There is a growing fad among largely white, middle-class Protestants in the U.S. We have become infatuated with the idea of international mission trips. Increasingly, churches and schools are sending students out into lesser-developed nations uneducated, unprepared and unhelpful. While the intentions are good, mission trips rarely provide a lasting impact and do nothing to stabilize developing countries.
Having grown up in the Protestant church and attended Protestant schools, I have been on my fair share of mission trips. I had the typical experience: Pay an exorbitant amount of money, “train” for months, arrive in a developing country, and spend a week painting houses and putting on Vacation Bible School. I came back to the U.S. proud of the charitable deeds I had done. I changed my Facebook profile picture to one of me holding a small child from said country and moved on with my life. My experiences abroad have opened my eyes and greatly impacted my view of the world.
But that is the problem with these short-term mission trips — they have only impacted my life and not the lives of the people in the countries I visited. This is counterproductive to the goal of a mission trip, which is to help other people. According to Missiology Journal, a publication on the study of missions, the number of American Christians taking part in mission trips has jumped from 540 in 1965 to 1.5 million in 2008. Most mission trip participants team up with their church or school, travel to a developing country with an American Christian organization, and spend a week painting houses, building wells, or teaching English. These are all essential tasks that need to be accomplished. But if the point of a mission trip is to help with the development of a country, then these are tasks that do not need to be accomplished by Americans.
In order for a country to be stable, there needs to be infrastructure and jobs. By joining a mission team and going into a country to paint, build and teach for free, you are taking away potential job opportunities for locals.
The hours that Americans spend performing these tasks could instead be turned into jobs and a source of income for the community. In this aspect, mission trips are doing more harm than good. A short-term mission trip can cost anywhere from $1,000-$5,000. If the purpose of the trip is to benefit the people participating in it, then by all means spend the money for a sanctified vacation. But if the purpose is to benefit the target country, then this money should be put to better use.
There are organizations such as Niños del Camino in the Dominican Republic that work with impoverished children, but mainly accept Dominican volunteers and staff. Organizations like Niños are more successful at achieving their mission because they employ people from their target neighborhoods and are able to make strong connections and a lasting impact with a more permanent staff.
As Christians, God has called us to serve his people. And while this is the intention behind many mission trips, it is not often achieved. If schools and churches truly want to impact developing countries, then they should use the money they spend on mission trips to sponsor churches and organizations within those countries so that they can develop themselves without unnecessary outside assistance.
If individuals and religious organizations feel a strong, divine call to actively participate in missions, they should look for programs within their own cities that address the many needs we face in the U.S., instead of spending an unwarranted amount of money to travel internationally and make little impact.
Natalie Pimblett is a junior political science major.