Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Selling an Experience

What is the purpose of short-term mission trips? I’m talking about those 10-20 days trips we take during our vacations or spring breaks.

To the short-termer who goes: The purpose is to be a witness of Christ; love those who are different from us; encourage cross-cultural believers; build a church building or other needed asset in the work of the kingdom there; make a difference!

To the long-termer who hosts the short-termers: Make them feel like they’ve made an incredible difference.

Yes, it’s all politics.

Have you ever noticed that a politician never criticizes the culture or the people at large? Never will you hear an American presidential candidate say, “Well, you know Larry, this is where a vast majority of the American people are dead wrong. They need to change their thinking. They need to change their behavior.” No, they don’t go there even if they think this way. Instead, they compliment Americans. They talk about the greatness of the American Spirit and how they identify with the masses of people who live on “Main Street.” If anyone needs to change, it is those few but loud “radicals” that belong to the other political party.

Politicians have everything to gain from telling people they are good just the way they are. If a candidate says everyday people need to change, it is political suicide. Instead, they need to make people feel as if everything about them is all right.

So it is with short-term missions. Few people are brave enough to criticize these trips. Why? Because so many people go on them and have loved them. Because so many supporting churches send groups to visit their missionaries. A long-term missionary would be in trouble of losing support if he criticized his supporting church’s short-term approach.

I, for one, am not against short-term trips. Not in the least. If done right, I think they are great. In fact, I went on exactly ten short-term trips before I became a long-term missionary. (Well, six were in the 10-20 day range; four were in the 2-3 month range.) I would not have become a long-term missionary if it weren’t for those trips. So, I am not against such trips. Neither am I against people from my supporting churches coming to visit or do a small project. I love it! I love getting to share with them the country and the people I have grown to love. I feel like I have learned an entire world of new information from living in The Location and am delighted to share these things with people who come.

But there is one aspect of these short-term trips I have come to realize. Most people come to achieve one thing: An experience or sense that they’ve done something incredibly good.

People want to go home with the feeling, “That was awesome!” And there is only one thing, for Christians, that makes them feel that way—that they made an eternal difference.

It is not impossible, but it is very difficult to make a long-term impact in the space of 10-20 days. Even in the life of one person. Chances are the people coming for a week will be much more affected by the trip than The Location is affected by the people coming. But this doesn’t help recruiting:

“Come to the Far East and learn that you have anger issues you need to resolve when you return home!”

“Go on an exotic trip to Africa and learn that there is another way to live besides your narcissistic, consumeristic, individualistic existence!”

“Visit the other side of the world and discover that God is not only interested in, or dependent upon, the American church!”

These lines do not get people signing up in droves to spend $3,000 and precious vacation time.

Instead, we like to advertise like this:

“Spend a week of your time and make an eternal impact.”

“Experience what God is doing on the front lines of the gospel.”

“Be like Jesus and make a difference among the most unreached and the poorest of the poor.”

And we tell stories of how somebody went somewhere, met a local, shared the gospel and how he became a believer. We show pictures of white people hugging dark-skinned natives with bright white smiles. And we know that going on a trip is the best thing a spiritual person could do. While people at home don’t even want to hear the gospel, it is so easy to make a difference overseas where people are begging to hear the gospel but no one will even tell it to them!

If there ever was a missions “urban legend” that last statement is one! While there have been some instances of this dynamic in the history of Christian missions, it certainly does not characterize the “mission field” in general.

So, as a long-term missionary who often hosts short-term groups, I often feel like I have to sell an experience. I have to make people feel that what they’re doing is incredibly critical to the advance of God’s kingdom around the world. I have even had churches tell me that they want their people to have that feeling when they return.

I have to laugh. It is clear such churches aren’t really interested in making a difference overseas. Instead, they want to make a difference in their own people—in their church dynamic and church “life” back home. They want to feel like they’ve made a difference. And I’m stuck with the role of politician trying to make sure they feel that way.

If churches were really interested in making a difference on “the mission field” they would learn to accept that differences aren’t made that easily. They wouldn’t be so concerned about their “feelings” upon return home as they would be about gaining a greater understanding of the task ahead of them. They wouldn’t be so concerned about what they “do” but about what they “learn.” And they would spend more collective resources on long-term efforts than they spend on short-term trips.

But that just isn’t as sexy as being able to boast about one’s short-term trips and the incredible difference these trips are making to listeners at home who have no way to evaluate the real impact.


  1. Oh, wow Koffijah. Just wow!

    I have often thought those very thoughts. I always hear about how great it was for the youth group to go to Mexico and build this church for a poor village and how it was lifechanging for the native people. Um, yeah right. It was great that they were able to help and all, but don't tell me much of it wasn't just a mini vacation from their self absorbed lives. Okay, that's a little harsh. I haven't had my coffee this morning. Great post, friend.

  2. Interesting points.
    Supporting overseas missionaries with an extra pair of hands might also be a worthy goal.

  3. I would agree with a lot of that. Although my parents have done much short-term missions, and I can honestly say it's not to benefit them or make them feel good (but I can say that because I know my parents hearts and they are truly people who have hearts for others.) The last time they went to Turkey, my mom got the group arrested. Then they went to Palestine and my mom ended up with shingles and came home in a wheel chair. Beruit was next...Lybia...

    I think it's about the heart of the person going on the missions. We want to believe that it's all about the people they're going to evangelize to, but unfortunately it can be a 'how good I feel about myself now' experience.

  4. Very good post and so true! I have always felt that becoming a missionary is a definite calling - not entered into lightly. It is not everyone's calling. Being part of a short-term missions team can confirm that calling for one who is not quite sure. However, I have often wondered if the funds spent on sending a team to experience missions, would not achieve more if they were sent directly to the missionaries already there. At least that's how hubby felt after he had to lead his college students on two missionary teams - to two different continents. Just wondering here...

  5. You're right- these are excellent points. Thanks.