I recently returned from a mission trip to Brazil with eleven members of my Presbyterian church in Wilmington, North Carolina. Partnering with a Presbyterian congregation in Manaus, our team, which included three physicians and two nurses, furnished medical assistance, dental instruction, drugs, and eye glasses to more than 600 children and adults in four remote villages on a tributary of the Amazon. To accomplish this, we traveled 600 miles by boat over the course of a week. Armed with several thousand dollars of medical supplies donated by the Brazilian government and healthcare providers in Wilmington, we treated hundreds of children with worms caused by drinking polluted water and adults who had a wide variety of ailments. Two of the villages had not had any medical assistance since our last visit in 2014.
Last summer I led a team of fourteen members from my church on a mission trip to Malawi where we also have a partnership with a Presbyterian church. There, among other activities, we participated in the celebration of the opening of two wells that brought pure water to villagers.
Millions of other Americans have gone on short-term mission trips. Relevant Magazine estimates that 1.5 million Americans participate in these trips every year. We go in response to the biblical commandments to proclaim the gospel message and aid the least of these. After all, we have great wealth and millions in developing nations are suffering from poverty, disease, and homelessness. Our Christian convictions and compassion motivate us to want to help.
We spend billions of dollars to pay for the transportation, lodging, food, and other costs of these trips. While these trips are usually spiritually uplifting and emotionally exhilarating, many, like me, ask: do they truly have positive benefits and could the money have been better used.
In their book “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself,” which has sold more than 300,000 copies, Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett argue that in their efforts to help the indigent around the world, American Christians often do more harm than good and that the methods we use frequently exacerbate the problems we are trying to solve.
Fikkert and Corbett contend that many mission teams do construction work that residents of the countries to which they have traveled could do themselves. In fact, local residents would prefer to have the money the team spent on its trip to use for other purposes such as constructing buildings. Doing things like painting a school that local people can do themselves accomplishes little.
Here are some considerations that may help us in deciding whether to go on short-term mission trips. Does a church, agency, organization, or group in another country truly want us to come? Will our trip help develop a long-term partnership with a ministry in another nation that benefits them and us? As Michelle Acker Perez, an American missionary serving in Guatemala, declares, “developing countries do not need short-term heroes. They need long-term partners.” Partnerships also enable Americans to develop relationships with people in other nations through which we can share both our spiritual growth and struggles. Several teammates on my trips to Brazil and Malawi wanted to go because of the spiritual rejuvenation that had experienced by interacting with the Christians in these countries on earlier trips.
Do we have skills that can be effectively used in other locales? The visits of doctors and nurses to areas that are underserved medically are particularly helpful. Accountants, lawyers, teachers, social workers, engineers, agricultural experts, ministers, and many others also have proficiencies that can be very useful to ministries and people in developing nations.
In my trip to Brazil, I was asked to preach evangelistic sermons in the villages we visited. When we assessed the trip with our Brazilian partners, I said that I was happy to preach, but I wondered if it might be more effective if one of their pastors or missionaries preached instead. The Brazilian pastor responded by arguing that it was helpful for the villagers to hear the same basic message from Americans that they regularly delivered to them.
Are we willing to share our experiences with our churches and other groups in the United States and become advocates for particular ministries in these nations, praying for their people, publicizing their needs, and raising money to improve their circumstances?
Short-term mission trips are especially valuable for high school and college students because they sensitize them to the conditions in developing countries and may influence their vocational choices.
If you do decide to go, it is important to meet with your teammates to get to know one another and to learn about the nation to which you are going—its history, culture, politics, social problems, and basic words in its language.
In considering going on a short-term foreign mission trip, also evaluate local ministries in which you can participate. Hundreds of people from my church volunteer with a score of organizations in Wilmington that assist children, the poor, homeless, elderly, incarcerated, victims of domestic abuse and human trafficking, and other needy groups, but every one of these organizations needs more volunteers.
And if you do decide to participate in a short-term mission trip, go, as Fikkert and Corbett advise, as a learner, not a savior.
Dr. Gary Scott Smith is the retired chair of the history department at Grove City College and is a fellow for faith and politics with the Institute for Faith and Freedom. He is the author of “A History of Christianity in Pittsburgh” (2018), “Suffer the Children” (2017), “Religion in the Oval Office” (Oxford University Press, 2015), “Faith and the Presidency From George Washington to George W. Bush” (Oxford University Press, 2009), “Religion in the Oval Office” and “Heaven in the American Imagination” (Oxford University Press, 2011).