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Is it time to declare a mission trip moratorium?

Writing in Sojourners, Troy Jackson declared that it’s time to declare a moratorium on short-term mission trips. He makes the following points: According to Wycliffe Associates, approximately 1,600,000 Americans participate in mission trips each year. Assuming a cost of approxima…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

Writing in Sojourners, Troy Jackson declared that it’s time to declare a moratorium on short-term mission trips. He makes the following points:

  1. According to
    Wycliffe Associates, approximately 1,600,000 Americans participate in
    mission trips each year. Assuming a cost of approximately $1,500 per
    person for the average trip, American Christians are raising and
    spending more than $2 billion each year on mission trips around the
  2. In some cases, the mission trips reinforce Western paternalism
    while adding to dependency by indigenous peoples. 
  3. Far too many fail to
    provide any lasting economic development for the destination nation.
  4. Ironically, many of those who are so committed to investing thousands
    of dollars to bring the good news of Jesus to another part of the world
    are vigorously supporting a harsh crackdown on undocumented immigrants
    in the United States.

Given all this, Jackson has a proposal to make:

Declare a Mission Trip Moratorium. Still raise the $2 billion,
but invest that money in economic development and community development
projects led by the indigenous peoples themselves.

Interesting. As one who has written on some excesses with short term missions (Are mission trips faddish?), I agree with the notion that much of what Americans do on their mission trips could be done better.  Point 2 is one big reason why -paternalism is often a problem. And point 3 is true, many mission trips do nothing economically for the country (many of them are ministry-focused, so that’s not a goal of the trip, leaving one to ask the question “Is Jackson’s point that only those mission trips that focus on economic development are viable?”).
That said, for the purposes of this blog, let’s focus on points 1 and 4 and the draconian conclusion Jackson suggests of no more trips. As one who is often quoted on the subject of the scope of short-term missions, here is the reality I’ve found. First, Wycliffe’s number of 1.6m is realistic. Robert Priest of Trinity Seminary has cited that as many as 2m short-termers in his estimates. Unfortunately, from here forward, the article makes a number of errors,
Error #1: The majority of the approximately 1.6m mission trips are not international, but U.S.-based. Implement the moratorium and the main thing that would happen is that a lot of youth groups wouldn’t go to places like Chicago and Detroit and West Virginia to do projects.
Error #2: Because most projects are domestic, the median average price of a trip is closer to $300 than to $1500. A slight difference in money being spent on trips.
Error #3: Most monies raised for mission trips come from a different source than monies for missions as a whole. They are not allocated in advance, but are raised through car washes and garage sales and letters to Aunt Sally. If you didn’t do the mission trips, most of that money would not be available to reallocate.
Error #4: People actually give to what they experience. They give to missions because they’ve been involved. Roger Peterson’s study through STEM showed that giving to missions over-and-above trips actually goes up because of mission trips.
Error #5: The article correlates immigration policy to missions without making the case. It’s an odd correlation. Yes, both involve cross-cultural relationships, but how is stopping mission trips going to correct the perceived injustice done through immigration policy? If anything, it’s likely to make U.S. citizens more xenophobic if we prohibit interaction with those overseas through mission trips.
And what about situations like Haiti’s earthquake? No relief groups should go there? Really? I can point to a lot of lives that have been saved because of the wonderful hearts of those who went on mission trips to help out since the earthquake.
Having said that, we do need a dialogue about how to do mission trips with excellence. That’s why I’m a big fan of the STM standards of Excellence. Many mission trips should be re-directed to someplace cheaper and more accessible where inexperienced groups can begin putting Jesus’ Great Commission into practice. Hey, “Go into all the world and make disciples” is a foundational tenet of our faith. Almost all modern missionaries start out as short-termers. Proposing that we temporarily suspend the experiential starting place for understanding Matt. 28:19 seems like asking the church to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Comments (16)

  • Seth, thanks for addressing these assumptions.

