The Value of Short Term Missions

This Thursday, 13 of our members will drive to Jonesville, VA to take part in the Appalachia Service Project (ASP). ASP trips have meant a lot to people in our church over the years and I’m more than excited for my first trip. As I write this, three days before leaving, it is now too late for them to cancel my trip because of how un-handy I am. So I’m in!

As we prepare to set out on this very, very short mission trip (2 days of real work), I’m reminded of an opinion piece from the NYTimes that was sent to me several weeks ago entitled “The Voluntourists Dilemma.” In the piece reporter Jacob Kushner raises many good points about the potential negative side effects of people from the first world making short trips to help those in the third world. He is wary of Americans’ motivation, including that of some celebrities, to show up after a disaster to “make ourselves feel good.” He raises concerns about whether or not the work of these voluntourists is the quality that the folks deserve, and also if they are displacing local workers looking for a job. He also mentions how local recipients of aid can become dependent on that aid, only to see their workers vanish.

He goes on to conclude: “Unless you’re willing to devote your career to studying international affairs and public policy, researching the mistakes that foreign charities have made while acting upon good intentions, and identifying approaches to development that have data and hard evidence behind them — perhaps volunteering abroad is not for you.”

Many of his points are quite valid. It doesn’t make much sense for American mission trips to show up to do work for free when there are skilled workers who need a job, we’d be better off to send funds for the recipients to hire workers. And we have to be very careful not to create a “here one day, gone the next” environment for victims of disasters. I continue to be proud of our own Week of Compassion, for instance, for their commitment to persist in relief long after TV cameras have left. And I know that ASP as another example is committed to their region for the long haul. They have built relationships that will last.

However, I see incredible value in short term missions that I believe Jacob Kushner overlooked in his piece. For anyone who has been on a one or two week mission trip, you know how powerfully that trip can affect you. On every trip I would be willing to bet that it is a life-changing experience for at least one person. That one week or two weeks then has the chance to create a lifelong advocate for those in need. Not all of us in America have the best skills to build a house or dig a well, but what we do all have is agency. Compared to the rest of the world, we have resources and influence that can affect change in ways simply not available to most members of third world countries or even to the poorest of the poor in our own country.

A one week mission trip can certainly change the life of one worker, but then that worker has the chance to change dozens if not hundreds of lives through their advocacy. To me, that is how the kingdom of God works and that is evidence to me of the work of the Holy Spirit.

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