A Bit of Nuance: Are Mission Trips Beneficial or Harmful?

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

A mission trip is when a group of people, usually Christian, travel to an underdeveloped country, in order to provide aid in different ways to the community and outreach for Christian beliefs. They often provide food, medical aid, or other resources for the locals in the communities they are helping. However, there has been controversy over whether mission trips are ethical and whether they are even useful and helpful to the target communities being reached. In this piece, Writers Anna Keneally and Vihaan Mathur provide insight into how mission trips and their purpose and effects may be interpreted.

Mission Trips are Examples of Compassion and Charity Anna KeneallyMission Trips are Examples of Modern-Day Colonialism Vihaan Mathur On History: Mission trips encourage aiding the less fortunate. In the classical sense, mission trips are religious trips that do service to a foreign community, while also spreading religious ideologies. In more modern times, however, they have gained participants without a religious motive. For the religious subset of mission trips, youth and young adult groups will serve a short-term mission lasting anywhere from a few days to upwards of one year. Many of these groups are Christian and follow the example of Mother Theresa, who followed a calling from God to spread his love through charity. One of her most notable quotes reflects that belief: “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” This has been the mindset behind much of the work that mission trips do. The disputed unsustainability of these trips has been called to question in the past because they are short term and do not achieve ground-breaking results. But, the motivation of many missionaries is their desire to help in any way possible, even if they end up just making an impact on a few. The Mother Theresa Project through Ava Maria University has different outreach opportunities depending on the location, varying from soup kitchen work to elderly and disability care to homeless help. A large organization focused on organizing and executing these trips is Mission of Hope. The organization describes its services as a way to “meet the physical and spiritual needs of under-served communities in the country you choose.” On History: Mission trips are modern-day colonialism Colonialism has plagued the Earth for hundreds of years, destroying various cultures and causing over 50 million deaths. European nations like the British Empire, one of the world’s largest economies for over two centuries, as well as the French, were widely known for conquering almost every country in the world. In fact, a 2012 study found that, by the 1900s, the British invaded 9 out of 10 countries in the world, leaving only 22 countries not under British rule. European empires were also known for completely ransacking countries and destroying the natives’ culture and way of life, and instead building colonies and protectorates, using up the resources, and dividing up natural lands and people. Australia’s history reveals a perfect example. When the British colonized Australia, they killed over 80% of the Aboriginals, the native people of Australia. To this day, this group faces severe discrimination. The French also conquered countries like Haiti and the Central African Republic, which are now two of the poorest countries in the world and are some of the most popular destinations for mission trips, as well as other countries like Guatemala and Costa Rica. When the colonists and their respective governments left, ruin was left behind, which the natives of the affected countries were left to deal with. In addition to conquering the world for resources and power, these European countries wanted to spread one main thing – Christianity. Through the Crusades, conquests, and missionaries, Christianity has amassed over 2 billion followers.On Purpose: Mission trips provide missionaries with the ability to gain cultural exposure Along with the humanitarian work done by missionaries, it allows a cultural exchange through exposure to other environments. These experiences take missionaries out of their fixed-perspective life and allow them to experience a different culture and atmosphere. In many cases, first-time missionaries have not been exposed to the magnitude of poverty and hardship in some areas that they go to. Because mission trips can be costly, generally the upper middle class makes up the majority of its participants. Because of this along with western culture, missionaries usually have never seen mass poverty or a lack of basic resources that they often take for granted. These trips can cause missionaries to come to terms with their privilege and use it to help others. The Association of Christian Schools International concluded that through this exposure, the young people on the trips are able to experience a situation different from their own and come to a conclusion about how to interpret these experiences. A critical concept of mission trips is cognitive dissonance which is an inner conflict about a specific situation, whether the conflict be with past and present self or simultaneously. In the case of mission trips, missionaries have a conflict between their original analysis of what they would be exposed to on mission trips and their actual first exposure. Being put into an unfamiliar situation is the primary cause of this dissonance. But, this cognitive dissonance causes those subjected to it to feel more of a need to make definitive decisions