Mission trips have gotten a lot of criticism. Some of that criticism is deserved: there are mission trip volunteers who focus on tourism instead of service; there are organizations that make poor use of the volunteers who come to serve with them. But these criticisms seem to rest on a single set of questions: are short term mission trips the most efficient ways for a group (or individual) to offer material assistance to a community? Could that week be spent for efficiently? Could the money used for the trip be spent more efficiently?
The answers to those questions depend on a lot of factors that I don’t have time to look at here. But there’s something more important buried in these criticisms: mission trips aren’t just about efficiently providing material assistance. There are at least two other things that mission trips do that we should lift up.
First, they build interpersonal relationships, both within the group that goes on the trip and between that group and the people they serve. This is a major theme of a piece I linked to last week, and it matters both to the people serving and the people being served:
I would expect that knowledge to lead to resentment, but what Nadege told us was that for us to leave the comfort of our homes to be with the people of Haiti, even for a few days — that told them that they mattered. Over and over again, our hosts and translators told us how much it meant that we would leave our country to come spend time with them, to work with them, to support their ongoing labor for the future of their nation, their communities, and their children. The love and gratitude was and is overwhelming and humbling.
Second, they serve as faith formation opportunities for the people who go on them. Mission trips are opportunities for participants to learn about the privileges they enjoy, the conditions in which others live, and how we are all connected through social and economic systems. They are opportunities to live out the call serve Christ by serving the least of his brothers and sisters. And they opportunities to help participants grow in service and learn to respond to all needs with empathy and compassion.
When we look at mission trips solely as economic engines – as ways to transfer assets from one group to another – we lose sight of their total power, especially their ability to shape the lives of the volunteers in positive ways. We need to look at mission trips and other volunteer opportunities in their totality: acknowledging the bad, yes, but recognizing and building on the good.