Soapbox Series: Short-Term Missions, Long-Term Damage?

I went on a short-term mission trip during the summer of my junior year back in college. It was within the US, specifically to an inner city with high rates of poverty, crime, and horrifically low school retention and graduation rates. I taught summer school to a class of twenty-something 2nd and 3rd graders, who were the most precious group of kids I’ve ever had the privilege to teach the art of spelling and grammar, and about how much Jesus loves them (which even I couldn’t fathom). They had no reason to trust me or love me, but it only took a few days before they were sitting on my lap and drawing me pictures and telling me that they loved me.

I learned two huge lessons that summer. First, I learned grace in its purest form. On our first day of training, we were told that the kids would push us to our limits every single day, and sometimes, we just weren’t going to like them. Yet we were to treat each child every morning like the drama and grievances of yesterday weren’t a factor. Each day was a brand new day, and the love was to be poured out afresh. I didn’t think I was capable of that kind of grace, but I learned it because those kids gave it right back to me. The second thing I learned that summer? I don’t think I believe in short-term mission trips.

The minute I fell in love with my kids, I wanted to go back to Colorado and somehow erase that experience for all parties involved. The minute I knew they loved me, I started grieving the fact that I was nothing more than a transient on their property, never settling in and never to be seen once I left. I felt like a sham every single day of those three months. Because how do you love someone short-term? How do you love only when it’s convenient for you, when the most sacrifice you made was sending out uncomfortable letters asking for money for the trip and agreeing to not drink alcohol for 3 months while there? How do you tell a child who’s been through more trauma than anyone should experience that Jesus will always be there for her, when you – his hands and feet – walk away two weeks or two months later? I was just another face that claimed to love them and eventually left them. And it killed me.

Here’s a thought: instead of calling them mission trips let’s just call them what they are. Trips. Adventures. Soul-expanding journeys. Because all those things are worthwhile. You should travel – whether to the next state or across the Atlantic – to expand your perspective on life, and people, and love, and God. It is impossible to return unaltered after experiencing a different way of life.  But let’s be honest about the purpose of those trips. I’d sooner give money to someone who simply asked for help to go on a journey because they were desirous to see the world, than to someone who asked for money for a mission trip. Not because I think the desire to spread the gospel to distant lands is wrong, but because I think a lot of people sadly advertise and exploit mission trips as one good way to go to that place you’ve always wanted to visit without paying a dime. I think if more people had to pay out of their own pockets for the trips they take, we’d have less people piling on the mission trip bandwagon for the coolness factor, and more people giving serious thought to the purpose of traveling anywhere in the name of God.

My rationale is simple: if you “have a heart” for orphans, for example, then that heart should break in your city the same way it breaks in Romania. There should neither be an on/off switch for your empathy or passion, nor an exclusive group worthy of your attention. I believe that we are all on a mission. We are all missionaries, right where we are. If my heart doesn’t break for the family of the little boy I nanny who needs Jesus so badly, then I am failing the mission. If I travel to Cambodia for two weeks and weep with rescued sex workers, yet come home and ignore the man holding up a sign asking for any kind of help because he just lost his job, I am failing the mission. If I’m willing to stand on a boardwalk all afternoon handing out surveys to strangers, yet I’m not willing to skip drinks with my friends just so I can afford to buy that lady on 16th St a sandwich and listen to her story, please question the state of my heart and who I’m truly serving.

I fear that mission trips are an ego-boosting, self-serving excursion disguised as ministry. Look what I did this summer. Look how much I gave up to go “love on” poor people for two weeks. Look at how long I went without a shower or a curling iron. Look at the number of people who made a decision for Christ. Look at me, look at me, look at me. At the end of the day, is it about the number of African kids that hugged you daily, or is about carrying out the mission of Christ? Because the latter can be done in simple, less glorified, everyday ways. Travel is good, the mission to share the love of God is good, but those two things do not need each other in order to work. Be a missionary while you’re at home and while you’re abroad. Sacrificial love shouldn’t only exist every summer. Save money and go see the world. But while you’re saving, serve the people who are right in front of you. If you’re only a social activist and a defender of the cause of the forgotten when someone else is paying for you to be, then forgive me if I don’t believe that your motives are pure.