    Yes, it may appear that the changes that happen through missions are greatest in those that go, but we are the ones undergoing the largest shift of reality. We push 24/7 for the duration of the trip and prepare in depth before going. Of course these efforts will bring forth a harvest in us.

    However, the long-term affect of the trip on the receiving location is felt months and years after a trip that is done according to the standards you connected us to. (Thanks, by the way, it was fun to measure our trip by these qualifications and see what we should work on.) If you return to the same locations often you can see even more reward for your labor as relationships bloom in all. There is nothing quite so fulfilling as getting a call from national leaders who are anxious to join in with what God has prepared for their community. The most enjoyable part of our experience in country has been the transformation of the local community of believers who look forward to working together. Unity is a powerful thing.

    Short Term Mission trips are no doubt done poorly, just like many other faith based initiatives, however, the bath water is still warm so lets jump in the tub and get that baby cleaned up!

  • You touch on this in #4, but I’d expand on it. I’ll speak from personal experience.

    These international experiences change privileged American youths for the better, giving them a perspective they’d never otherwise get. They no longer see international people as “other” but as people — God’s children.

    Just as important, long-term missionaries come from the ranks of short-term missionaries.

    Finally, I don’t think paternalism and short-term missions are correlated at all– paternalism is perpetuated by local American-run missions. The local organization determines the character of the groups it invites. So if you have a local mission like http://www.predisan.org, for example, there’s much less risk of paternalism in short-term missions.

  • Not sure how to put it in words but reading that Sojourners article evokes for me thoughts from the story of how Jesus rebuked his disciples for being upset with the woman they claimed wasted her precious perfume on Jesus saying the money from selling it could’ve gone to the poor.

    Also brings to mind another which is the story of Martha and Mary where one wanted to just do work and the other to get to know Jesus even better.

    I guess in both of these thoughts there’s something deeper about building on a personal relationship that carries an intangible value even if for just a moment, but lasting a lifetime.

    Haiti was my first missions trip ever just having returned a few weeks ago. I was impressed and credit AIM’s approach to be very valuable in that by establishing relationships first by simply listening and being friends with the Haitians, that when it came to distribution of provisions our team found ourselves working with them as opposed to working for them. In other words, they helped us help them and their community. By this it gave us that sense of unity.

  • Thanks for articulating a much needed dialogue about the place & importance of missions in general & mission trips in specific.

    Much as we like it or dislike it, the harsh reality is that the overwhelming majority of people, young, old, or in the middle, would never participate in any sort of missional outreach if it weren’t for short term mission trips. Some mission experience is better than no mission experience.

    In 1969, my wife, Lynn, went on a short term mission trip through the Southern Baptist’s BSU (now known as BCM). She spent a number of weeks in Tanzania. It solidified her call to missions, & specifically to east Africa. She went on to serve with the IMB in Kenya for 9 years, during the ’70’s.

    What would have happened to her if she hadn’t gone in 1969 to Tanzania on a BCM sponsored trip? We’ll never know.

    I also think we need to be careful in our perceptions of Sojourners. We’re all guilty of judging others & other things from our own personal strengths. It would seem that perhaps Mr. Jackson may have been doing that in his postulations about short term mission trips.

    I think it would be wise if we were careful & not be guilty of the same thing by judging him, & perhaps Sojourners, from the strengths of our missional priorities.

  • Are all 1.6 million missing God’s call? Maybe Tony Jackson is just trying to get people to think, but such broad statements of what God’s will is for everyone and what everyone should do with their money misses the reality of God speaking to and leading individuals.

  • here’s food for thought, why dont we just sell off all the church buildings and meet in homes? then send all the money to the poor countries?…just an idea…and biblical Im sure

  • As a former intercollegiate debater what a great job you did Seth in refuting some of the invalid assumptions in the original article. There are as you point out some needed discussions about the short term mission enterprise where there has been in my opinion some excess and also a failure document durable and measured results. AIM in my experience has always been a pacesetter on the side of innovation with results and you still are.


