February 25, 2024

Opinion: Short Term Missions: Colonialism or Commission?

Short Term Missions (STMs) have been a hot topic for a long time. Littered with nuance and situational clauses, it is easy to get lost while presenting a case, either for or against the idea. And it is no wonder that this is the case; many have been hurt in the name of missions. But does that make all Short Term Missions bad? 

What I present today is a defense for STMs. I grew up as a missionary kid, living in South America for the greater portion of my life. I know first-hand how short-term missions can be done incorrectly. It makes me sad to admit I was unknowingly a part of something that was ultimately not as good as it could have been. And for a while, I was soured towards the idea that churches would encourage participants (many times white, single young adults) to enter into countries that I believed they had no business meddling in. Because that is what the opposition argues: that missions at best are a form of meddling, and at worst a version of modern-day colonialism.

As stated above, this is a nuanced topic. Many will not like my answer towards the validity of STMs, because at the end of the day it boils down to “well, it depends.” There are terrible accounts all around the world of Western Christians entering into countries and suppressing the local culture to fit their own. And I will not negate this reality; however, what I will say is that these are outliers when lined up with the modern church’s definition for STMs.

I interviewed Rajendra (Raj) Pillai, the lead pastor of Damascus Road Community Church in Maryland. The reason I sought him out was that he was born and raised in Kolkata, India and has firsthand accounts of how missions have worked in his country. He admitted that he has experienced both sides of missions. Sometimes people come into the country and bring wonderful, God-inspired change. However, others have brought the opposite, and the church could not wait for them to leave. Raj stated that this second group is a “disservice to the cause of Christ.”

But one cannot state that atrocities committed by the few negate the whole system. Some have argued that irrespective of one’s intentions going abroad, that person will always become a tool to promote a corrupted system. This sort of pessimistic thinking stunts the growth of the diaspora church. Thus, to truly get to the bottom of this issue, we must know what the definition of STMs are. Modern day STMs connect with local churches and do the work that they are asked to do. What those who truly want to consider STMs need to know is that it is not a type of tourism.

Furthermore, to state that all forms of international missions lead to colonialism is to be blind to what the state of missionaries look like today. According to Gordon Conwell’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity, a good portion of the world’s missionaries are being sent from the Global South; in fact, almost half of the top twenty mission-sending countries are from Brazil, India, Philippines, and Mexico. This is radically different than the image of white suburban young adults going to a country in Africa to gain “an experience.” So, if missions have been changing over the years, so do our preconceptions and biases.

In Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s When Helping Hurts,they explain, “until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good” (61). Many churches have taken this instruction and allowed it to change the face of missions. Now, most STMs are no longer experience-focused; rather, they are humanitarian-centered. They usually partner with either a local organization or church and most importantly of all, create long term relationships. As Raj hammered in my interview, “in order to be effective, the focus of short-term missions should always be long term relational connections and results.”

To whittle down God’s commandment to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19) as a catalyst for Western selfishness and imperialism, would be to grossly misinterpret the Gospel. If we are to interpret Jesus’s ministry as a Jew solely ministering to other Jews, then we are missing half the point. The very fact that I can call myself a Christian is thanks to Paul’s calling to go out among the Gentiles and preach the good news. Ultimately, STMs are continually growing, changing, and becoming aware of what the diaspora church needs.

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