"There are only two ways of telling the complete truth—anonymously and posthumously."Thomas Sowell

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Short-Term Church Missions

[Our friend Greg McConnell, a reporter based in the Midwest, kindly sent us the following message. You may visit the web link below to see photos from the trip Greg mentions.]

While the popularity of short-term mission trips has been skyrocketing, many Christians aren't convinced that this is a positive development. Recently, Christianity Today examined whether or not short-term mission trips are even good stewardship (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/127/22.0.html). At the heart of the debate is a study by Kurt Ver Beek, professor of sociology and third-world development at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which essentially concludes that most short-term mission trips don't accomplish much.

I think that this is a healthy discussion, and accountability on such matters is very important.
Besides, Ver Beek doesn't seem to have a vendetta against short-term missions; he wants to understand them and, if possible, improve the system.

On a personal note, I went on a short-term mission trip to Costa Rica this past June
(http://gjmc.blogspot.com/). I suspect that most anyone who goes on a short-term mission trip will tell you it was good stewardship, and I am no exception. However, I honestly do think that special relationships were formed with the Costa Ricans who hosted us. Only time will tell if this partnership lasts to bear long-term fruit.—Greg McConnell


Tom Van Dyke said...

Mr. Karnick, I'm commenting largely out of ignorance of such things here, but the line from Greg's blog, "When I reflect on what was accomplished, I don't think in terms of what we did for them. I think more about what they did for us" would sum up my expectations of the enterprise. I have no firsthand knowledge, but you could see how there might appear to be a bit of Live8-type narcissism about it.

I would say that even while I was very religiously active in my teens, neither I nor my Christian fellows at the time would have been the most effective agents of a church's resources for evangelizing. Besides not being the best personal advertisements for the faith (some of them gave me the creeps), the challenges and lessons of living a Christian life in an affluent country are not terribly applicable to a place where life can be nasty, brutish and short.

I would think that the living example of those who have dedicated their lives to the spreading of the Good News ("professional" missionaries), who walk the walk, would do far more good than those who simply talk.

I would give their opinions the greatest weight. Perhaps I'm missing something, and they think that "day-trippers" are worth the expense.

S. T. Karnick said...

Yes, Tom, I think that these trips could be seen as a form of Puritan tourism, an opportunity to see foreign climes while pretending that it is not simply for one's own pleasure. But I don't see the harm in brief missionary trips, though I should think that they could hardly have the same impact as full-time missionary work, just as you say. I doubt that the majority of those who go abroad for brief missionary trips are ignorant or vain. The only people from my own church who have done so are people whom I would be quite happy to represent my faith here or abroad. Unless their efforts are proven to be counterproductive, I'll be happy to give these folks credit for trying.

Tom Van Dyke said...

STK, I don't pretend to judge the folks who go on the short-term missions, I only point out the real possibility that moral vanity is there.

I had poked through the links you provided on the debate, and found the argument that short-timers eat up a lot of resources that could go elsewhere to be most persuasive.

I do not know if "professional" preachers are more effective at spreading the Word than dilettantes, but it is my personal experience that it's so. They are broader and deeper in their understanding of the Word, and so to me their touch is more universal and enduring.

But it's all good, eh?

S. T. Karnick said...

Tom, I'm probably much more ignorant on this subject than you claim to be. But here I go anyway, showing off my huge dearth of knowledge and abundant supply of opinions:

I believe that the great importance of called clergy in the world is that they can administer the sacraments. (Others should do so only in emergency situations.) That is paramount. In addition, I am sure that trained and ordained ministers in well-run denominations should be expected to be more effective than other church members at spreading the Word.

But . . .

It is not as if there is a huge surplus of ordained ministers in most denominations. And we should never let the best be the enemy of the good, right? So I say: the more, the merrier. If these missions are fully supervised by ordained ministers, and if the missionaries are well trained by these clergy members, I'm sure that their efforts will bear much fruit.

Where I would have a problem with these activities is if they are not provided with sufficient oversight by ordained clergy. To me, that would be quite objectionable. Other than that, I'd say it's all good, just as you suggest.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I assure you I'm speaking from deeper ignorance than you. :-)

But while we're adding our widow's mites ($0.02) to the debate, I'd simply state that if someone wants to spend their vacation money on Christian fellowship rather than margaritas in Cancun, salut!, mazeltov and God Bless.

But there is in my mind a distinction between fellowship and ministry, and the expenditure of a ministry's limited resources.

To wit, as a thought experiment, it might be better to stake a Costa Rican to visit Cincinnati instead, from which he could bring back inspiring tales of a functional society and the techniques of running a healthy congregation.

(Not that Costa Rica in particular is all that bad; I understand it's the only Latin American country without a standing army, and the snorkeling wails.)