In a recent piece for Christianity Today, Doug Banister described one of the problems with short-term mission trips:
I spent many years taking mission trips to Tulcea, Romania. We shared the gospel, cared for orphans, and started a medical clinic. It seemed that God moved in powerful ways. Then my friends Jon and Toni moved into one of Knoxville’s marginalized neighborhoods. Jon invited me to go on prayer walks with him on Wednesday mornings. I saw syringes on playgrounds, prostitutes turning tricks, hustlers selling drugs. Our walks led me to volunteer at the elementary school in Jon’s neighborhood. I’d assumed all the schools in our city were pretty much the same. They aren’t. Kids with B averages in Jon’s school score in the 30th percentile on standardized tests. Kids with B averages in my neighborhood score in the 90th percentile.
Along the way, a pastor named Johnny began showing me what the city looked like from the front lawn of his cash-strapped inner-city church. As I spent more time in Knoxville’s at-risk neighborhoods, I realized that I knew more about poverty in Tulcea than I knew about poverty in Knoxville. I was pursuing the common good of a city across the world while neglecting the common good of the place where I lived.
Banister went on to talk about all the things that the $3,000 used to send one teenager or college kid overseas could do in Knoxville. And Banister isn’t the only one rethinking the short-term missions trip. Banister raised many of the most common objections to short-term trips and they’re all sound, but I want to expand on his point just a bit.
It’s common for evangelicals in thinking about the best way to use their resources to look for discrete, one-time actions they can take with their money. So we can spend three grand to go on a trip to Poland or we can spend three grand to buy books for a local school or put a roof on a widow’s house. These are all worthy pursuits and no reader should think that I’m condemning any of them. But just as we can say “spending locally may be better than spending internationally,” on these sorts of outreach, I want to push it still further and say “spending on local institutions may be better than spending on discrete, one-time events.”
To take only one example, what if instead of spending thousands of dollars on mercy projects for area families living in poverty, we started spending money to set up a vocational training program to teach home improvement, maintenance, and other handy-man type projects? Obviously we’d still need to do something different to help the elderly widow who needs a roof (and that may well be simply buying the roof), but what if you hire someone to teach workshops for people in your area on doing general home improvement projects?
By approaching it that way, you’re equipping people to promote the common good of the city from the bottom up, rather than the top down with one well-moneyed social body throwing money at social problems. You’re also empowering them to take care of themselves as much as they’re able, rather than depending upon assistance from some well-intentioned patron who can quickly turn into a tacitly dangerous paternalist.
But we can push this idea a bit further too. As Christians, we believe that any social problem is at its roots a worship problem. People misplace their love and that drives them to making socially and individually destructive choices. So what if we pursue setting up programs and institutions that help shape our loves in healthier, Gospel-shaped ways? Toward this end, I can think of few investments more worthy of our support than setting up inner city Christian schools that offer affordable–or even free–tuition so that poor families can send their children to a school that will train them to live well in God’s world. (On this note, may works like the one being done at Restoration Academy continue to flourish.)
Next to that, we’ll need to have educated leaders in our local churches with that rare combination of deep knowledge of the Christian faith and church and of the unique realities of life in their particular community. This will mean having something like seminary-level theological education available locally to church leaders.
And yes, everything I’m proposing will cost a decent chunk of change. But, to take only one example, sending myself and five friends to Zambia six years ago cost American Christians around $24,000. As much as I enjoyed my time in Zambia, I can’t help wondering if there may have been better uses for that money. Suppose American Christians simply scaled back their short-term missions trips and used that money to build local institutions–how much money would that free up? If the stats cited by Banister are accurate, even a 25% reduction in short-term mission trips costs would free up $400 million. I can think of a few seminaries and universities that could use that money–and a few cities that could use schools, vocational training programs, and seminary-type education who could use it too.