Moving from Feel Good to Formative Mission Trips

July 07, 2020

By Rev. Steve Cheyney, Campus Pastor, UNC Charlotte

When our mission team arrived nine hours south of San Diego in the Mexican Baja, our expectations and hopes for an incredible week of mission and ministry were about to take an unfortunate turn. We were successfully persuaded to book a mission trip with a professional short-term mission trip ministry. The company was well organized and helped us get our bags at the San Diego airport and arranged for our team to have a comfortable and safe charter bus through immigration and south to our destination. They also arranged for us to stay on cots at a local church that was also contracted to feed us. Every day of our project, we woke, listened to a prepared devotion, and started our eight-hour workday painting the church. We took pictures, had some outings to the Pacific Ocean, and even ate local lobster. We said our goodbyes, and as we left, we passed another bus with another team that would eventually repaint the same church.
A mission farm hoodwinked us.

A mission farm's goal is to cultivate its own business, not enhance or empower local mission and outreach. In over twenty years of ministry, I have led more than a hundred short-term mission teams, providing more than 250,000 hours of service and outreach. While this was my only experience booking a trip with a mission-farm, I have studied them quite extensively. I know of an orphanage in Kenya where the children were identified by numbers and adopted remotely for sponsorship based on how poor they looked. I know of another orphanage in Haiti with a fantastic website, glossy brochures, and a hefty revenue but has no children or any location. I know of a Native American ministry where the ordained pastor uses the significant amount of yearly contributions for his own tax-free, under-the-table salary. Toxic charity, coined by Robert Lupton1, is a real thing that fosters dependency, and many of our churches continue to embrace it.

With so many mission farms and experiences of toxic charities, there are plenty of people who think short-term mission trips are a waste of time, money, and even harmful. Michelle Staton, a medical student, wrote a scathing essay on short-term mission trips. She gave seven reasons why short-term volunteer trips should end. She writes:
  1. They are entirely too focused on how the volunteers’ benefit.
  2. The lasting impact of short-term volunteerism trips is often negligible. Temporary measures do not solve the chronic and multifaceted societal problems many face.
  3. “Voluntourism” is offensive and can even contribute to further problems. Westerners end up creating a grotesque market that capitalizes on their concerns.
  4. Short-term volunteer trips are a horrible waste of money. Throwing money for travel is problematic, but so also throwing money at a problem in no way means it will be solved.
  5. They promote a cycle of dependence, and therefore negatively affect the community’s sustainability.
  6. There is a difference between skilled and unskilled help. Unskilled help offers shoddy construction.
  7. Short-term mission trips promote the western savior complex.2
Let’s consider, for a moment, that she may be right. In fact, I will offer a few more reasons short term mission trips can be harmful:
  • We tempt our ministry partners to tell us only what we want to hear. We studied an orphanage overseas, where we learned that the staff had learned how to make a good living telling Americans what they wanted to hear. When I asked them what their hopes for the orphanage were and what their opinions on American mission teams were, they were surprised that I even asked.
  • We run the risk of seeing ‘results’ that aren’t really there. After a long hard day of roofing, you might think you’ve accomplished a lot. This may even give you the motivation to do another roof the next day.
  • The roof work we came to do also takes away gainful employment from actual roofers looking to pay their bills and feed their families.
  • We could do real damage. When the earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, thousands of non-profits showed up. Guess who absorbed the blow created by too many visitors? The Haitian people were already suffering from a devastating earthquake that killed more than 200,000 and then experienced a second disaster of harmful volunteer support.
  • Given that most United Methodist churches are white, it is probable that we will enter a community with implicit bias and provide suboptimal treatment to those we deem as “less fortunate,” and therefore, perpetuate destructive aspects of white elusiveness, or what Michael Eric Dyson calls “white innocence.” 3
The recurring theme in each of these points is that the short-term mission project was cultivated outside any local empowerment consideration. We call the opposite approach asset-based community development (ABCD)4. Pastor Mike Mather writes of his church, “we were missing the life around us and within us because we weren’t looking at what gifts we already held in our hands.”5 Ironically, the business of short-term mission trips has grown, even while churches have notoriously neglected their own communities missing the assets in their own neighborhoods. Perhaps the first step in fostering formative mission trips is to foster formative local missions.

