Vinoth Ramachandra

Who Says “No” to “Mission Trips”?

Posted on: May 7, 2010

Here is a staggering statistic that I came across recently. Robert Wuthnow, the eminent sociologist of religion at Princeton University has estimated that up to 1.6 million American Christians take part in overseas “mission trips” each year, with churches spending at least $2.4 billion per year on such trips. What is unsurprising is that many of these 1-3 week “mission trips” are to the Caribbean and Central America, with luxury resorts such as the Bahamas reporting one “short-term missionary” for every 15 residents. One would expect Mexico, which receives the most American “mission teams” every year, to be the most Christian nation on earth.

In the distant days when I was a university student in London, I had friends among people who came from all over the world. They embraced all religions and none. Some of them still remain friends. Occasionally I would take a backpack and “bum around” Europe. I would travel by train and public buses, stay in youth hostels or sleep in railway stations like thousands of other young tourists. I would love nothing better than to land in a strange city and explore it from one end to another (or as much as possible) by foot. Sometimes I would contact local churches and, if I spoke a smattering of the language, join their Sunday worship. Before visiting a country, not only did I pore over maps to acquaint myself with the geographical layout, but devoured books on its history, including the history and present situation of the Christian church.

My thoughts return to these experiences whenever my wife and I receive a request from some Western (or rich Asian) church to find someone in Sri Lanka or India willing to host a team of young people who want to undertake a “mission trip”. We don’t doubt the sincerity of those who want to practise neighbour love or share the gospel with people in other lands. But good intentions, history reminds us, often do not translate into good outcomes. But those who are enthusiastic about such “mission trips” usually don’t have the patience to study history.

It is customary for the leaders of such teams to inform us that such an “exposure” is absolutely vital for these (relatively affluent) kids to discover the world and become (it is hoped) missionaries in the long term. “Mission”, in this way of thinking, is what one does elsewhere, not in one’s own neighbourhood or nation. It baffles us why such Christian kids cannot learn about the world by doing what I, and several millions of their non-Christian peers, have done over decades: simply travelling as tourists and exploring the countries we visit, learning about the history and culture as we do so. Moreover, in America, Europe and Australia, there are millions of people today from every religion, culture and nation to be found in almost every major city: why not stay and learn about “mission” from the local churches that are working among such people?

It also baffles us as to why such Christians first need to have an “exposure” to mission before they engage in mission, when the great majority of missionaries in the world are poor and unable to afford such costly trips. Having a rich nation’s passport, and not requiring visas to most countries, makes it easier to be a “short-term missionary”. I heard recently of two Chinese women who felt called to be missionaries in Cambodia. So they simply went there overland and took jobs in a factory, and joined a local church. They didn’t first plan a “mission trip” to gain “exposure”, nor are they starting another “church-planting project”. We find ourselves wondering: how did Christian mission become reduced to “missions” and now to “mission trips”? What is the harm in simply coming as a tourist, if one is seriously curious about a place? If, on the other hand, one wants to come and serve the native church, why not simply do what the two Chinese women did?

There are few Asian Christians who will openly refuse to welcome such “mission teams”. The more opportunistic among us tend to see such visits as a chance to receive favours in return: for example, a parting gift of money or a future invitation to visit a team member in his or her own country. But most Asian Christians will not refuse simply because hospitality is a cherished value and an ancient tradition, especially among the rural poor. I remember a Burmese pastor once telling me, when I enquired why the Burmese church graciously continued to host visits from affluent Singaporean Christians coming as “evangelism trainers” (to Burmese churches that had much more to teach the Singaporeans about evangelism than vice versa), he simply replied, “We find it difficult to say “no” to visitors.”

This is just one dilemma. It is extremely difficult for us to say to zealous American, Singaporean or Korean Christians that they are really not needed. While there is a lot of talk about “mission partnerships” these days, the theologies of mission that we hold are rarely scrutinized and challenged in a genuine rich-poor encounter. The world of “ missions” seems hopelessly fragmented- and more pragmatist than ever. As long as this state of affairs continues, will not the practice of “partnership” be loaded in favour of those churches with the bigger wallets and the louder voices?

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19 Responses to "Who Says “No” to “Mission Trips”?"

[...] Across the sea and around the world 06 1. I organized mission trips and I recommend Vinoth’s post: Who says ‘no’ to ‘mission trips’? [...]

Thank you for this perspective. It would be so helpful if you’d post this on the Lausanne Global Conversation website, http://www.lausanne.org/conversation, for others around the world to see and discuss. Mission partnerships are already under discussion, for example here, and it’d be a thought-provoking addition.

[...] Ramachandra has a post called, “Who says “No” to “Mission Trips“? Vinoth lives in Sri Lanka and gives his perspective on those who take a couple of weeks to [...]

[...] to Jonathan who pointed to this: Who Says “No” to “Mission Trips”? I had not found Sri Lankan theologian Vinoth Ramachandra’s site. It is full of excellent [...]

Thank you!

Thanks, Vinoth! :-) I am personally concerned that “short-term mission trips” are now more commercialized. And it’s getting “short” and “short” too! :-) *just my 2 cents* I’m reading “The Insider” now… Have you read it before?

[...] Further thoughts on “Missions Trips” May 9, 2010 tim No comments I’ve been thinking more about Sri Lankan theologian Vinoth Ramachandra’s post Who Says “No” to “Mission Trips”? [...]

Great post!

I think it’s time for us, especially as Westerners, to reexamine why we do missions the way we currently do.

Steve Saint (son of Nate Saint, killed in Ecuador in 1956, along with Jim Elliot, Roger Youderian, Pete Fleming, and Ed McCully) has recently come out with a 7-part series entitled “Missions Dilemma”, that specifically addresses this issue.

