Doing Justice to Short-Term Mission Trips
Short-term mission trips are a hot topic in the Christian Reformed Church right now, and in the broader Western church in general. Millions of North Americans travel to both far off and nearby places every year with the intention of sharing the good news of Christ to those living in poverty, or places where the gospel is not well known.
These trips, otherwise short-formed to “STMs,” usually involve travelling to a different country for a brief period of time—anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of months. Most groups are composed of volunteers within a church congregation. These volunteers sacrifice time, money, and resources to travel, serve, and share the gospel. It sounds great, right? What could be possibly be wrong with that?
Short-term missions frequently do very little to address injustice.
This past weekend I spent three days in Ridgetown, Ontario, at a festival called “Cahoots!” It’s organized by the Student Christian Movement and the Beansprout Collective, and is in its third year.
The idea behind Cahoots! is to gather anyone who is interested in the intersection of faith, justice and activism. All are welcome: LGBTQ+, refugees, people of colour, privileged white folks, clergy, queer persons, and anyone on the margins of the church or of society.
By no means was this a “Reformed” event, and it pushed me far out of the comfort zone I sat in for nearly 20 years at a fairly traditional CRC. However, I definitely found the presence of the Spirit among the wonderful, ramshackle group that gathered. And, interestingly enough, I found myself a minority. The amount of straight, white men there was minimal. Perhaps I was given an extremely small taste of what life on the margins is like for many people.
Part of my participation at the festival was leading a workshop with my good friend, Justin, on STMs, entitled “Doing Justice to Short Term Experiences.” Justin has spent large parts of his life involved in short-term missions in Canada, the Philippines, Guatemala, and this coming autumn, South Africa. Justin brought a lot of knowledge of cross-cultural experiences, while I brought a keen understanding of Biblical justice, and my own STM experience in Northern Ireland, to the workshop.
During the lead-up and the debriefing of the workshop, I spent much time reflecting on what I had been reading, and what I heard during and after the workshop. I was left with four ideas about short-term experiences that I would like to highlight:
- It’s not about you. It’s about the people and place you’re visiting. Churches usually send out short-term missionaries with the intent of hearing from the volunteers when they are back in North America, rather than hearing from people in the receiving place. This attitude can allow for neo-colonialism, paternalism, and privilege to rear their ugly heads, creating what is now commonly known as “White Saviour Complex.”
- It’s not a vacation. Cross-cultural experiences are complicated, and we need to learn how to take postures of listening and humility—not which posture is best for our next “selfie.”
- Language matters. The commonly accepted term for missions in the CRC comes from the Latin missio, from mittere, which literally means “to send.” The notion of sending Christians out to evangelize is a popular and attractive one to many Western Christians today. However, as we embrace this sending, it sometimes speaks to the faint (and often unnoticed) colonial repercussions of concepts like the Doctrine of Discovery. This is not to deny the importance of mission, but our sending can come at the expense of transformed relationships, and be tinged with paternalism.
- Robust preparation is crucial. In order to communicate and learn well across cultural boundaries, education about the country, city, or village being visited is of paramount importance. What is the theological background of the receiving location? Who are the leaders in the community? Are the people being sent empowering and inviting the community they’re visiting to participate in our process?
Ultimately, a cultural and structural change within our churches needs to happen. There must be a fundamental shift in the way we talk about, practice, and listen to stories of short-term missions. Rather than calling them “missions,” we may be better off to call them “learning trips” or “cross-cultural experiences.” We need to begin asking if these trips are creating any lasting or transformative change in those being sent, or those receiving.
If the goal of Biblical justice is to return to the shalom we experienced when God created us, then the motives and end goals of short-term mission trips need to reflect this.
Want to talk more about short-term missions and your church? Contact DMC’s Justice Mobilizer, Dan Galenkamp, and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hey Dan – great article! You pointed out a number of very important issues that churches should be aware of prior to sending a team to serve overseas. A Think Tank that I was part of for a few years has looked very closely at the Seven Standards of Excellence (SOE) so that all those involved (including the hosts and sending churches) are engaged in a process that highlights justice and transformation. We also worked hard on the development of a new curriculum for churches called “Changed For Life” which addresses exactly what you’ve written about. You can find a link to that curriculum at http://www.bechangedforlife.org and also on the ServiceLink website.
Thanks for the comment and the link. I’ve heard of the curriculum, and it looks fantastic!