  • Focus on currency is the issue. When you view God’s currency – Love, Peace, Joy, Prayer, Kingdom, Fellowship etc, and your eyes are fixed on heaven, our economy and mammon issues become insignificant. God operates by Kingdom rules, our circumstances don’t determine his outcomes. God through an open heaven is unlimited resource, we just have to slay the dragon.

  • This argument again? (YAAAaawn…)

    It seems like this comes up every couple years, no?

    Can’t we just agree that STMs have fruit, but have also been abused, and that there will always be discontented skeptics?

  • Good blog- and Jay V- I agree bro!

    Jesus’ disciple who seemed most concerned about the money finally hanged himself.

  • Without engaging too much in the debate, I simply want to add the impact that my first mission trip had on me. Now, I have traveled A LOT. And have been to poor countries before, our older daughter is Vietnamese, so there was plenty of first hand culture shock exposure on that trip.

    But to go and SERVE in a personal way, sharing in life with others on equal footing, when it is anything but, and allowing God to level the playing field is life changing. The organization I went with utilizes local community leaders and pastors to run health clinics and putting in cement floors.

    The realization that an entire family lived in a hut with a dirt floor that turned into a mudslide during the four month rainy season was staggering. And I was able to participate in changing that for five families the week I was there.

    I was able to share joy with kids, appreciate meals cooked for us, and worship a God who loves us all equally.

    It is life changing for the giver as well as the receiver. I immediately came home and wrote a list of twenty five things I will not complain about again as a result of taking this trip.

    But guess what? Life gets busy, creature comforts insidiously work themselves back into our core, including our belief systems and levels of tolerance and caring.

    And that is why I believe we should all go on a short term trip at least every six months, to give ourselves and in the process remember not to forget or become too complacently comfortable.

    Thanks for what you do.

    And if able we should give financially too, (which reminds me, I’m in to support Haiti, I just haven’t clicked the link yet…) but it can’t replace relational service.

  • I’d like to go on a short term mission trip to Maui to minister to the surfers on the north shore and the indigenous peoples of the Kahului Hilton.

  • Wow, amazed to see how many comments were already posted on this. Obviously an important topic. Well done.

    Just coming home from a 5-week STM (traveled by myself and met up with some missionaries there) I have a new perspective in many ways. My situation may be different, considering that it was a short-term trip with a long-term goal. There are just two things I want to point out:

    Regarding error #4: I’ve been so blessed by many people in my church on my short-term trips. However, as I was thinking long-term, I made the choice to purchase my own airline tickets. I used some raised money for other expenses, but I was left with over $3000 to sow into the ministry there, which was an incredible blessing for me, for them, and for all of those who had provided. In that case, the STM was a financial blessing, not a stress, on the full-time missionaries. I think that many times groups will also take up an offering or leave a gift for the full-time mission, which is very important. So, aside from the inspiration to give later on, I think STMs can be a good “advocacy” tool for long-term missionaries.

    The word “moratorium” caught my attention. I think many times STMs can end up as only an exciting adventure where the Gospel is preached. But, as I’ve observed in talking with missionaries and in prep for longer-term experience, missions really starts with dying to ourselves. I think that our short-term experiences, even if they’re just a couple of weeks, need to have at least a “taste” of this death. Death to self-will. To independence. To cultural values. Just a thought.

  • Thanks for writing this- saved me the time! I definitely was ‘skewed askance’ by the immigration comment. Showed the guy didn’t understand what missions is really about or at least what immigration issues are really about. Actually, this guys ‘misunderstanding’ was clear early on. Why is it that so many Americans (and even Christian ones at that) have to measure everything with money as the leading indicator? Have they ever heard or considered the Kingdom of God is about relationships?

    I use to pay attention to Sojourners a long time ago, but it’s stuff like this that confirm to me why they aren’t much of a voice in my life anymore.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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