As popular as these trips are, however — and some estimate that more than a million Americans go on them each year — some Christians deeply immersed in mission work are starting to ask hard questions about the value of what they achieve, including Hunter Farrell, director of world mission for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
What’s the benefit of short-term mission trips compared to the thousands of dollars spent to send Americans overseas for a week or two? How are the Americans viewed by the people in the communities they visit?
Should more resources be shifted away from short-term trips and towards more deeply-rooted, long-term mission work?
And what can congregations and presbyteries do to make sure the trips they take have a real impact, both overseas and in their own communities back home?
Here is an example of what doesn’t work.
Maria Arroyo, the PC(USA)’s regional liaison for South America and the Caribbean, was told by one partner church that a day care center in a particular village was painted seven times in one summer by visitors from the United States.
Steve Hayner, an associate professor of evangelism and church growth and director of international programs at Columbia Theological Seminary, said he’d heard of a church recently that had gone repeatedly to a community just over the Mexican border, building basic shelters for squatters.
“As soon as they left, the work they were doing was dismantled for the price of the material,” he said. “They would come back, and the things they had built the previous year were gone. But they kept doing this year after year after year.” These trips had become part of that congregation’s way of life. “That’s a colossal waste of everybody’s time and effort.”
On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of well-planned short-term trips that have led to ongoing relationships and have opened people’s eyes to the realities of a global Christianity.
“It’s the grassroots American church awakening to mission, and that’s all good,” said Roberta Hestenes, an educator, speaker, and pastor who has been involved in international mission work for decades. “I really do believe it’s of God — that this movement is of God. It’s exploding. I think this is a genuine, serious, sustainable movement from which people are learning and which cannot be disregarded.”
But “the concern I have,” Hestenes said, “is when these are one-time, short-term involvements oriented to quick, tangible results.”
Rob Weingartner, executive director of The Outreach Foundation, which is involved in evangelism around the world, knows from personal experience how a first-hand encounter with the global church can change the way people think.
When he first went to Africa in the 1990s, “I was confronted there with a vital, dynamic global church” and “it turned my life upside-down,” Weingartner said.
“I do see mission trips becoming more transformational, but it doesn’t happen automatically because our automatic default is to go with our own agenda, to be focused on our own need, and to come back to our own comfort.”
When done right, Weingartner said, “it’s not about a kind of church-sanctioned tourism. It’s not about doing good deeds so we feel better about ourselves. … Congregations invite their members to follow Jesus out into the world. And when we follow Jesus out into the world, we find God’s people everywhere we go.”
The question of what works well and not-so-well in short-term mission trips, and what amounts to good stewardship of resources, is being asked more and more as the movement of congregations being directly involved in world mission gains increasing maturity.
At the World Mission ’07 convocation in Louisville last fall, for example, Farrell told of a group spending $37,000 on plane tickets and donating $5,000 for construction materials to assist with a project at Nile Theological College in Sudan. But Farrell said that two long-time PC(USA) mission co-workers, Bill and the late Lois Anderson, faithfully raised the question of whether all that money spent on travel might have been better used to hire Sudanese carpenters and masons, people “desperate for a job,” to do the construction work themselves.
As the church is being challenged to think more deeply about such trips, here are some of the major strands of the conversation.
Learning to listen. American Christians going to other countries need to pay attention not just to what they want to achieve, but to what’s already happening in those places.
“Too much in the past the focus of these short-term mission trips has been our agenda, our experience,” Weingartner said. “I even had someone call me and say, ‘We’ve done Mexico. We want to do someplace else.’ It’s almost obscene, like a one-night stand. The focus on our agenda and our experience, even the focus on our transformation, can be lived out in a way that’s demeaning to our hosts … and can cause us to miss what God is doing in that place and what God desires us to do.”
Sometimes, hosting travelers from the U.S. can cause difficulty for the local churches, particularly if they are deluged with group after group who may not be sensitive to the culture or to the region’s political, economic, and religious dynamics. Many U.S. groups tend to go to the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America, because they are closer and travel costs are less than going to Africa or Asia.
“It is a burden when too many groups travel to just one place,” Arroyo said. “They overwhelm small churches,” and can create dependency or an imbalance among partner churches if one community is seen as receiving too much assistance while others receive little or none.
Working through presbytery partnerships can help, she said, because then U.S. Presbyterians start to perceive the connections that local congregations have with other Christians and ministries in the region.
“They don’t have the big perspective,” Arroyo said of many U.S. visitors. “What they see is a little church in some little town with a lot of needs. And since we are U.S. people, we try to fix things. … What you need is just to worship with them,” to start a friendship among equals — people with names and faces.
Last fall, Rodrigo Maslucan, president of the Evangelical Reformed Church of Peru, told a workshop at the World Mission ’07 convocation that some U.S. visitors bring gifts of clothing or medicine, but “it doesn’t really have a healthy impact,” because there’s no fair system for dispersing the gifts.
Using an interpreter, Maslucan spoke of “service with humility,” of the need for U.S. visitors to take the time to get to know their hosts, to “listen to what it is that the churches in Peru are seeking.”
Building long-term connections. Some of the most successful mission trips focus not on work — building, hammering, painting, digging — but on establishing relationships.
