I was perusing Jeremy Pierce’s site and I saw the plug for the latest Christian Carnival.

I’ve not yet entered any of my posts in the Christian Carnival, but as churches around the country are warming up the vans and buses and opening up the wallets to send out short-term mission teams, I thought I would issue my complaint against short-term missions to the broader Christian blogosphere. That’s right–I have a complaint about short-term missions.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have never been on a short-term missions trip. I have never been on a long term missions trip. I am sure that after going on one my views will change radically. Until then, though, I’ll keep my arguments.

My major argument is simply that the overwhelming emphasis on short-term missions drains the church of resources that would be better spent elsewhere, particularly (and here comes my bias) in the education of the parishoners and the students that are being sent. This year I have been approached by several students with “support letters” for their trips to China, Brazil, and other foreign lands. However, I have yet to be approached by a student with a “support letter” for their college tuition. For some reason, we are expected to support a student spending two weeks in the middle of Papua New Guinea and leave the student who wants to attend Biola–a very expensive venture, mind you!–to the willing arms of the banks and lenders. Students must forge their own way to Christian colleges (or secular colleges, for that matter!). Why?

Fundamentally, the emphasis on short-term missions (which may not, in themselves, be bad, though I have my doubts!) neglects the proper care and feeding of the Church at home. Ultimately, it rests on whether a University education (and a specifically Christian University education) is more fruitful than a two-week missions trip to Zimbabwe. For some reason, two-weeks in Mexico building houses doesn’t seem nearly as formative as 4 years in a Christian environment learning Christian truths from Christian professors. If I am investing in the Kingdom and if the goal is long term results, my money is going to go to the college, 10 times out of 10.

Just to be clear, the argument is not against missions per se, but against a misplaced priority. Short term missions (I’m sure) are changing lives and communities around the world, but does indoor plumbing for another tribe in Latin America really justify ignoring the continuing education of the Church? Why should my students have to sink themselves financially just to get a Christian education? The argument may become more severe if the Federal and State governments ever limit use of Federal funding to wholly secular and state institutions (which, I think is possible). California has proposed reducing their substantial Cal-grant program, which would make it significantly more difficult for students to attend private universities. The problem is further compounded for those of our high-schoolers who wish to enter full-time ministry as a profession after they are trained (yes, any vocation is a ministry, but we sure pay Bible translators a whole lot less than bankers!). The catch-22 is that most pastors end up being paid very little relative to the amount of debt they have to accrue so they can become a pastor. By over-emphasizing short-term missions, evangelical churches (and I think they are primarily guilty of this!) are cutting off their heads to save their hearts and hands–but that’s a fairly boring critique by now, isn’t it?

Something really should be done. We all know by now that evangelicals need to value the life of the mind (see Mark Knoll, JP Moreland, et. al.) but it seems time to put our money where our mouth is.

The above complaint is just the kind my brother likes: intuitive, lacking empirical evidence or hard research, and controversial. I have developed it after watching church after church unreflectively endorse short term missions and pour millions of dollars in to sending teams all around the world. My finger may be way off the pulse of the evangelical world, but I doubt it.

Update: Removed the blurb about the missions focus. I guess I’m a week late (and still several million short for my cause!).

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

9 Comments

  1. Actually, that was from the host for the previous week, and I forgot to remove it from my weekly announcement. The topic is just as good any week, though, so it’s not a problem.

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  2. Ah, I’ll update it then!

    Thanks!

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  3. Zing!

    I will say that–shock!–I disagree, but only on practical grounds. My counter-thesis: the vast majority of the students going on short-term missions are already able to afford a college education, so it’s not really a zero-sum game.

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  4. If that were so, then why does the vast majority of students going send out support letters for their trip?

    Also, you might be right, if by “afford” you mean “able to secure the loans.” Regardless, though it probably wasn’t clear enough, my complaint isn’t against going on missions trips, but against the expectation that it is the Church’s role and responsibility to fund them, and the sole responsibility of the student and family to fund their college education.

