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in defense of short term missions (with pictures!)

short term missions in youth ministry has been taking quite a bit of hits recently. and, honestly, i agree with a good bit of the criticism. but i think much of the criticism misses a few extremely important points and throws the baby out with the bathwater.

take, for instance, this huffpo blog post i read last week (but was posted earlier this year), called The Problem With Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism. the author recalls the savior complex she brought to her orphanage visit, and the horrendous construction work done by her group of teenage girls that required local men to come during the night and completely undo and redo the work. based on her experience with a poorly executed trip, the author suggests:

It turns out that I, a little white girl, am good at a lot of things. I am good at raising money, training volunteers, collecting items, coordinating programs, and telling stories. I am flexible, creative, and able to think on my feet. On paper I am, by most people’s standards, highly qualified to do international aid. But I shouldn’t be.

I am not a teacher, a doctor, a carpenter, a scientist, an engineer, or any other professional that could provide concrete support and long-term solutions to communities in developing countries. I am a 5′ 4″ white girl who can carry bags of moderately heavy stuff, horse around with kids, attempt to teach a class, tell the story of how I found myself (with accompanying powerpoint) to a few thousand people and not much else.

and her “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” final conclusion:

Before you sign up for a volunteer trip anywhere in the world this summer, consider whether you possess the skill set necessary for that trip to be successful. If yes, awesome. If not, it might be a good idea to reconsider your trip.

this, i believe, is unfortunately misinformed. i completely agree that there are some missions trip that are ill-conceived, poorly executed, and focused almost exclusively on giving the american participants a warm fuzzy feeling. i completely agree that you shouldn’t take your youth group on a trip like this.

but the correction doesn’t have to have only the two options the author (and so many others) suggest: either have a useful skill, or don’t go. instead, there are other very helpful (essential!) ways to ensure that your trip isn’t voluntourism. they boil down to these issues:

  1. work with an organization that is imbedded in the local culture.
  2. work with an organization that ruthlessly cultivates long term local relationships of trust from an unflinching commitment to serving the vision of local, indigenous leaders.
  3. prep your team effectively, so they come to serve, rather than to be either “saviors” or tourists.

here’s what i saw again this past week in belize, during my time here with Praying Pelican Missions:

people like this decide what needs to get done (the guy on the left, that is). that’s pastor henry, pastor of sand hill baptist church and a national leader in the belize baptist church. HE decides, not the visiting groups or PPM.
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skilled laborers are employed for construction projects, like this construction worker on a site i visited this week:
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but no particular skill is needed to mix cement and do other grunt work. in this case, the visiting group of teenagers and some teens from the church worked side-by-side on the non-skilled grunt work.
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kids min doesn’t focus on conversions. in this fantastic case, belizians led parts of the kids min (they’re the up front people during this time of singing), and visiting americans help where they’re helpful (running games, doing crafts).
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and when an orphanage with wonderful leadership says “we’re short-staffed, and the children don’t get as much touch and play as we would like them to have,” well, it doesn’t take much skill to be present to a child who’s not experiencing much of childhood.
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so, yes, let’s absolutely be thoughtful and super cautious. let’s stay away from voluntourism and colonialism and savior complexes and helping that hurts. if your trips include any shade of those mindsets, repent, and find a new missions trip provider. but even if you wouldn’t think of knowingly taking your youth group on “bad” trip, don’t allow your good and healthy aversion to those sins keep you from helping teenagers participate in kingdom work in the world. just make sure you and the organization you work with or through is ruthlessly committed to (and has a track record of living out) the values i’ve suggested here.

5 thoughts on “in defense of short term missions (with pictures!)”

  1. I read The Problem With Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism last week and it bothered me SO much! Thank you, Mark, for sharing your experience with Praying Pelican Missions! I’ll be sharing this.

  2. Thanks Marko. I love to hear a moderating opinion. One thing I’d add that you didn’t say but clearly implied, is for our teams to expect to /learn/ as much about the Kingdom of God as we hope to /teach/. There’s something beautiful about watching the spirit of Jesus at work in people who look, talk, and think differently than I do. Thanks again for the encouragement.

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