Short-term “mission trips” are hugely popular among American Evangelicals. Usually these trips involve lay people visiting another part of the world with the aim of helping locals and introducing them to Christianity. But recently, these trips have received a lot of criticism from those on the left, who say that many trips amount to little more than religious tourism, and from those on the right, who argue that such trips induce dependency on foreign aid in communities, rather than self-sufficiency.

I recently discussed these issues (via Skype) with Iantha Scheiwe, who is the Executive Director of the Concordia Welfare & Education Foundation (CWEF) in Hong Kong. CWEF focuses on improving health and education in rural communities in Asia, and is a partner with the U.S.’s Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

Scheiwe believes that though mission trips can be “extremely valuable,” they often times go awry from the very start. She starts with the nomenclature.

“Calling it a ‘mission trip,’” she says, already sets up an expectation of “looking for conversions.” As a Bible-believing Lutheran, she of course has no problem with conversions. Her concern is, that in their desire for making converts, people on short-term missions often treat local people merely as means to an end rather than as ends in themselves. She recommends that participants in mission trips avoid thinking of their service as “transactional”; they shouldn’t think, “I’m doing this for you in order to get you to profess Christ.”

Such an approach can help travelers recognize that though they are in a position to give to locals, they should learn to see and engage with local people as specific, individual persons, not as a “monolithic other.” When relationships are the focus, Scheiwe says, post-travel reports don’t focus as much on how the trip changed “me” as it focuses on the people whom the traveler met. The focus is outward rather than inward.

As a result, Scheiwe argues, there is no one-size-fits-all optimal length for mission trips. A single visit might suffice; or multiple visits might be needed. She rejects as too pat the inclination to see long-term commitment to a single community as the answer to one-shot mission trips that appear and then disappear just as quickly. Scheiwe points out that a long-term commitment to a single community might merely encourage dependence rather than the development of that community’s self-reliance.

Scheiwe nudges members of mission teams to think about the fruit of their interaction with local people. She does this to “to hedge against a misconception that this interaction will, in-and-of-itself, create a massive, sustainable impact in the lives of people being changed.” She says this not to promote pessimism or cynicism, but rather to encourage an appropriate humility.

Mission teams need to recognize that they do not bring the results—God does. “This requires us to be responsible in submitting to and watching for the continuing leading of the Holy Spirit in how God is developing faith in the community rather than perceive that our own faithfulness-in-action is directing change.”

Trips need to be calibrated to address real local needs. Scheiwe’s approach requires in-depth knowledge of communities, and the exercise of prudence regarding how outside teams can help build communities’ independence and develop the type of relationships that demonstrate caring and respect for individuals in those communities. 

James R. Rogers is associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. His previous articles can be found here.

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