Why you should consider cancelling your short term missions trip
Written by Erin Boutros
On my first short term missions trip, I was part of a sewing centre project where girls were trained to qualify in tailoring. We spent copious hours planning and organising the project and when I finally arrived there, I was so overwhelmed and exhausted. I’m not the most ‘get your hands dirty’ type of girl, so when there was an option to hire painters – I quickly agreed. I however felt a bit bad, like I was cheating and opting for the easy option, surely the most selfless and meaningful way to complete the mission was to do it myself!
Upon reflection, it was probably one of the best decisions we ever made.
The local painters arrived and did an awesome job, way better than what I could have ever done. It then struck me - so many people go on missions trips to paint and repaint buildings with no painting experience whatsoever, but every country has local painters who are really good at what they do. If we had decided to do the work ourselves, the local painters would have missed out on work opportunities. How could they ever compete with free labour? Why weren’t other missions groups utilising them too?
The hard reality is sometimes our generosity actually hurts the people we are trying to help, and short-term missions have become a catalyst for allowing westerners to ‘feel good’ about doing something themselves. While I believe there may be some cases where short term missions trips are beneficial, if we analyse their effectiveness through the lens of wise partnership and stewardship, it seems to point the other direction – there are better ways to help.
A great book “Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How To Reverse It)” offers some concerning insights. They talk about one church who sent a mission's team to Central America to help repaint an orphanage when the total amount spent on flights would have been enough to hire two local painters, two new full-time teachers and purchase new uniforms for every child in the school. They also talk about how 1 trillion USD of benevolent aid has been sent to Africa over the last 50 years, yet income per capita has decreased, life expectancy has stagnated, and adult literacy is lower than ever.
So what's going on? The problem is that the majority of short term trips focus on addressing short term issues by doing ‘relief work’ rather than ’development work’ which is what actually will create lasting change.
The truth is short term missions are more of a break from the discomfort or even comfort of real life than true exposure into discomfort experienced in impoverished communities. Often the teams going have no intention of being involved long term nor can they offer any unique insights or education that is not already available in the community they are going to serve. Ouch! When I went on my short-term missions trip my end goal was to serve people, and that might be your end goal too. This is what I have learnt - an attitude of service can be practiced at home and applied in the world, not the other way around. Every day you will come across many opportunities to effectively serve others, there’s no need to hop on a plane to do simple tasks for strangers 10,000 km away.
So, if you want to join a short-term mission's trip here are a few good questions to ask yourself: 1. What unique skill set will I bring to the community I’m planning to visit that can add value? 2. Is buying a plane ticket and paying for accommodation to be there the most effective use of my money? 3. Will I be taking away local business opportunities by completing my mission?
If you’ve been considering going on a short-term missions trip and you feel challenged by these questions, a great next step is to start learning how to serve those in your world right now. Change your perspective and become aware of the needs around you and make an attitude of service a daily practice.
If you have a heart for helping those overseas, that is awesome and it's no accident you've been wired that way. The best way you can live this out is by supporting locals doing great work in their own communities through organisations like Compelled by Love, who operate in this way by partnering with local communities. Your help will be so much more effective, impacting and lasting. If this sounds like something you would like to be a part of you can do so here.