Martinez.

There's no central clearinghouse for missions data, so it's difficult to track the number of short-term missions, but the best estimates suggest several million Americans go each year, said Robert Priest, a professor of mission and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago.

Priest, who spent summers researching missions to Peru, says a typical American or European short-term missionary to Peru spends $1,800 on the mission, more than the annual salary of a Peruvian pastor in Lima. For that reason, short-term missions often come under fire for their cost.

Impact appraisal

A number of studies have been done on the expense and impact of short-term missions, resulting in findings both for and against the effectiveness of the trips.

Kurt Ver Beek, a professor of sociology at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., concluded that short-term missions claim to grow a person's spirituality and increase giving but actually fail to produce lasting change in the people on the giving -- and receiving -- end of missions.

When Ver Beek interviewed Americans and Hondurans after 1998's Hurricane Mitch, more than half of the Americans said they sent money to the mission organization after the trip, but the organization reported that 70 percent did not in the three years after they returned. His findings were published in 2006 in the journal of the American Society of Missiology .

The Hondurans, meanwhile, told Ver Beek that they would rather the short-term missionaries had stayed home and sent the money instead.

The struggle to weigh costs against benefits is a familiar one, said Terry Jackson, the minister of missions at West Acres Baptist Church. The Evans church, which sends teams to Mexico, Asia, India, the Dominican Republic and Kenya, has become more selective in where and how it does mission work.

"We can send a person to Mexico or Honduras for about $1,100. If all they are going to do is paint a building, the raw truth is that we could hire Mexicans or Hondurans to do the job for a lot less money and probably get better results," he said. "Not discounting the impact the trip has on the individual, we would think hard about sending someone down just to paint."

In all likelihood, the American painters would also be trained in evangelism or a discipleship program, enabling them to serve the local ministry at the same time, he said.

Radecke, the chaplain, isn't so much bothered by the cost of the trips because it's unlikely that American missionaries would just cut a check for mission causes abroad. His chief concern lies in the attitude of missionaries.

"One of my mottoes is the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but good intentions don't negate bad practices," he said.

Radecke said American missionaries, particularly evangelicals, believe their missions are meaningful because they "carry the gospel" to the rest of the world.

In reality, Priest says, only 3.5 percent of missionaries travel to the world's "least Christian regions," while 4 percent travel to the most advanced economies, meaning missionaries tend to go places that already have Christians but are poor.

Often in those places, Radecke said, "the gospel is being lived in ways that would -- or should -- humble North American missionaries."

"National chauvinism" instead takes hold. "We want them to be more like us. That becomes the mission," he said. "Imagine someone walking into your life and saying, 'House me for two weeks, put me to work, and feed me with food that won't make me sick.' "

That's not to say short-term missions are bad, Radecke said. The successful ones approach their tasks mindfully, with an emphasis on relationships.

"There is value in Americans going to other cultures to see how other faiths are lived," he said. "Make a commitment to a particular community."

Possible solutions

Trinity in Augusta aims to strike a balance by pairing short-term trips with long-term partners in the field.

On Tuesday, Trinity will send Love Unlimited, a choir with more than 75 youths from nine local high schools, on a 10-day tour of Spain. It also sponsors short-term missions to the Dominican Republic and Jamaica this year.

The church aims to complement its long-term missions with short-term work and its international missions with local work.

"The roofing teams that did so much in (Hurricane) Katrina response now work locally and usually do four to six roofs a year," Parrish said. "For me the concept of loving God and loving neighbor is at the heart of mission. The Bible is clear about defining neighbor in bigger ways than we do -- local, national, international -- so that's why we can't choose to only do one, but must tackle them all."

For Ngoh, working internationally is the greater sacrifice. He closes his practice for the week but continues to pay employees while he's away on mission trips.

"People ask me a lot, 'Why are you going?' God has blessed us too much and somehow he uses us to bless others," he said. "You don't have to go to Peru or Haiti. You can stay locally, but if you can go, by all means go."

Each time, Ngoh said, he returns with a new perspective.

"I think sometimes you need to get out. You need to get away and soak in God's nature through service," he said.

That, Parrish said, is perhaps the greatest benefit to short-term missions.

"In terms of faith development and nurture, a mission trip can be a tremendous experience that opens your eyes, your heart, your soul to people and to God," he said. "I've often seen that the transformation isn't so much the building a team has constructed, or the hundreds or thousands who have been served in medical clinics, but it may in fact be a personal and spiritual step that changes the one who has gone to serve."

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