Rethinking mission trips

The Washington Post reports that churches are re-thinking expensive overseas mission trips that are seen by critics as “religious tourism” undertaken by “vacationaries.”


Stories of blunders like a wall built on the children’s soccer field at an orphanage in Brazil that had to be torn down after the visitors left or a church in Mexico that was painted six times during one summer by six different groups or a church was built in Ecuador but never used because the community said it was not needed, have caused pastors to rethink the approach.

To make missionary work more meaningful, some churches are taking a different approach. In response to the criticism, a growing number of churches and agencies that put together short-term trips are revamping their programs and establishing new standards.

For the past four years, for example, the Fairfax Presbyterian youths have stayed closer to home, in places such as Welch, West Va.; Lansing, Mich., and Philadelphia. Last week, a team of 44 were in St. Petersburg, Fla., to clean and paint low-income homes, assist the homeless and volunteer at a free health clinic.

Senior Pastor Henry G. Brinton said the church realized that the teens could do just as much good working close by as far away.

“It became too hard to justify the expense of flying the kids overseas,” Brinton said. “If you’re going to paint a church, you can do that in Florida as easily as you can in Mexico.”

Fairfax Community Church is repositioning its mission trips “to get away from the vacation-with-a-purpose, large groups going somewhere to build something” focus, said Alan MacDonald, the church’s pastor of global engagement.

The church is sending out smaller teams of experts to work on projects with partner churches. For example, it is sending information technology professionals who are fluent in Spanish to a church in the Dominican Republic to train members in computer skills so they can get better jobs, MacDonald said.

McLean Bible Church, which sends about 35 short-term mission teams out each year, is training its team leaders to approach short-term missions with a “learner’s mentality,” to be respectful of the culture or group the team will be serving, said Kailea Hunt, director of global impact for the church.

Christianity Today, an evangelical magazine, is adopting much the same approach in a curriculum for short-term missionaries and their host organizations. Andy Crouch, an editor who is working on the project, said it came about as the result of complaints he heard from churches and nonprofit groups in foreign countries that host American short-term missionaries.

Read the rest here.

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3 Comments
  1. Paul Canady

    “It became too hard to justify the expense of flying the kids overseas,” Brinton said. “If you’re going to paint a church, you can do that in Florida as easily as you can in Mexico.”

    This is the key quote in all of this. Churches have for too long been justifying doing good for others in the name of the Gospel when in fact they want their young people to see another side of life. Both are noble things, BUT you can’t do one in the name of the other.

    In the Diocese of Washington, our mission trips to Alaska became too expensive. We certainly weren’t painting the same room that had been painted before, and we dd establish amazing relationships and learned about Christian faith in another setting. But our young people learned just as much as by going to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. And we don’t go to New Orleans. Yes, NOLA is still hurting, but so are parts of Mississippi and Alabama that never saw the first tv camera. The entire Gulf Coast is in need of SKILLED labor, not just eager hands who are willing to pick up trash and demo houses.

    Work/Mission trips are amazing events. But if churches aren’t doing it for the right reasons, they are a waste of money and become an ego trip for those traveling.

  2. This also points to a great advantage in being a part of the Anglican Communion: we have native churches that are there and not only know what they need, but are willing and eager to strengthen international ties.

  3. For their benefit narrowly defined, your basic long distance mission trip cannot be justified any more than the US government’s policy of shipping food to poor countries (rather than just giving dollars, or purchasing food locally) can be defended.

    The benefit of a mission trip is in building relationships. Just as we would understand sending bishops or bringing them here would have a benefit is building mutual understanding and friendship within the communion.

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