Are short term missions turning people into beggars? maybe; maybe not

Kruse Kronicle has just posted Religious Tourism – republished from Bob Lupton’s October newsletter. Here are some excerpts – read the whole story at Kruse’s Religious Tourism.

“They’re turning my people into beggars!” . . .

. . . . Juan was not blaming his people for becoming beggars. He was faulting the affluent, well-meaning U.S. church for its unexamined generosity. His accusations, now pouring forth with considerable force, were directed at naïve “vacationaries” who spend millions of dollars traveling to his country, perform work that locals could better do for themselves, and create a welfare economy that deprives a people of the pride of their own accomplishments — all in the name of Christian service. The unintended consequences of such mission work was undoing the very vision Juan had given his life to — helping his people emerge from poverty through training, entrepreneurship, saving and hard work. . .

For some reason U.S. churches, filled with results-oriented members, seem oblivious to the abysmal outcomes of many if not most mission trips. Perhaps because it feels so good to be giving to those so much worse off, or because unconditional serving seems so Christ-like, the Western church embraces with great pride an unexamined form of charity that our nation as a whole rejected with the passage of the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. We know that welfare creates unhealthy dependency, that it erodes a work ethic, that it does not elevate people out of poverty. Yet, in the name of Christ, we perpetuate this very welfare principle in the way we do missions. And the trend is growing!

A Princeton University study found that in one year (2005) 1.6 million church members took mission trips — an average of eight days — at a cost of $2.4 billion. And the number has grown every year since. “Religious tourism” as some call it has become a growth industry. The web is full of agencies (denominational and para-church) ready to connect churches to a “meaningful mission experience” in an exotic location rife with human need. The Bahamas, for example, receives one short-term missionary for every fifteen residents. . . .

Read the stories of contrasting water projects

. . . PS: Some believe that short-term missions trips whet the appetite for long-term mission involvement. Research does not support this claim however. In spite of all the moving testimonies of “life-changing experiences” by returning short-termers and the occasional example of full-time missionaries who point to a mission trip as the catalyst for their calling, there is no evidence that missions as a whole has benefitted. As a matter of fact, while short-term mission trips have increased dramatically over the past two decades, support of long-term missionaries has declined. Strangely, the correlation seems to be inverse. Perhaps because we have spent so lavishly on “religious tourism” we feel that our financial responsibility to missions has been discharged. Or is it that long-term missionaries do not serve the immediate self-interest of our church?

For more on short-term missions see the earlier post Short Term Missions or Religious Tourism and all the related links from RESOURCE ON SHORT-TERM MISSIONS at the bottom of Kurt Ver Beek’s page, (Calvin College)

I’m pretty ambivalent about what I call “missionary tourism” – Barna’s self reported results. There is even a safari company in Nairobi called “Missionary Tours.” At first I self-righteously scoffed at the concept. Then part of me started thinking why not? As long as people are going to do tourism, why not have some of the proceeds go more directly to some local communities and projects instead of the game parks and Serena hotels. You can start a safari lodge or you can start a community development project; both can bring in foreign income. (It’s just a different kind of capitalism at work; you give your money in exchange for feeling better about yourself 😉 I just get concerned when this kind of tourism comes with a “we are saving the world attitude.” Then again, what about my own motives for being here? (Call of God? Or a something I enjoy doing that makes me feel good about myself?) Don’t we all want to feel like we are making a difference?

More responses to Lupton’s letter:

1. Sometimes local sustainability is a lot more complex than the success story noted here makes it seem.

2. My fear is that if we make it sound too complicated, even well-intentioned people might stop giving at all. There are plenty of other things they will happily spend their money on – e.g. their own new church buildings. It’s hard enough getting people to be generous, and the needs over here can be overwhelming. Every bit of extra cash helps; infusing extra cash into the local economies can’t be all bad. (It’s not like it’s a $700 billion dollar bailout of Wall Street).

3. Why is it an either/or proposition? This particular true of the connection between short-term missions and long-term wealth generation.

Three personal examples:

Example 1: My brother-in-law worked very hard to do all the things recommended in the article on his own water project in rural Uganda – community organization, local investment, sustainability, ideas for wealth generation, etc. Still, until the overall economy of that area of the country rose high enough for parts to be more readily available (as well as water engineers becoming more prevalent in the area – thanks to other NGO’s). He still spent years trouble shooting emergencies to keep it going. It’s possible that some remote parts need a little bit more of the basic infrastructure to be able to sustain these projects.

