Work Abroad Criticized for High Cost and
Lack of Value
By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 5, 2008; B01
Not long ago, the families of Fairfax Presbyterian Church
spent thousands of dollars to fly their teens to Mexico for
eight days of doing good. They helped build homes and
refurbish churches as part of an army of more than 1 million
mostly Christians who annually go on short-term international
mission trips to work and evangelize in poverty-stricken
Yet even as those trips have increased in popularity, they have
come under increased scrutiny. A growing body of research
questions the value of the trips abroad, which are supposed to
bring hope and Christianity to the needy of the world, while
offering American participants an opportunity to work in
disadvantaged communities, develop relationships and charge up
Critics scornfully call such trips "religious tourism"
undertaken by "vacationaries." Some blunders include a wall
built on the children's soccer field at an orphanage in Brazil
that had to be torn down after the visitors left. In Mexico, a
church was painted six times during one summer by six different
groups. In Ecuador, a church was built but never used because
the community said it was not needed. To make missionary work
more meaningful, some churches are taking a different approach.
In response to the criticism, a growing number of churches and
agencies that put together short-term trips are revamping their
programs and establishing new standards.
For the past four years, for example, the Fairfax Presbyterian
youths have stayed closer to home, in places such as Welch, West
Va.; Lansing, Mich., and Philadelphia. Last week, a team of 44
were in St. Petersburg, Fla., to clean and paint low-income
homes, assist the homeless and volunteer at a free health
clinic. Senior Pastor Henry G. Brinton said the church realized
that the teens could do just as much good working close by as
"It became too hard to justify the expense of flying the kids
overseas," Brinton said. "If you're going to paint a church, you
can do that in Florida as easily as you can in Mexico." Fairfax
Community Church is repositioning its mission trips "to get away
from the vacation-with-a-purpose, large groups going somewhere
to build something" focus, said Alan MacDonald, the church's
pastor of global engagement.
The church is sending out smaller teams of experts to work on
projects with partner churches. For example, it is sending
information technology professionals who are fluent in Spanish
to a church in the Dominican Republic to train members in
computer skills so they can get better jobs, MacDonald said.
McLean Bible Church, which sends about 35 short-term mission
teams out each year, is training its team leaders to approach
short-term missions with a "learner's mentality,'' to be
respectful of the culture or group the team will be serving,
said Kailea Hunt, director of global impact for the church.
Christianity Today, an evangelical magazine, is adopting much
the same approach in a curriculum for short-term missionaries
and their host organizations. Andy Crouch, an editor who is
working on the project, said it came about as the result of
complaints he heard from churches and nonprofit groups in
foreign countries that host American short-term missionaries.
"We hope that when they land on the ground, they will be more
prepared to listen well to their hosts and learn from their
hosts what is really helpful to be doing," Crouch said. The
curriculum, for example, warns missionaries to think about their
attire in conservative countries and what kind of message
they're sending when they bring expensive cameras and other
electronics to poverty-stricken villages.
Despite the concerns with trips abroad, their popularity is
soaring. Some groups go as far away as China, Thailand and
Russia. From a few hundred in the 1960s, the trips have
proliferated in recent years. A
study found that 1.6 million people took short-term mission
trips -- an average of eight days -- in 2005. Estimates of the
money spent on these trips is upward of $2.4 billion a year.
Vacation destinations are especially popular: Recent research
has found that the Bahamas receives one short-term missionary
for every 15 residents.
At the same time, the number of long-term American missionaries,
who go abroad from several years to a lifetime, has fallen,
according to a Wheaton College study done last year.
The short-term mission trip is a "huge phenomenon that seems to
be gaining in momentum rather than waning," said David
Livermore, executive director of the Global Learning Center at
Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, who studies the trend.
Participants care for orphans, hold Bible classes, evangelize,
paint homes and churches, and help AIDS patients, among other
tasks. But research has found that the trips tend to have few
long-term effects on the local people or on the mission
travelers. Some projects take away work from local people, are
unnecessary and sometimes dangerous.
"I really don't think that most people are trying to be ugly
Americans," said Glenn Schwartz, executive director of World
Mission Associates and author of "When Charity Destroys
Dignity." "But they're misinformed and don't realize how their
good intentions can go awry."
Mission groups also often bring their own experts and ignore
local authorities on the ground.
In Monrovia, Liberia, three years ago, tragedy occurred when
visitors built a school to their standards instead of Liberian
standards. During the monsoon season, the building collapsed,
killing two children, Livermore said. Critics also question the
expense involved in sending people long distances. Short-term
missionaries pay $1,000 each, or far more, in plane fare and
other expenses to get to remote destinations.
A 2006 study in Honduras found that short-term mission groups
spent an average of $30,000 on their trips to build one home
that a local group could construct for $2,000.
"To spend $30,000 to paint a church or build a house that costs
$2,000 doesn't make a whole lot of sense," said Kurt Ver Beek, a
professor of sociology at Calvin College who conducted the
A coalition that organizes mission trips has also set up
standards that call for consultations with local organizations
during planning, cultural training for participants and
qualified leaders to be sent with the group.
"If [the trips] are only about ourselves, then we're doing
nothing more than using another culture . . . to get some
benefit at their expense," said the Rev. Roger Peterson,
chairman of the Alliance for Excellence in Short-Term Mission,
who helped set up the standards. "I don't care what verse of the
Bible you read, it's wrong, it's wrong, it's wrong."