“Dad, you’re a beast. That’s really amazing. I mean, very few people on earth will ever do that.”
Kid1 said that when I made an off-hand comment about going on my 20th short-term mission trip and I’d never really thought about that reality. I mean, it was just part of the gig in youth ministry to head on a mission or two or three every summer. Eventually, I’d hit 23 and am now in a holding pattern of sorts. In retrospect, I guess I have been a “beast” when it comes to that.
I’ve led teams to Juarez, Port-Au-Prince, Amsterdam, Balfast and points all over the U.S. from Mississippi to assorted Native American outposts (My higher-order life-liver sister Jilly once told me it’d be nice if my passport had a stamp in it from a nation that wasn’t “third-world.”). So, when it comes to speaking about short-term missions, it’s fair to say I have a platform. And when I read this article by Darren Carlson on why you should cancel your short-term mission trip I felt it might be good to write a response.
And, keep in mind, this is a two-part article and the author will offer positive ways to develop your short-term mission strategy…but I’m focusing on this first entry only.
First, don’t get me wrong. I’m in agreement with much of the article…and if you don’t have time to read it, basically he’s using a book titled Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton to springboard to some chinks in the armor of many church’s short-term missions programs. He sprinkles his article with examples like an unasked-for church a youth group built in Cameroon that is only used when the youth group comes back twice per year. Or the same building that had been painted 20 times by teams. Or teams spending $30,000 to send teams to build homes locals could’ve built for $3,000 each. Stuff like that.
And, yes, I’ve seen (and been a part of) stuff like that.
Like the time we served an agency helping southern Mississippi a few years AFTER Hurricane Katrina pounded the Gulf Coast. We were told there was still plenty of need and our church had funds designated especially for that disaster sitting in an account from previous donations, so we piled in vans and headed down.
During that trip, we cleared debris and damage to a walking garden for a gated subdivision that had been flooded, built a privacy fence for a multi-million dollar home with a beach view, and, my favorite…
…the agency we worked with got a referral from the Red Cross about a fire the night before that required immediate clean-up and asked our group if we could spare a few to help out. Sure. So, I took 3 kids to serve this family who’d had a “fire” the night before with cleaning supplies and brushes and such and we cleaned out a room that had indeed been damaged by a fire…
…which was obviously from a meth-lab explosion. The parents were still “asleep” in their beds while we worked into the late afternoon and two teenage children played X-Box.
So, yes. There has been goofiness with some organizations and how they do business.
But, even on that trip, there were several good and needed projects accomplished that meant a great deal to people who felt they’d been forgotten over the years on that trip. And there’s no question about some of the good from other trips. People we led to the Lord who still maintain contact with their American friends. Thank-you’s from students who graduated from the public schoolhouse we built in Juarez. A cell-phone call from the family we built a home for in a barrio to talk about the difference that home made in their lives. A church building that still stands in a beautiful but impoverished nation that is used every single Sunday and Wednesday for church and daily for a school which we provide uniforms, books and lunch for. I could go on.
Frankly, I think the author would agree with me on that, too. That there is some good with the bad. And, I agree with some of the main points of the article regarding imperialism (we sent American wedding dresses to a poverty-stricken nation once…and I wondered if they’d even wear white at a wedding or why they wouldn’t want to get married in their native custom’s garb, which I can’t imagine was a lace dress with a train) and poor planning that leads to all sorts of overlap and waste. That happens. More than we’d like to admit.
But where I tend to disagree is on the economic side of the ledger.
There are some obvious goofy ones like spending $30K to send a team to build one house when the money could’ve been sent with a leader to oversee the building of 10 homes by locals.
But is that even so goofy?
Hear me out.
I once led a team of 140 people on a trip to Juarez to build 8 homes for families chosen by an organization with close ties to Mexican pastors who carefully screened the applicants who met stringent requirements. We were gone one week, camping out in tents, grilling food, working from sun-up to sundown, driving 12 hours to get there and 12 to get back in vans…and, well, buses. It required TONS of organization and was a logistical nightmare.
The ticket for that trip was in the neighborhood of $70,000.
Could we have simply sent the money and had locals build it? Sure. But the materials alone were $30,000 or so.
So, ultimately, the cost for our team was really $40,000. That was food, lodging and transportation for 140 people…rounding up, let’s say $300 per person. And some of you could say that you could’ve built 10 more homes if you’d simply sent the money!
But Kingdom math never adds up, kids.
Let’s talk about the kid who was so moved his freshman year that he took language classes so he could move to their country and be a missionary. Or the leader who left her occupation to head out to the mission field full-time. Or the kid who thought about missions as a career for the first time and did it. Or the guy who went who wound up adopting a child because his heart broke for the kids in the orphanage. Yeah. How do you put a dollar value on that?
Let’s talk about the kids who have their horizons broadened by seeing real poverty in a barrio. Or walking the streets in Amsterdam and seeing what goes on at Needle Park or the Red Light District or breaking down crying in the Hiding Place at Corrie ten Boom’s house and inspired to do the right thing when your life is on the line or standing speechless in front of a Van Gogh. Or even seeing the joy of kids who came to the VBS in Mississippi who don’t have much to look forward to in the summer. Or being part of a decision making process to help Haitians help themselves through developing a food co-op program. Yeah. How do you put a dollar value on that?
Let’s talk about the community and life-long experiences walking alongside other believers. You climb in a van for 12 hours and you get to know people. You build in hot sun for a week and you learn to listen to people’s stories and learn to love them when you never would have bumping shoulders with them in a school hallway. You see a kid you went on a trip with 10 years ago and she laughs knowingly at the old joke you two shared and it’s like you never left. You see kids stand beside one another in each other’s weddings and remember when they disliked each other until they were on the same house-building team. The friendships my students made with elders and church leaders that manifested every single Sunday. Watching Irish Christians weep remembering a friend killed in a church bombing. Yeah. How do you put a dollar value on that?
Let’s talk about the individuals who find themselves on these trips. The kid who hated everybody is leading Disney show-tunes on the work site by week’s end. The odd duck with no self-confidence getting back-slaps by the all-district linebacker because of how good he saws 2×4’s while the linebacker can’t. The pink princess who learned it was okay to go without make up and muck it up and be completely silly and herself instead of image conscious. The adults who still struggle with identity being loved on by kids who thanked them with hugs and high-fives for fixing their sandwich and bringing a sports drink. Yeah. How do you put a dollar value on that?
So, is it worth $300 a person for that?
Kingdom math never adds up either way, does it?
See, I always viewed the short-term trips as one more piece of the spiritual growth puzzle. My job was to disciple young people…and these trips were part of that process. Sure, there was some “waste” on occasion as we chose to work with a group that didn’t prove to live up to their promises.
But there were also times when I would’ve paid 10 times what I paid to see the results in people’s lives.
Once, from the pulpit, I said that I didn’t really have a heart for missions work. That my heart was for my students and discipling them. That I was more interested in the kids I brought back from the trip than the kids I took down there on the trip…the inference that the growth of my students was primary and the mission itself was practical and nice and worthwhile but secondary in my thinking.
And a nice man came up and said, “For somebody that doesn’t have a heart for missions, you’ve certainly found a way to get plenty of trips under your belt.” Maybe my daughter was right. Maybe I am a “Missions Beast.”
But what I learned is that from all of them is that the Holy Spirit works in weird, wild ways and that His math is not my math. And I’m okay with that.