Example 2: This August, I was a last minute addition to an entirely Kenyan pastoral training team to rural Western Kenya. In conjunction with this training, a team had come out from the US to do vacation Bible school (VBS), and help build a classroom (naturally). While the women and teenagers did VBS, the two men went to help build the classroom. Over breakfast the next day, I was talking to one of them named John who is a real estate project manager back at home. On the first day, he had rolled up his sleeves to help with the building, and was hustling pretty quickly as he moved bricks over to the wall they were building. Then as he looked around, he realized that all the young laborers had gradually quit working and were sitting under a tree; he had just taken all their jobs. So he went over and sat with them, and eventually they trickled back to work. He spent the rest of the week, talking to various people, learning about their local culture, and visiting several different projects. Most of his time, he just listened and learned about all the local challenges .

John got it right because he paid attention and set aside his own goal orientation, and in the end, he benefited a lot more. He now knows that he has just begun a long journey of learning all the paradoxical complexities – of poverty, economics, culture, and wealth generation. He wants to come back again next year to build on the relationships he started this time, but now he is thinking more deeply about how to be God’s instrument in truly partnering ways that help the community more long-term. Next time he comes, he will come with a completely different set of plans and expectations. That’s the way it should be, but he had to come that first time – “just as I am.”

Example 3: Not too long after Christi arrived, she was asked to be on the school board of the primary school where our kids go. The school always seemed to having financial problems and teacher moral was low – their salaries weren’t always paid on time. Then as the new school board started researching the issues, they discovered that many of the parents weren’t paying their kids tuition fees (about $100 a term). The principle was a soft-hearted women who saw the school as a ministry to poor seminary students, and she always felt bad demanding the payments. Once the school board helped her implement a stricter payment policy, suddenly the school was financially viable, the teacher salaries could be raised, and everything seemed brighter. (It wasn’t easy, after the new policy was implemented and the payment deadline arrived, the principle had to swallow hard and send about half the kids home for non-payment; about 90% of them returned within 30 minutes with the full payment. A staggered payment plan is also available.) Here was an example of a small policy change that transformed the whole ethos of school.

While the the main issue of financially sustainability has been resolved, the primary school still benefits from the largess of short-term missionaries. There is a dramatic difference between the amount of supplies and books this little school has and what the nearby American missionary school has. (Tuition there is about 10x as high; something none of these kids can dream of affording). So this little primary school thrives on short-term missionaries who bring lots of craft supplies and basics such as crayons and markers. A group in the US donated an entire children’s library to the school; excess books are being sold to generate more income. A copier that was donated by a church in the US is now being used to generate the salary of a computer teacher. Had people not freely donated computers, these kids wouldn’t be taking computer classes period (there just isn’t that much up-front cash in the local economy to purchase these kind of modern “luxuries”.) Has it turned the school into beggars? Hardly. All the income to run the core business is locally generated; the generosity of the short-term missionaries goes to improving the quality of life.

Early in Lupton’s letter he says,

What peasant scratching out a bare existence could refuse suitcases bulging with new clothing for his family? What struggling pastor could resist the temptation to accept a steady salary and generous church income in exchange for hosting visitors, organizing volunteer work, and staffing funded programs? What village would borrow money to dig a well or buy books for their school library or save money to build a church if these things were provided for them free of charge? If all they had to do was make their wish lists, show up for the schedule arranged by the donors, and smile graciously until their benefactors head back home, who would blame them for accepting this easy charity?

And I ask, “What’s wrong with that?” Why shouldn’t they get a bunch of free clothes from the affluent West? Why shouldn’t a pastor get a steady salary? Don’t we all want a steady salary? Maybe the issue isn’t the free clothes. Maybe the issue is that they simply don’t don’t know how to generate wealth. In other words, we may be talking about apples and oranges – two completely unrelated issues.

