Fruitful missions? Trips are popular but criticized

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

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A poster in the choir room at Trinity-on-the-Hill United Methodist Church pinpoints places in Spain where the Love Unlimited youth choir will visit. The group leaves Tuesday.   John Curry/Staff
John Curry/Staff
A poster in the choir room at Trinity-on-the-Hill United Methodist Church pinpoints places in Spain where the Love Unlimited youth choir will visit. The group leaves Tuesday.

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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Comments (15) Add comment
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Dixieman 06/06/10 - 07:16 am
It's good for the communities

It's good for the communities served, good for the kids (broadens their horizons), good for the churches, and good in the Lord's sight. What's not to like??

disssman 06/06/10 - 08:11 am
I could name about a dozen

I could name about a dozen houses here in river city that need repair, but that wouldn't give the volunteers a bit of bragging rights. Just tell me why we need to send singing people to spain, on a tax free trip? What about sending them to Appalachia where there are real poor people? But I guess that wouldn't be something to brag to friends about either. I say stop the non-profit tax deductions for anything except the cost of a chapel that people hold services in period.

Ushouldnthave 06/06/10 - 08:44 am
Why is this anybody's

Why is this anybody's business other than the churches? An attack on the church for its own sake.

galaxygrl 06/06/10 - 08:46 am
disssman, who have you helped

disssman, who have you helped lately or did you just want to pound on the people that go on missions and go to church? We can all certainly do more at home, so where do we want to begin?

iletuknow 06/06/10 - 09:03 am
The most fruitful mission

The most fruitful mission churches could make would be to start paying taxes.

Indigo 06/06/10 - 09:43 am
iletuknow.......The monies

iletuknow.......The monies received from parishioners have already been taxed, likely multiple times. A church is an outreach function, not a corporation or a business.

diss......a tax free trip? Unless you have been you really shouldn't comment. These trips are to very dangerous and impoverished areas. And tax free? Are you kidding?

I don't disagree that the motive for some churches who send these groups is questionable as we (Christians) are commanded to GO, but we aren't told to TALK about it. Personally, I think that many of these "trips" today are a fad whose time will come and go. But thats my opinion and I have no problems with those who go. As a previous commenter made, doing for others is good for our youth, and sometimes you have to get them away from the comfort of home in order to do so.

paperwren 06/06/10 - 09:46 am
The article failed to mention

The article failed to mention the hundreds of short term but ONGOING mission trips that area churches complete. These trips may just last one or two weeks out of the year, but the group continues in a relationship with the organization or town year round and returns to the area frequently and as needed. These types of trips establish relationships, build trust, address real needs, and are very effective in helping others and spreading the gospel. Also, I see nothing wrong with allowing our youth to learn what it means to serve others through a mission trip. While not all youth go on these trips for the right reasons, these trips succeed in exposing them to true service, stressing the importance of putting others before yourself, allowing them to step outside of their comfort zones, putting their faith to work, and letting them get a taste of spreading God's word. This is a great way for them to spend their summer time off serving rather than the many alternatives. Many great leaders, missionaries, pastors, and good people in general are born from these "short term" mission trips.

corgimom 06/06/10 - 10:55 am
There is no way that I would

There is no way that I would send a teenager to repair roofs- you need to know what you are doing, falling off a roof can cripple or kill you- and there is no way that I would let an inexperienced teenager roof my house.

While they are doing good, positive things, the risk on both sides is just too great. There's a reason why workman's comp insurance for roofers is astronomical- they get hurt a lot, and those are the experienced ones.

I've seen someone fall off a roof- this was a man with 20 years experience in construction- and break his elbow, and it's not fun.

GAterp 06/06/10 - 10:59 am
If churches want to be in the

If churches want to be in the vacation business then so be it. Let them measure the religious benefit of these trips. Maybe we should send these kids down to the Gulf to clean up the oil? Nobody's going to be at the hotels and restaurants down there and they could put in a shift on the beach and pray for the oil to stop flowing. Now there's a plan!