and put effort towards resolving the conflict. In the case of these trips, the missionaries will use this exposure to help as much as possible to feel more control over the tension caused by changing mentalities. “Students who are exposed to extreme poverty will feel uncomfortable, but they are also in a setting that could cause introspection and potential change in their philosophy of life,” according to the Association of Christian Schools International.On Purpose: Mission trips are an example of white saviorism and force Christianity onto the natives A missionary is someone who travels to foreign countries in order to spread Christianity and their beliefs. Mission trips come from the word “missionary,” and their purpose is exactly the same. Mission trips are usually led by churches or religious organizations, and they send around 10-20 people to “spread the love of Christ,”according to the religious organization, Mission of Hope. Usually these mission trips consist of activities like Christian workshops, construction projects, like building churches or houses, or leading Christian schools, and sometimes even door to door outreach. Most people go on mission trips with good but misguided and unrealistic intentions. They are going based on the pictures they’ve seen showing starving children and homeless families. They are going, thinking they are going to “fix” these issues in the communities they will work in, which is false, because these issues are inherently complicated, and can’t be fixed by building one home or church in a village. These mentalities portray underdeveloped countries as completely one sided. Poverty is an incredibly complex problem, which stems from root issues that need to be addressed by the national government of the country – issues like unemployment and disparities in education. This brings to the table the concept of the “white savior complex”. Click on any mission trip website, and the pictures all show smiling white faces and the faces of smiling children who are being “helped” by the mission trip. When looking at these, some might even point out that the children seem like “accessories.”The missionaries come in with a perspective of privilege, and misunderstand the culture of the destination countries, thinking they have something the native people inherently lack. On Value: Mission trips help others learn how to help themselves One of the biggest issues that is brought to light with mission trips is the concept of “white saviorism” that often is associated with it. Sarita Hartz, a woman who has done international volunteer work in the past, spoke on her own experience with white saviorism and how to overcome it and be a better volunteer. In her words, she described her early experiences as wanting to be a hero instead of a volunteer. This gives missionaries a sense of self-worth with their deeds, but it is also important to note that few people go on these trips to fulfill themselves and genuinely want to help others. Because most trips are short, it is important for groups to work on sustainable work instead of “fixing” by putting a bandaid on a bullet hole. This is why many missionary groups are changing their approach and instead of simply giving resources, they are ensuring that the improvement could be continuous through opportunity introduction and providing replicable results. Now, missionary trips are trying to shift their approach to fit another bible lesson, “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” While shortages of doctors and nurses is always a problem, finding people to teach them is even more so. Even in the U.S., nursing schools face shortages of teachers. Some medical missions, along with treating patients will provide courses to train medical professionals so results can last after the mission trip has concluded. On Value: Mission trips cause more harm than good Most mission trips usually last a week or two. As stated before, participants in mission trips conduct activities, like construction projects and teaching citizens about Christianity. When building homes and churches for these people, instead of aiding them and empowering them, it does exactly the opposite. It doesn’t allow them to do things themselves, which they are completely capable of doing, and instead employs usually inexperienced college missionaries from across the world. A Christian newspaper noted how it takes about $20,000 or more for accommodations, flights, food, etc for a mission trip to travel to a country just to build a church in a week; locals could do this for less than 1/20th the price, less time, actually helping them earn wages through construction work. This again brings back the “white savior” notion into the picture. Mission trips that also try to spread Christianity slowly erode away the cultures and religions of communities around the world. In addition, missionaries often bring resources such as school supplies and food, creating a dependency in the long run and destroying local industry. Instead, coming and buying school supplies and food from local shops and markets and redistributing them promotes local jobs. Additionally, multiple studies conducted by social scientists, like Brian Fikkert, Dambisa Moyo, Robert Priest, and Bob Lupton, all show how these short term mission trips ultimately harm the community. There is just so much that cannot be grasped or understood about a society in just a week or two. Instead, joining the Peace Corps or going on a longer trip may be a more eye-opening and impactful experience.

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