That means listening to local partners, learning about their lives and their involvements in ministry, praying for one another, staying in touch, sometimes visiting back and forth. In other words: making a long-term commitment to support one another.
Hestenes, for example, has been involved with a project started at Solana Beach Church in southern California, working with the Afar people of Ethiopia. The Presbyterians involved in this work have made a series of short-term mission trips, but “let local people on the ground determine what the needs are,” she said, and have stuck with the commitment for years.
As a result, “there is water where there wasn’t water,” agriculture, schooling, and health care.
“We worked in partnership with World Vision Ethiopia” and with other groups, including Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship. “We weren’t lone rangers,” Hestenes said. “We were working with people who were committed over the long run. We prayed and worked and studied a long time to find those partners and do a sustained effort with them. They shouldn’t be the fad of the day.”
Hayner’s congregation has taken mission trips simply to show solidarity — to be “standing next to Christians who are in very difficult places,” such as in Iran and North Korea. For Palestinian Christians, “it’s a huge thing when Christians show up and pray with them,” Hayner said, a sign they have not been forgotten and are not alone.
Milton Nunez-Coba is pastor of Nueva Esperanza Presbyterian Church in Jersey City, a small, urban Hispanic congregation. From July 28 to August 6, he will lead a mission trip to the community of Santa Marta in Colombia. As a native of Colombia himself, Nunez-Coba knows well that one visit won’t change a lot. But it is a way, he said, to “show our solidarity with our sisters and brothers in South America.”
Nunez-Coba has been corresponding with La Puerta Reformed Church in Santa Marta for several years, where a friend is the pastor and where he has gone periodically to preach. This time he is bringing people from his own church and from Palisades Presbytery to visit La Puerta, which has a ministry with native Chimilis Indians displaced by the violence in Colombia.
“We would like to meet them personally,” Nunez-Coba said. The idea is “to get to know people face-to-face, to try to learn from them. We don’t want to go in in a paternalistic way, saying, ‘We’re bringing our money, let us fix something, let us build something.’ We approach it from a different place.”
Many of the people in his congregation are of Hispanic descent, “but have never been in a developing or third-world country,” Nunez-Coba said. “They are kind of middle-class people. It will be a thoroughly new experience for them.”
And when his parishioners come home, Nunez-Coba hopes they will better understand that “the best way to really deal with the problems in Colombia is to advocate in Washington.”
In other words, there will be a next step.
Preparation and followup. People experienced in international mission say that’s key: preparing and educating a group before they take a short-term trip and having a plan of action for when they come home.
The preparation before departure can include Bible study, group-building exercises, and training in “how do you view the world through cross-cultural eyes,” Hayner said.
And when they come back, there needs to be time for debriefing and evaluation, to talk about “what did we see, who did we meet, what were our experiences, where can we follow up with this, who will do it?”
Hayner speaks of the need for accountability — making sure the resources spent on mission are producing strong results. Hestenes advocates thinking of partnership more broadly, with Presbyterians working through mission networks concentrated on particular parts of the world, and connecting with the resources of groups outside the PC(USA) such as World Vision or other non-governmental organizations.
This seems plain: local congregations will go where they want and partner with whomever they want. This is a grassroots movement.
The denomination’s national staff has discovered that “even if they want to control Presbyterians, they can’t,” Weingartner said.
But through the mission networks — that focus on work in Malawi or China or wherever — the PC(USA) can “create a table where everybody involved in the country can come together and learn from each other. Sometimes if another congregation can share a horror story of the mistakes they’ve made and what they’ve learned, another congregation can hear that more than if it came from a national staff member.”
Hayner also stresses story-telling, as a means of bringing the rest of the congregation into the circle of the experience of the mission trip — and into the conversation about where that trip should lead next in ministry.
“They’re discovering that what happens before the trip and what happens after the trip is just as important as what happens on the trip” Weingartner said, if anything long-lasting is to come out of it.
Two-way street. Sometimes, the involvement with global partners helps U.S. congregations to think differently about their priorities back at home. For example, after some churches in Greensboro, N.C., became involved with a partnership in Peru, they invited a Peruvian to come to North Carolina to help develop a ministry to Hispanic immigrants living and working in the area.
A church in Texas asked a pastor and an elder from Ethiopia — a place where the growth of Christianity has been phenomenal over the last 50 years — to come for a month to teach about evangelism.
In mission work, “there are gifts we have to share,” Weingartner said. “There are also gifts we have to receive.”
Sometimes the interaction with a particular country or group of people leads Presbyterians to view their own communities with fresh eyes. When Solana Beach Church started working in Ethiopia, for example, suddenly “we found Ethiopians all across San Diego” too, Hestenes said — including an Ethiopian Coptic church just three blocks away. Now “we’re sensitized to the presence of these people among us” back home.
The witness of Christians in other places also can challenge Americans to take on new commitments in ministry back home.
Often they’ve seen a southern hemisphere church “where people know that evangelism is everyone’s responsibility, that acts of compassion and speaking of Jesus are essential,” Weingartner said.
They understand better that “we need to take matters of poverty and justice seriously. I think in a sense God is lifting up the global church as an example to us” to do better.