Why short-term mission trips may do more harm than good

Lately I’ve looked at many websites displaying glowing advertisements for short-term missionary activities in Alaska this summer. Many offer a variety of outdoor pursuits, including fishing, boating, wilderness treks and hiking. One featured missionary duties such as cleaning up after messy user who trashed the lower Kenai and Kasilof Rivers with all manner of waste. Is this truly what missionary activity is all about?

It’s intriguing this particular mission’s participants pay $650, plus airfare, to have this experience. Is that what the Gospel is all about? Do atheists, Buddhists, Muslims or Jews do this as well?

Another type of missionary activity is where local churchgoers leave Alaska for other parts of the world to serve on short-term mission trips. A large local church group will shortly depart for South Africa, an expensive trip. What’s really going on here? In a paper published in the journal Trends and Issues in Missions, Liberty University professor Don Fanning makes a powerful case that short-term missions can create dependencies and problems among the very people short-term missionaries are supposed to be helping. South Africa, like Alaska, is about 80 percent Christian.

Church attendance, a key measure of religiosity, shows South Africa’s weekly church attendance at 56-60 percent per week, while recent Gallup data shows Alaska weekly attendance ranks it in the bottom 10 states, with 26 percent attending weekly. The mission field is here in Alaska, as I’ve argued before, not other areas of the world. Many local churches are missing the boat: local member involvement is critical.

The mission trip I mentioned earlier is advertised at ShorterTermMissions.com this way: “At Salmon Frenzy, we will host service projects for Alaskan residents camping out on Cook Inlet beaches at the Kenai River and Kasilof River. Thousands of Alaskans are dip-netting sockeye salmon as an annual family event. Our ministry approach is gentle servanthood and need-meeting through various methods: Kids Clubs, Bounce Houses, Prayer Walking, Traffic Control, Trash Pick-up and serving free hot dogs, water and hot cocoa. Share Christ in personal, relational ways. We engage the public in secular forum through servant evangelism.”

I’m sure local governments love these money-saving activities. But why are Alaskans and Outside tourists not held responsible for caring for our environment?

Struck by a phrase on that website regarding the demographics of people they serve, I asked the Rt. Rev. David Mahaffey, Bishop of Sitka and Alaska in the Orthodox Church in America, (formerly Russian Orthodox) for his reaction. He said, “In general, these are Protestants who want to ‘convert’ the poor Natives who are not Christian by their standards. On the website ofshorttermmissions.com, they specifically state that they are there to convert ‘Agnostic, Russian Orthodox, hints of Shamanism and some Christian influence.’ Note the specific attack on the ‘Russian Orthodox’ as if they are not Christian. This is pure arrogance on their part. On another web page they add ‘Catholics’ to their targets.”

Mahaffey, further decrying this proselytizing, says, “What they are doing is downright sinful in my eyes. The very idea that they have a ‘truer’ faith than the Orthodox Christian Faith is both pretentious and false. If you want proof of the damage done by these groups, just look at the statistical evidence since the arrival in Alaska of the Sheldon Jackson missionary/teachers. The attempt to ‘Westernize’ these ‘ignorant’ Native peoples was based on a complete misunderstanding of their culture and religion. The Russians came and gave them a written language, educated them and treated them as equals, quite a different approach than that used by Jackson’s minions. Not only this, but as you may be aware, in our church in Kenai is a document from Catherine the Great addressed to the Russians who came to Alaska. Part of that document tells them about how to treat the Natives and it is quite different than that of the U.S. representatives.”

I resonate with Mahaffey’s concerns. The mentioned practices continue and amount to “sheep stealing.” Many Alaska villages are too small to support the plethora of churches denominations establish, a divisive and confusing practice for villagers.

Orthodox Church in America sends summer teams to Alaska to repair churches and rectories, and provides vacation bible school teaching in villages. Local Orthodox priest, the Rev. Michael Oleksa, commenting on these mission teams says, “The problem with this ‘help’ is that often they do what the locals could have done for themselves, developing a village attitude that they don’t have to take care of these needs because someone else, from somewhere else, will do it for them. Of course, if the village is itself short of manpower, this is unavoidable, (like repainting the spirit houses in Eklutna). But when there are hundreds of able-bodied men in the town who could have easily repaired the church themselves, this can become an issue of dependence.” A true statement in Alaska and the rest of the world.

A Catholic group from Lady of Mount Carmel Parish, a 1,000-family parish in Herrin, Illinois uniquely serves here approximately every fourth summer. This year they’re bringing 66 people, aged 14-18, to work locally. Group leader Jeff Goffinet shares, “Each of the trips has been a remarkable experience for our young people. Coming from Southern Illinois, we have nothing to compare to the Alaskan lifestyle. However, service is universal. While in Anchorage, we have had young people work both in nature and serving those in need. While the experiences are widely different, they have been awesome. We have helped clear downed trees in Earthquake Park, served food at Beans Café, and helped in various homeless shelters. All have been meaningful to our youth.” They’ll be sleeping on the floor of Lumen Christi’s gym. What a great example!

They also make their own arrangements. Meanwhile, many mission websites are commercial. Goffinet says they tried one such group last year. “Every year, except last year, we plan our own trip. We make our own arrangements, we do our own budgeting, we feed ourselves, etc. Last year, for the first time, we used a commercial company. We were very disappointed. Money was not going to the clients who needed it, and we were clearly not wanted to work as hard as we did. Any chore we finished meant that they had to find more work for groups coming in after us. I’m sure not every group that sponsors these kinds of trips is like that, but I will certainly be very unlikely to use those kinds of groups in the future.”

Next week, I plan to write about Protestant summer mission activities in Alaska.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.

2 thoughts on “Why short-term mission trips may do more harm than good

  1. Toby

    I enjoyed your insights on the “more harm than good” tendency of many well intentioned efforts. My wife and I spent 18 months on a mission in a very remote part of Mozambique. We witnessed countless instances of NGO efforts that harmed rather than helped–or were simply silly wastes of money (though they likely made some giver somewhere feel good). Too often these efforts detract from self reliance and do little to address the various serious impediments to success that exist.
    My own church, through much good and bad experience in the past decades, now limits its worldwide humanitarian efforts to a very few fundamental types of projects (water and neo-natal care education being a couple of those).
    Though our mission was more “preach the gospel” focused, we once came upon a cholera-plagued island that seemed to us to be in dire need of some clean water. We (with much help) devised a plan and got funding approved to provide materials and tools to build simple technology-free wells in ten island locations–but we asked the beneficiaries to provide the labor for the well that their families would use. The villagers in one location stopped work after a while and refused to proceed unless they were paid. We moved the well to an area where folks wanted it more. The project turned out well and did some real good (I still check on those wells now 3 years later).

    1. Chris Thompson Post author

      Thank you for your well-placed comments Toby. I’d like to talk more with your about your experiences. Feel free to connect via churchvisits@com.

      God bless


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