December 9, 2021

Opinion: The Problem of Short-Term Missions

Mary Stuart Murray '22

Every year when I attend Missions Chapel, I am struck once again by the bad taste that short-term missions leaves in my mouth. It is the same taste that lingers after scrolling through Instagram during the summer months and being greeted with post after post of smiling white girls holding orphan babies in various “exotic” locales. Beneath these photos are often paragraph-long captions about how the mission trip changed their lives, and how they will never forget the people they went to help, who were instead people who helped them. They also include little jokes about seeing wild animals native to the country, and trying “weird” food (a concept which, I should note, is culturally relative and problematic in its own right). I should be glad the light of Christ is being spread; I think as I skim these memoirs of summers spent building houses and playing with cute babies—but all I experience is a creeping feeling of discomfort. 

Back to Missions Chapel. Don’t get me wrong, I love Guitar-mageddon as much as the next gal, and it’s amazing to see that my peers want to spread the gospel around the world; however, I do not believe that international, short-term missions are the best way to do this. 

Once again, I would like to restate that I am in no way attacking the individuals who spoke during Missions Chapel. What I propose is merely a different angle at which to view summer (or even spring) break mission trips to international locations—particularly countries throughout Africa, given that all three of the A.J. Gordon-funded mission trips were in this continent. 

First of all, Americans must be aware that their transformative experience is not the goal of a mission trip. And while the trip may end after a span of weeks or months for the volunteers, the difficult, life-changing experiences they underwent during this time period are the facts of life for the people in the countries to which they ministered. Those participating in short-term missions work (participants who, more often than not, are affluent white people) feel a sense of satisfaction when looking back on their memories of their trip, not realizing that—for people in the places they visited—life goes on as always.

Children that live in orphanages are particularly vulnerable to both emotional and psychological damage caused by well-intending people who come to serve them on mission trips. This is due to the orphan children’s inability to form secure attachments with the people around them, given that those people come and go within the space of a few short weeks or months. Not only this, but there are a number of instances where children in orphanages dealt with instances of molestation or sexual assault at the hands of missionaries. (Please note that I am in no way intending to incriminate my peers who worked in orphanages over the summer in perpetrating these kinds of abuse). 

There is also the issue of mission work and colonialism. At the turn of the sixteenth century, Spanish missionaries to the First Peoples of the Americas were more interested in helping to ease the Spanish conquest of the continents rather than gospel work. Their methods often involved forcefully converting these individuals upon threat of death. A similar pattern can be seen with European missionaries to the nations of Africa. This issue of American and Western European nations hiding behind missions work as a way to impose colonialist ideas into the people they are supposed to be serving is a well-known fact. By colonialist ideals, I am referring to the supremacy of Western Culture these missionaries touted, as well as their frequent condemnation of the native culture as “pagan” or “savage.” This is not, however, a direct connection to those individuals and volunteers going on short-term mission trips today. It is, however, a thread which we can follow to today’s white savior complex. This term refers to when a white person provides help to non-white people in a self-serving manner, acting as a sort of “savior” figure to those around them. 

While this is a term often used when discussing film tropes (such as in movies like The Blind Side, The Help, Greenbook, etc.) it is important to note that it is a present trend in American Christianity. Evangelical Christians have been known to enter minority communities with the goal of service, but do so at the expense of the leadership that may already be in place, as well as inhibiting the agency of the community they are working in. And yet, these Christians are blind to the damage they are causing, due to a misplaced sense of altruism. While those volunteering to go on mission trips may not consciously adhere to this mindset, it is easy to imagine one’s impact as all-important, and in doing so, mitigate the strength and perseverance of those who belong to the native community, 

At this point, the reader may be wondering: Is there any way that I can help spread the gospel to those around the world without doing more harm than good? The answer is yes! If you have already raised money to go on a short-term mission trip, consider donating it to organizations already on the ground serving the community you are passionate about, particularly those run by people from that community who are there for the long term.  It is also important not to neglect the needs within one’s own country and towns. It may not be as glamorous as working internationally, but volunteering in a nearby city or town is just as important as spreading the gospel overseas. Not only is it a meaningful way to get connected with your community, but also a more efficient way to serve immediately, without the issue of language-barriers, cross-cultural education, or living arrangements, and you can commit to this community for the long term. If your intention is to reach a more international community, consider refugee activism and volunteer work serving refugees in America.

Some may say that short-term missions help to awaken those living in developed countries to all that they take for granted, but with globalization and the prevalence of technology in today’s world, ignorance of one’s privilege is a choice. Not only that, but a visit to a developing country—not under the guise of a mission trip— can accomplish the same goal, as well as help tourism in that country, and in turn, its economy.

The debate of short-term missions is an ongoing one, with participants from all different backgrounds. And while this article is nowhere close to bringing to light all the arguments from those who share my point of view, my hope is that it will help broaden the minds of those reading it and encourage them to think of short-term missions in a new way. 

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