TakeAstand 06/06/10 - 12:45 pm


Junket831 06/06/10 - 01:41 pm
The concept of mission work

The concept of mission work is one at the heart of what it not only means to be a Christian, but to be a caring human being. Helping a neighbor, a community and leading by example not only improves the community but teaches others who are struggling to find their way. I personally believe in getting ones own house in order first before reaching out. This means taking care first of your own family, church, surrounding neighborhood, general community. There is much work to be done right here at home first. It is hard to help others if we are not taking care of our own.

Emerydan 06/06/10 - 04:32 pm
junket: I agree.. Charity

junket: I agree.. Charity begins at home.

Greene 06/06/10 - 04:55 pm
When they crossed over the

When they crossed over the hills and stepped into the multitudes, the message that left their lips was a simple declaration claiming that the Kingdom of God was at hand. That was their Good News. To take some of the ‘King James’ out of it; they were claiming that ‘the rule and reign of our creator has come’. It is not only short-term missionaries that take ‘those words’ and go running off with them, a sizable portion of the long-term Missionaries (with a capitol “M”) do so, as well. Despite every carefully crafted angle of the Gospel narrative that gets tagged to their message though, it often fails to actually ‘fit’ into whatever situation, culture or people-group that is targeted. When that happens, the finger usually points back to strategy, structure or planning.

None of those are to blame and it is the devil’s finger that points in that direction. Well; where is our answer then; how do we even find our next step. The answer is in the rule and reign of our creator that has been made manifest in us by His Holy Spirit or to “King James” it up a bit, it is in the Kingdom of God! When you have that, you can show up anywhere with little means or in great resource, even completely empty-handed. If He sends a young kid into the streets of a foreign land that child can stand on a corner, wave his translation guide in the air and have a multitude form at his feet.

All of Jesus’ parables help us know what to expect and how to accept His guidance; giving us insight into how it should all look when it is played out well. The fumbling of His Disciples as they ventured from place to place reveals the measure of Grace that He gives to us in our journey. If the sweet smelling pew sitters and zealous crusaders of the Gospel Message do not have Him dictating at the core of their endeavors there is probably little hope for their souls. They occupy their places with indifference to the Gospel of a sovereign Lord that would otherwise rule them. Their only true worth is found in the chafing that they bring to the souls of those of us who wait for His will to become our own. If you are of God, love even them. If you are not though, begin asking Him why and do so in this very minute until you are.

Lesser than
the Least of His,

InChristLove 06/06/10 - 05:07 pm
I see a lot of negative

I see a lot of negative comments from individuals who have no idea what is accomplished on short-term mission trips much less gone on one themselves. Until then, maybe you should spend some time with one of these groups of young people and discuss it with them. The kind of spiritual group they receive and the concept of putting others before yourself are wonderful qualities. Yes, there are places here at home that need help but there are also other churches/Christians here to serve at home. Corgi, you amaze me....have you ever been on a mission trip? These trips are very well supervised and I guess because you don't have much faith in God to keep your child safe then maybe it would be best to spiritual shelter your child. Most are teens and adults who go on these trips and have experienced adults who handle the construction. It's not all about building a playground, school house, but also about VBS (Vacation Bible School) showing the children love and playing games. Showing them what Christian fellowship is all about. They have small worship services and like another poster explain, this is about long term relationship. It's not about us, but about Him and what He wants. One major benefit is showing these young people how wonderful we have it here in the US and how these poor desperate villages and towns live. They come back to their friends and neighbors with a whole different attitude about "give me, give me" or the attitude "It's all about me". As for tax-free...most of these trips are paid for by donations and fund raisers so what's the problem. If I want to hand a homeless man $20 do you expect me to pay taxes on it...Oops, I already have. Same concept so please get off the church and instead of running the mouth, put your money where you mouth is and start helping here at home before you condemn a bunch of volunteers (who usually take their own vacation time) from helping the truly needy.

Dixieman 06/06/10 - 09:45 pm
When I was a young man I was

When I was a young man I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to go to a third world country for a year. Man, did it open my eyes! I learned what is great about America, how much suffering there is in the world, how different cultures could be, etc. Every American kid needs a dose of this, whether on a church mission or otherwise.

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