Short-term missions, short-term effect?

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As Christians, we are not expected to do everything perfectly. However, we do have a responsibility for the knowledge we have. In his book “Toxic Charity,” author and missionary Robert D. Lupton highlights the fact that we are often poisoning poverty-ridden nations by giving handouts instead of coming alongside them to teach them to work and grow.

As a Christian who has been on many short-term mission trips, I am convicted and feel guilty of this “toxic charity.” My desire to give and love clouded my business judgment of the situation. I viewed myself as the person who would be pouring gifts onto those I was serving instead of creating a partnership with them to develop neighborhoods or organizations into something that would actually benefit them.

Matthew Browning, associate VP for internationalization at APU, pointed out that “the potential for abuse is worldwide, period.” With so many charities and places to give your money, it is good to recognize that not all groups help in the most responsible way.

When I asked Browning about how we are called to give, he said, “I sure would like to find a balance.” That is precisely what we are looking to find.

However, we are taught that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” in Acts 20:35. This mindset has propelled us to a place where through handouts that promote dependency, we are often killing societies and injuring the hardworking hearts instilled in them.

The Misso Docs Mexico film, commissioned by Azusa Pacific as a study in mission responsibility, highlights the potential for this problem. The film asks necessary questions as it seeks to identify the benefits of short-term mission trips, specifically through APU in Mexico. Although we go on mission trips with the best intentions, it is important to establish an evaluation of our charity.

If we don’t create healthy relationships with the local church, there can be dependency, and we will ultimately hurt those we came to love. We can’t just show up and help out for a week only to leave without a thought, or we are at risk of allowing the cycle to continue. How do we change the outcomes and our thoughts in order to eliminate the toxicity in charity?

We must identify that our most valued services on short-term mission trips are not usually tangible or monetary. We are called to witness in relationships as we grow alongside each other in our understanding of Christ. We are there as encouragement to the project, people and nation we are serving.

“I believe that when we go on mission trips to meet physical needs, it can be done much better by sending money and employing people from the area to do the same job,” sophomore physics major Sean Halloran said. “I also think that there are other times that it is not a physical need that needs to be met. When we are seeking to meet spiritual and personal needs, it is an important trip to make. I believe most short-term missions should be done with that focus instead of seeking to fulfill a physical need.”

When giving we should be reminded to stray away from “betterment,” or giving freely, and instead move toward “development” as we provide tools for those to whom we are giving. To do this, we must see where God is working and maximize his efforts by fully utilizing our strengths to give tools to the community into which we integrate ourselves. We need to ook at the assets the community has and become hopeful about its attributes.

Our understanding of short-term mission trips is often skewed. Browning cautioned against having an “I’m going to fix this” mentality toward a situation or community. The key is to immerse oneself with the community – to sit at the feet of local pastors and to listen to grandmothers tell stories of “amazing healing.”

“What I do with that is the real question,” Browning said. “If I bring that back and I can be a person that says, ‘Do you realize what we have here? Do you realize the opportunities that we can learn from other cultures?’ …It’s absolutely worth it.”

Establishing a “So-what, Now-what” re-entry program after mission trips as introduced by Browning is a great way to put into practice the life-changing lessons of short term missionaries.

I have sat for quite some time in a fear of charity. Fear of creating a harmful relationship with the receiver has kept me from reaching out and showing love. And for that reason I am ashamed. Browning brought up a striking point when he said, “I would hate to create a culture that was so cynical that because we’re afraid of doing harm, somehow we stop helping others.”

This is not a call to tighten your grip on your wallet. It is instead a plea to analyze the ministry that you are representing or supporting, as well as its aims, before giving to a “worthy cause.” In order to stop this cycle of the negative short-term effects of mission trips, we must heal the infrastructure instead of putting a Band-Aid on the problem.