Let’s take the issue of the different water projects. Why can’t Juan say, “that’s great that they got a free water project. Let’s talk about how we can invest their resources in sustaining it or in creating other wealth generating projects.” Surely, there are other ways of generating wealth besides water projects. Or does Juan’s job security play some role in motivating his comments? For the record, I love what he is doing, but someone might cynically make the case that all these NGO’s supposedly setting up “sustainable” projects are primarily about generating salaries for themselves. (They are simply a different kind of capitalistic entrepreneurship, well-meaning as they might be.)

Bottom line: The heart of the issue may have more to do with a changing global economic paradigm than short-term missions per se. (Are long-term missions doing more to generate wealth?) Many of these cultures have had well-entrenched habits of patron and client relationships long before any missionary showed up. A society that has been doing fine for centuries on subsistence farming is suddenly faced with a population explosion and the costs of increased living standards in a globalizing world (all good things.) And mixed into all this is the good news of Jesus Christ – in all it’s different cultural manifestations.

Let me be clear, I’m the first in line to cheer for sustainability and helping people generate wealth. (I’ve tried to make that point repeatedly elsewhere.)  I’m also quite critical of the self-centered nature of short term missions. It boggles my mind when I think how how millions of “missionary tourist” dollars could instead be invested in local, long-term economic growth. But I also know that without the missionary tourism, there probably wouldn’t be any cash infusion at all. The locals all get this, so they just smile and wave. Maybe with a little bit of tweaking, we can have a both-and scenario.

Believe it or not, when I started this post, I didn’t expect to be defending short-term missions. All I’m trying to say here is that maybe short-term missions and their short-term generosity are just an easy whipping boys for what is really a much more complex economic and cultural mix.

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14 thoughts on “Are short term missions turning people into beggars? maybe; maybe not

  1. steph says:

    “Is short term missions …”, “missions as a whole has …” why are missions being treated as a singular?

  2. Ben says:

    Wow that was quick!!

    Good point; I was mostly quoting, but I have changed the title. Maybe it’s a little like an organization saying “communications is”. . . (a department; a field of study.) In the popular parlance, short-term missions IS something (abstract concept) US churches do by going on a lot of short-term missionS (plural trips.) As you already know, I’m not exactly an English language expert, and I know Brits and Americans have different ways of doing some plurals. I’m open to being helped.

    Sorry to keep sticking one of your favorite subjects in your face, but there is another world out there that needs to wrestle with this.

    Do you want to weigh in on the economic impacts?

  3. steph says:

    I thought you were quoting but I thought the title might be quoting too. It sounds weird. Mind you our newly elected right wing investment banking multi millionaire PM probably wouldn’t notice – he’s the most inarticulate creature on the planet who can’t even pronounce his own country – nuoi ziund – or our nearest neighbour – Orshraia. While the world wakes up to the left, my silly country full of sheep, follow the mantra “change” and change to the right. Jeepers.

    Anyway, I agree with some of what you say to a point but it’s difficult to judge the impact of economic change without being there or at least knowing more than I do. However I agree that it is very complex and I have worries about the types of change implemented – turning it into the west. 🙂

  4. […] Ben Byerly has written a very thought-provoking blog post about short-term mission: “Are short term missions turning people into beggars? maybe; maybe not” […]

  5. […] Read Ben’s original post here. […]

  6. @steph: On the note about ‘missions’ vs ‘mission’, it would seem we have an example of North American vs Other English. I’ve come to realise that ‘Missions’, the plural, is used on the West side of the Atlantic as a concept (thus is uncountable) as Ben suggested. The the rest-of-the-world English, I think the concept is expressed using the singular ‘Mission’ but also slightly differently used. So in general English, we talk about a singular event of someone being sent to do something specific as a mission (whether religious or military or whatever). Several missions might be carried out by astronauts, say, who might accidentally let a tool bag drift into space.

    But in NA English, there is a religious-exclusive sense of the word where ‘Missions’ is the concept that Christians should go to other places/countries to do something Christian. Rest-of-the-world English would probably use a capital M singular Mission to reflect this concept. So a North American church I guess might have a Missions Committee which looked after the missionary (overseas) concerns of the church. Other places would call that maybe the Mission Group or Missionary Committee etc. How we got to this place of having a plural noun refer to a concept I don’t know. It seems quite rare in English. But in a sense you can see that ‘Missions’ means carrying out lots of missions, so in some ways it makes sense.