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  5. Matthew,

    This is a courageous and thought-provoking opinion. It’s not an indictment of mission trips, but more of a promotion of the value of a Christian higher education. As a fellow Biola alumni, I share in that valuation.

    I think there are perhaps two reasons for the dichotomy you identify. First, there is a perception that being a student is receiving and going on a mission trip is giving. On first blush, perhaps donors think that the later is more altruistic and maybe even effective. This perspective leads to the second reason. Comparing the two, because education presents a longer-view approach, donors may think that mission trips generate quicker results. These reasons may or may not be valid, but I think that is what is operating beneath the surface.

    Take care,
    RICHARD
    lawreligionculturereview.blogspot.com

    Reply

  6. Richard,

    Thanks for the comments, especially your summary. I think that is exactly the idea I am going after. As for your underlying causes, when you say “generate quicker results,” I’m not sure what kind of results you mean. More people “saved”? If so, then I think it’s probably also a derivative of historical evangelical teachings on the conversion experience, teachings that often downplay the necessity of sustained intellectual and spiritual development.

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  7. Having been on a couple of short-term missions, I’ll put forth a couple of thoughts in their defense:

    1. They create vision (both for the people who go and the people who send them), reminding us that the church isn’t confined to one locality, that Christ’s body is diverse, textured, and stretches all over the world. To that end, many people who go short-term will either become advocates for long-term missions either as supporters or missionaries, and they’ll have a face to the culture that they’ll probably still pray for afterward. And the stories they bring home will spur others to action. They’ll also have a mindset of giving freely to God’s work, having benefited from that personally.
    2. They stretch the people who go–there’s something about trips that force you to rely on God more directly.
    3. An influx of excited short-term missionaries is encouraging to long-term missionaries and natives–for example, one church in Scotland formed a partnership with a missions group I was in and used the yearly trips as a way to kickoff groups/events that they continued afterward.

    I’m currently raising support to intern at my church (I’d like to be full-time in the fall, whereas currently I work as a volunteer), and I suspect part of the mentality that makes me willing to stretch myself this way (and believe me, it is a stretch, especially being Asian) comes from seeing God work in providing in a variety of ways in the short-term trips. At the very least, they’ve definitely changed my life–I was in Paris for five weeks two years ago and feel called to go back longer term in the future.

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  8. I would agree with Dawn. I spent six weeks in Central Asia and six weeks in spiritually destitute Berlin. Each time it awakened in me a deeper understanding of the worldwide church, a more comprehensive understanding of missions, and a better sense of what ministry would have been like in the early church than I could have had in the U.S. The main priority of short-term missions is twofold. One of them is to motivate people who will get a taste for it and go long-term, while promoting the others’ sense of it enough to encourage others and simply make them more balanced Christians. The other purpose is that sometimes it takes people from outside to come in and help with certain things that don’t take more than a few weeks. I’m not sure all the cases of missions projects are serving such purpose, but some of them surely are.

    I would also like you to know that there are missions projects that are for training thinkers to be better thinkers or to confront the best thinkers in particular ways. Campus Crusade, for instance, has had such projects for something like 15 years. My brother went to one on being a better communicator to the culture around us, and I know of one that’s ongoing every summer that some Ph.D. academic types ran that helped top students grow in thinking Christianly.

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  9. Matthew,

    This is the sign of a great post. It generates a lot of thought and comment.

    To answer your question, what I meant by “quicker results” was not even conversions, which I would categorize as (usually) more of a long-term enterprise.

    Quicker results would include such tangible things as handing people food, erecting mud-huts or other structures, and dispensing medicine, for example. These tangible returns are easier to verify (to some donors) than an (albeit priceless and longer-lasting) educational experience.

    I don’t disagree with you, Matthew, in your overall premise: the Church needs to get behind Christian Education.

    But, in terms of “marketing” to the donors, these distinctions are perceived as real, I suppose.

    Peace,
    RICHARD

    Reply

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