Our experience of a global pandemic will perhaps force us to rethink mission trips, and for a while work more locally. Before this, short-term missions flourished because of our ability to travel worldwide; because of globalization. Most of us have significantly benefited from globalization, however, it is ironic that those we often go and serve are harmed by globalization. More so, Andy Root and Kenda Dean write that “our mission trips are immersed in contradiction (spending the morning serving the poor and the afternoon sipping cocktails) because at their core they carry out the dichotomy between tourists and vagabonds.“6 Perhaps because of this pandemic, we are entering an age of a great awareness where the assets and needs identified within our own neighborhoods will grow, and thus the dichotomy will subside. However, Americans love to travel, so when we ultimately resume short-term mission projects, we have a massive task at hand to create more formative and transforming mission trips.

Trip leaders are ultimately responsible for two communities: The mission-team and the mission-hosts. The mission-team is comprised of members of your church, campus ministry, or community. Biblically speaking, the mission-team would be considered “the disciples.” The mission-hosts are comprised of the people who you are visiting. This may be another church, an orphanage, clinic, etc. The gospel-writers would refer to the mission-community as the “crowd.”7 A successful trip-leader will be mindful of and attend to the mission-team's spiritual growth needs so that these participants may have abundant experience that leads toward their own vocational discernment and life-long calling to love their neighbor. When Jesus commissioned the seventy in Luke’s gospel, the missionaries were totally dependent on the hospitality of their host. Likewise, in advance of the trip, the trip-leader should work closely with the mission-hosts who ultimately should determine how the trip should be planned.

Once the needs of these two communities have been thoroughly established, formative short-term mission trips should include three final elements. The first is immersion over production. Instead of designing a work-team, think of your short-term mission trip as an immersion experience. In our campus ministry, we treat our immersion experiences as part spiritual pilgrimage, part study abroad, and part service-learning. Pilgrimages provide sound theological undergirding for faith formation and spiritual transformation for the participant. Study abroad programs teach students about the various religious, food, healthcare, criminal justice, public works, and education systems they will encounter. Finally, the service-learning component goes beyond volunteering alone and allows the participants to struggle with the systemic issues that cause societal imbalances and injustices.

The second element is humility over valor. Providing vital healthcare to the sick, teaching a second language, building a well, and responding to a disaster are all examples of uplifting activities. Much of the service work performed on mission trips is incredibly heroic. However, we need to be careful not to have a hero complex. All of us are subject to convincing ourselves that we risk danger and exhaust great resources to travel. Therefore, we are prone to exaggerate our courage as we respond to help what we call “the less fortunate.” Jesus, however, never assembled heroes. Instead Jesus calls us to take up the cross. The valor complex comes at a high cost of harming the communities we seek to serve while preserving and enhancing our own superiorities. In short, a hero complex is the perpetuates religious and cultural imperialism. In contrast, a cross-bearing mindset is one of humility.

The third element is assets over poverties. When participants return home from a grueling week in an impoverished community and say, “I am so thankful for what I have,” they have missed the point of Jesus’ sermon “blessed are the poor.” Mission trips often occur with impoverished communities that experience inadequate access and resources, diminished rights, and elevated rates of unemployment. Often, when participants return home, they highlight poverties with pictures of them holding orphans in slums on Instagram. Such trips can quickly become “poverty tourism” or “slum tourism.” The highlights of the trip, however, should instead reflect the assets of the communities visited, such as bakeries, art shops, teachers, florists, or street vendors. Acknowledging a community's assets, rather than its poverties, values the residents' pride and dignity.

The mission trip experience is ours to create and form with collaboration with our mission-hosts. Formative and transforming mission trips have leaders and participants who are vigilant to avoid the pitfalls of the feel-good, heroic, biases, and destructive forces that creep in, and that continue the entrepreneurial model of mission farms. These leaders and participants further create life-forming trips by observing and incorporating the generative themes outlined above that help us love our neighbors as Jesus modeled.
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1Lupton, Robert. Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, And How to Reverse It. 1 HarperOne. 2012.
2 https://users.manchester.edu/Facstaff/JPOsborne/MedPract/ 7_Reasons_Why_Your_Two_Week_Trip.Calling_Bull_on_Service_Trips_and_Voluntourism.pdf
3Dyson, Michael Eric. Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. St. Martin's Press, 2017.
4John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann are credited as establishing ABCD in the 1990s. I would recommend any book by these two or by Peter Block to learn more about ABCD.
5Mather, Michael. Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected 5 Places. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018.
6Dean, Kenda Creasy., and Andrew Root. The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry. IVP Books, 2011.  
7The use of “disciple” v. “crowd” is for illustrative purposes only. The roles could easily be reversed. On many occasions I have led mission-teams and encountered mission-hosts that lived exemplary lives of discipleship.


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