    Anyway, away from the vagaries of the English language, I’m doubtful as to whether we can legitimately argue cause-and-effect relationships between short-term mission becoming more popular and long-term mission becoming eroded. It’s more complex than this, as you say. The world and worldviews have changed. Where people used to have one job in one place for life in the West, that is almost unheard-of now. So, there being any long-termers at all around staying in the same place is already unusual or counter-cultural. People have become more mobile and go here and there working a year in Australia here, being sent by their (now defunct) merchant bank to New York for a few months for high-powered training, then moved around the world every 2 years so they don’t stagnate. We need to see how the world’s and the west’s general expectations have changed and see how that may be impacting short-term and long-term missions. Whereas in the past you might have committed to a 4 year initial term (or in the 19th century, lifetime service) in a place you had only read of, now you can go and look to see how you think you’d fit into a mission situation. You might look at several options. You might move on to something completely different after 10 years somewhere. Is that less spiritual? Some would say it is, but I remain to be convinced that it’s anything more than down to culture and individual circumstances.

    After all, Paul went on a series of short term mission trips (would the North American term be ‘missions trips’?) and sometimes stayed for a few years in some places. He didn’t really seem in any place for the long haul and neither did he really insist on Timothy and Titus and others committing themselves to one place for the long term. His vision seemed to be bigger – seeing his own missions as part of God’s Mission, and the establishment of a church. Short term missions have to be placed into that framework: part of God’s Missions, not just ours.

    And that doesn’t completely answer the question we began with, does it?

  7. Ben says:

    Thanks for elaborating on the various Englishes. After being in the UK for six weeks I sometimes wondered what language you guys were speaking. Where did all the “R”s go?

    You are absolutely right about that changing face of “missions”, people doing more “short-term” projects, changing settings every few years, etc. You of all people would know. ;-). Just to clarify, the kind of “short-term” missions this article was referencing (and I was talking about) might best be referred to as short, short-term missions (e.g. “summer missions,” missionary tourism)- the kind where people go some place for just a couple of weeks to visit and do things like build a church, a classroom, or some other week-long project.

    So the question from that perspective is this: How many people who go on these week to month-long mission excursions (short-short-term projects) wind up either doing or financially supporting what you do – let’s call it “medium” to long-term cross-cultural service? In this post I have been reflecting more on the economic impact on the locals, but the empirical studies I’ve linked to in this post seem to indicate that people who go on these trips are NOT any more likely to financially support or do long-term cross cultural work than those who stay home. (This despite the fact that they almost always say that it was a “life-changing” experience.)

  8. […] Ben Byerly has written a very thought-provoking blog post about short-term mission: “Are short term missions turning people into beggars? maybe; maybe not” […]

  9. […] Ben Byerly has written a very thought-provoking blog post about short-term mission: “Are short term missions turning people into beggars? maybe; maybe not” […]

  10. Fiene says:

    Short term missions do well as supplemental activities to help support collaborative, long term, sustainable projects. They allow individuals from the “west” to enhance their world view and become aware of the complexity of sustainable development. One short term trip may translate into a lifetime of involvement, not necessarily through long term missions rather financially and/or by advocating appropriate development methods based on mutual partnerships. In order for this to work, however, participants must rid themselves of self-righteousness and understand that they are there to “receive” as well as “give”.

    • Ben says:

      Very true, long-term relationships are key. I wish more people came realizing that they are mostly coming to learn; maybe it’s harder to raise support that way. Ironically, according to a study by a Calvin professor, short term mission trips do NOT actually translate into more financial giving over the long run. Hmmmm.

  11. […] 3 Jul 2009 by Ben I’ve written about a similar topic before in relation to short-term missions (missionary tourism and the poor). Here is an article that I think anyone planning short-term missions might want to […]

  12. Moses says:

    Hi Ben –

    Great, but you forget to look at the MACRO-economic picture.

    Sending 50,000 unskilled Africans to go work in McDonalds, for free: you guys call that human trafficking. If course, McDonalds is happy…

    Sending 50,000 unskilled “mzungus” to my country (Uganda) a year, you call that voluntourism. If course, the schools are happy.

    But do you EVER wonder what happens to the 50,000 fresh graduates at Makerere University who have to compete with that unskilled free workforce?

    Mmmmm….

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