Could the money spent on airfare, food, and lodging on a mission trip truly be better spent on the locals themselves in a host country?
A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to have Relevant Magazine publish an article I’d written called What Nobody Tells You Before Going on Mission Trips. To my pleasant surprise, despite the subject matter being missions, it has received a decent amount of shares.
Along with those shares come reactions.
And along with those reactions have come some negative ones as well as positive, but mostly the latter. (April 2018 Edit: I noticed the original article no longer has any of the original comments that were left, but trust me, it was from the comments it received I was motivated to write this responsive and reflective post)
The most common knee-jerk reaction I’ve received is the idea that short-term missions are “a waste of money”. Those who feel this way state that with the amount of money spent on airfare and lodging, as well as food that will be consumed, along with how little “tangible good” is accomplished in such a short amount of time, that the money would be better spent just giving it to the missionaries or the locals.
Is that true?
Or better question — is it really that simple?
A waste of ointment on Jesus’ feet?
I don’t question the motives or the hearts of those who feel the money could be better spent, but let’s remember something from the Scriptures. Remember Mary from Bethany? She’s the woman who came in when Jesus and the disciples were having dinner several days before the Passover and she poured a pound of expensive ointment on Jesus’s feet.
You remember what happened, don’t you?
“But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.” (John 12:4-6, ESV)
Now I’m not implying that people who think short-term missions are a waste of money are just like Judas or that they are personally greedy for money themselves. However, this Scripture does come to mind when I hear the “why waste the money when it can be given to the poor locals who need it more?” argument against short-term missions in blog comments and Facebook posts.
There are several factors we need to take into account in order to determine the answer to that question.
One commenter on the Relevant article used an example of the amount of $24,000 being spent to send a short-term mission team to do a few hundred dollars worth of minor carpentry and painting while unemployed local craftsmen look on in dismay. Truthfully, this does happen. I admit to having seen it and having heard of it second-hand from other current and former missionaries as well.
“Why does one need to spend thousands of dollars to travel halfway around the world to do something that a local could do, and save a lot of money in the process that could be invested elsewhere or put to use in another manner? That money that could be put to “better” use.”
The only problem I have with this is the belief that people on the ground back in the “sending country” have a full understanding and idea of what truly is going on over in the ‘receiving’ country.
At least not always.
Taking short-term trips is not the same as living in the host country and seeing things on an ongoing regular basis and truly understanding and knowing how things work. Reading newsletters and Facebook posts about what’s going on abroad is not the same thing as being there and seeing and experiencing things first hand. Sometimes for years.
North American logic is different from developing country logic, and the openness can be determined based on different factors from one culture to the other. As a Westerner reading this, you might have a better way of doing things that work *in your culture* but you can’t just transplant abroad as easily as you may think. This is where your liaison(s) in the host country have an understanding and insight you don’t. We see and experience things on an ongoing basis which helps us know whether a team is worth bringing or not.
I have a better understanding of the culture and ministry IN this culture now than I did on my first 6-week scouting trip to Peru in 2008.
That being said, whether one has a limited perspective as an outsider looking in or as an insider looking out towards sending countries, it’s still a relevant question to ask — could such money be spent in more efficient ways?
Spending thousands in church resources to send a team to do “relatively very little”, plus taking job opportunities away from locals usually does more harm than good. I agree 100%.
What Kind of Investment Do You Want to Make?
Whether or not a short trip is a good use of money all depends on what kind of “currency” you want to invest in that mission base. There are many different currencies: monetary, relational, intellectual, spiritual, and emotional to name a few. Short-term teams can offer these things depending on the team, God’s plan and goals.
This is why we need to hear God’s voice about what to do.
Making plans to, say, go to the jungle ought to be made from a place of prayer and not trendiness or personal ambition, no matter how romantic preaching the Gospel to tribesman and starting a revival there may sound. I’m not saying that’s the motivation behind many trips that take place, but I have been on the receiving end of “glory trips” as I call them.
My definition of a glory trip is when people go on them to receive their own glory, post pictures of themselves to Facebook, and show off what they’ve done (and not realize they’re getting all the glory). At the same time, they complain about everything that goes wrong, for example.
For glory trippers, the mission is more about themselves than it is about serving, or more importantly, bringing the Lord any glory He rightly deserves. And for some perfectly-timed Facebook and Instagram opportunities. For more of my thoughts on this, read Missionary or Glorified Tourist?.
“Glory Trips” are more of a drain than they are a blessing!
I remember one time for just a weekend hosting seven different men in my two-bedroom apartment for outreach to youth and the launch of a new local ministry. My roommate and I bought a lot of groceries for this — to feed seven grown men, remember. We paid for the transportation we all did together. When everybody went home afterward, I realized not a single soul had offered to pay me a cent for any of my out-of-pocket expenses.
No “thanks for the food” or “thanks for letting us stay with you“.
Seriously, maybe one guy personally shook my hand or someone thanked us in a general way from a platform later.
I learned from this experience that on my part I could have communicated or taken more initiative ahead of time about expectations instead of just assuming people knew the food wouldn’t pay for itself and that they should chip in and pull their weight. When it comes to money, I’ve learned never to assume people will take the initiative and offer any!