I encourage you to check out the series trailer here: http://www.itecusa.org/missions_dilemma.html

Blessings,
Stephenie Davis

I posted this on the Global Conversation website, and it’s generated a couple of comments to which you may wish to respond (as well as many people reading it from around the world). It’s here. You can create your own account quickly & freely to comment.

[...] there are/have been of course many earlier ones ;) was started by Vinoth Ramachandra’s post: Who Says “No” to “Mission Trips”? If you have not read that read it before reading [...]

Thanks, Vinoth, for this summary of what is now surely accepted wisdom by anyone seriously involved in mission (note: “missions” with the “s” seems a North American concept — underlining the foray mentality and short-termism of the culture, perhaps). My response to this criticism is that ALL ministry has to be done in a long-term context. (Was feeding the 5000 or healing the man at the pool short-term mission or part of a long-term mission?). However, badly-implemented short term mission is no more reason to stop all short term mission than badly-implemented long term mission is a reason to stop all long term mission. You (and many of us) can surely write some disturbing stories about expensive, unhelpful and sometimes destructive long-term mission, too. Maybe your argument here is simply to re-badge “short term mission” as “tourism with a purpose”. The latter is surely no bad thing, and better than the clubbing and sunbathing that most people seemed to be doing in Cambodia when I recently visited on a short term ministry trip. Incidentally, the (mostly rich-world) people I was leading determined about 6 days into the trip that short term mission is flawed and that we have to think long-term if we are going to really have an impact in Cambodia. As for the rich/poor point — there is much validity to it, but if we want to hear some stories of badly done mission by ill-equipped people from poor countries (who might have benefited from a short-term exposure first), it won’t be difficult to find them.

[...] of the blogs I regularly read is by Vinoth Ramachandra.  In a recent post, Who Says “No” to “Mission Trips”?, Ramachandra offers a needed, helpful perspective on the short-term mission phenomenon.  He [...]

It looks like Short term missions is a very good business venture with churches in the rich countries spending 2.4 billion. What I think should be done is to see if the returns is as great to the local church in their commitment to Christ , the quality of life in serving at Home and Abroad. The Church also needs to see what type of impact it had on the Locals. if missions appears to be a commercial venture .. then it confirms what the great Apostle Paul said. ” they are those who serve the god of their bellies ” All is self interest. ” It is time that we are honest with ourselves and call it a nice christian Holiday with a little concern here and there. I dont think God would be angry, because The Apostle Paul said “what ever things are lovely think on these things ” but to call it “MISSIONS” really , it looks like nothing compared to what we study in the life of St. Paul. History has it recorded that missions took a diferent focus when it came to Africa, India, and the Americas . The Mission Trip was for GOLD and LAND. Many innocent people ignorant of The Truth were murdered , never hearing The Good News. I have witnessed to some of them and felt the pain which has been carried down 400 years to other generations . Yet i know that God is Just , because He knows the Heart of men.

Great post, Vinoth. It works absolutely the same way in Eastern Europe.

The Caribbean region consists of a chain of islands in the Caribbean. Many of these islands are tourist destinations, people around the world visit the Caribbean in the breathtaking scenery and lush beaches to enjoy.

The Caribbean is an ideal place for family holidays. There are a variety of places and activities the whole family to enjoy together. Among the many destinations are some of the popular Bahamas, Antigua, St. Lucia, Aruba, Bermuda, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, etc. The Caribbean islands offer a variety of activities for all ages. The island of St. Lucia is the drive through volcano in the world, which is a miracle of nature. In addition, there is a natural rainforest reserve, which is a big weekend for walkers bird watchers and nature lovers. There are many excursions, tours and programs for tourists wishing to explore the island. Barbados Sports Camp is an added attraction for children, making them enjoy their favorite sports. Most islands offer excellent family accommodation, private homes, apartments or hotels of fiction, including, on budget.

Many hotels also offer child care, making it easier and safer for families. The Internet is now much easier to book their holidays taken. There are a variety of family packages available that you can choose. A look at the full range of exciting holiday activities available, you can certainly say that a vacation in the Caribbean is ideal for families.

I am thankful for the opportunities I have had on short-term mission trips to Africa, India, Mexico and Ecquador. Frankly, it’s answering the call one feels God has placed upon their heart. I went into Mexico for one day. One. It was what God called me to do. I saw miracles take place before my very eyes in Africa and India because of the anointing the Lord had poured out on those trips. Miracles of multitudes receiving salvation, demons cast out, lame walking, deaf hearing and more. I would learn much from the Lord on each trip. For me, my missions have been to obey the Lord and “go” wherever He sends me. Literally, these comissions have been right in my neighborhood, to other towns, to other countries. Let us not judge the way, where and how other people “do” missions. Some people are called to a place for a moment. Some people are called to a place to “open the door” for other missionaries to enter through. Some people are called to “start up” the mission and other people are called to come in afterwards to run it. Some people are called to one place for a lifetime. Making yourself available to the Lord and obeying His call is important.

Just my two cents worth. The bottom line: It’s not about you. http://featherglass.com/2010/09/26/missiontrips/

Let’s not just talk about mission trips, but talk about traveling, meeting other backpackers and sharing your faith with them. Surely an intriguing option. Any literature on this? I’m curious, don’t know how to search for literature about this.

[...] trips and ultra-short-term mission trips, it’s always good to read Vinoth’s post: Who says “No” to “mission trips”? In another post, Vinoth also pointed out an article by Karla Ann Koll on short-term mission trips. [...]

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