Steve, don’t be so stingy! Sounds to me like you feel entitled!
The thing is, I know only two missionary families anywhere in the world who consistently have an abundance of support. Heck, who just even make their monthly budget! The rest, generally speaking, lack or they just have merely enough to get by.
In the five years I spent covered by my original US mission organization, I only once had their monthly minimum required amount of funds come in. On paper, I simply didn’t have enough to live by. But in living by faith and watching God bless me through surprise means on a monthly basis, I constantly got by supernaturally, you could say.
That doesn’t mean it’s not disconcerting to drain more money out of one’s tight budget on large teams when it’s not necessary.
Are Your Trips Deposits or Withdrawals?
Please hear my heart in this. I’m not trying to complain. I’m just trying to point out that people may not realize what kind of work, and sometimes drain, their trip is for the locals and the missionaries.
On another occasion, which will also remain vague and be the last example of mine I’ll use today, I found myself making constant trips to convenience stores to give bottled water and snacks for a worship team and paying out-of-pocket for all the taxi rides we took multiple times per day to get to and from this group’s hotel and the main venue this particular team was ministering in.
After a few days of paying for the taxis, I politely asked some of the guys who were riding with me if one of them could pay for it since I had absolutely no pocket change left. One of the guys balked at me and said: “it’s only a couple of dollars, isn’t it?“
This was even more awkward when I realized he had no intention of offering “only a couple of dollars”. Someone else in the car eventually covered it, I believe. But it was embarrassing to me to feel like an amount of money that was becoming sacrificial to me at this point was in fact viewed as nothing by someone else, while expecting me to pay for it.
After this conference was over and the team had gone home, I added up all those “few dollars”. I had spent upwards of $75 (which is a lot in the local currency, Peruvian Nuevo Soles) JUST on ferrying these guys around and buying them bottled water. Not a single one of them reimbursed me, and like I mentioned, gave me attitude when I merely brought up paying their own taxi.
The amount may not seem like much, but find out from the missionaries how many teams come and go, and how many of them have a rock star mentality versus a servant mentality.
Some are a drain, both emotionally and/or financially like in these examples — which are not common, I will add. I’ve had people leave items behind as gifts for myself and other team members. I’ve had people leave me all their leftover local currency which helped out a lot.
But like I keep saying, I’ve also had others who don’t realize the time and cost involved in hosting them.
I saw a Facebook post suggesting that a short-term team coming provides a vacation for the local missionaries. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, sometimes we need a vacation after hosting a team!
Asking The Missionaries if They’d Like You To Come vs Telling Them You’re Coming
In his blog post on a similar subject, Toward Better Short-Term Missions, Darren Carlson writes
To protect against doing unintentional harm, go directly to the missionaries your church supports and trusts to find out whether they would like a team to come and partner with them. These missionaries can also provide helpful feedback that comes from experience and understanding. Just make sure they feel the freedom to say no and dictate the details of the trip, such as how many people should come. I know of a missionary who asked for eight people, and the church responded by sending more than 100 youth. We need to listen! Some of the best short-term trips involve just two or three key friends sent by the church to visit a missionary in difficult place. If your church doesn’t support long-term missionaries, I would suggest doing so before you consider short-term cross-cultural ministry.
If you want only to bless with money and that’s the only type of capital you want to invest, then yes, $24,000 could be put to use better than spending it on a team to come. It could be sown or invested in other more far-reaching ways.
If you want to invest with other capital, like relational capital or spiritual and emotional capital, the money is just going to pay the monetary costs.
Earlier this year, my leaders’ mentors came to visit and they spent a lot of time ministering to us personally. and spending time with us. It was a tremendous encouragement and I would in no way view that as a “waste of money”. The investment was in us personally and not monetarily.
Sure, while they were here they also ministered and visited our other communities. Do you think this was a waste of money? I sure didn’t.
It just depends on what the goals are. If it’s to bless and encourage the long-termers, then yes, a personal visit is much more special than a Skype call. And, unfortunately, those plane tickets aren’t free, so, there will be a monetary cost.
Is a trip going to be a good use of money or a waste? Again, it all depends on what the goals are.
For the one or only for the many?
I’ll end this post with the following.
One time back in Canada, I heard revivalist Bill Prankard, who makes frequent trips into Northern Canada and Russia to share the Gospel with Eskimos and people who live far removed from our idea of civilization.
On this occasion, he shared a video of his recent trip where they went into one area of the Arctic and came across one sole person living in an igloo. This man lived miles and miles from any other people or communities. Prankard had flown in with at least one helicopter and a camera crew.
I forget how many people were with him in total, but let’s pretend it was 8. The equipment they brought, flying the helicopter, the layers of clothing for each of them to keep warm, and not to mention the food, would all add up and make this a rather expensive trip.
The video footage was very touching as the man they met received them, and let them share the Gospel with him and he accepted Christ.
“All that money” was spent on sharing the Gospel with just one person.
Do you think that would be a waste of money?
I think it was worth every penny, in light of eternity, and I’m sure that one person is very grateful for their expensive visit.