My recent letter to the editor, triggered by the Emmonak Women's Shelter financial crisis, mentioned two unnamed local churches leading three mission trips to Africa at costs exceeding $200,000. Another local church is offering similar one-week Russia ($2,500) and five-day Mexico experiences ($1,000+) this fall. I questioned these trips, when Alaska has urgent needs of its own. Christianity in those African countries visited is close to 90 percent. Alaska is nowhere near this. Nationally we rank near the bottom on church membership and attendance.
Short-term mission trips, "vacationaries," religious tourism, "voluntourism," missions-tourism are terms for a phenomenon sweeping North America. Well-intentioned church adults and youth travel to exotic destinations seeking meaningful experiences in areas having significant human need. Over 1.5 million Americans spend more than $2.5 billion per year taking them, supported by hundreds of for-profit and nonprofit organizations.
Bob Lupton, writing in "Toxic Charity," his latest book, notes research indicates these trips generally do not create lasting change, in the tripper or the recipients. Rather, they damage recipient work ethics, weaken those served, deepen dependency, and foster dishonest relationships. Sadly villagers sit and watch mission trippers doing the work they are qualified for, but cannot find the jobs to do.
Dave Livermore, Ph.D., executive director of the Global Learning Center at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, in "Piece for Relevant Leader," writes:
"While students come home with lofty aspirations of buying less, praying more, and sharing Christ more, within 6-8 weeks, most resort back to all the same assumptions and behaviors they had prior to going on the trip. And the number of career missionaries isn't increasing the way we were told it would ...We need to resist running overseas to do things we aren't doing with people in our own neighborhoods. There are way too many stories of white, suburban youth groups who love on Mexicans for a week, only to return to their local high school living in a white huddle and ignoring, or worse yet, demeaning their Latino classmates."
These trips often involve extremely expensive airfare, unhelpful to the economies of the countries targeted. Average airfare for the mentioned trips is estimated at around $2,000 per person. With over 70 trippers between these two churches, the airfares easily exceeded $140,000.
I don't question the motives of these travelers, or the worthiness of their projects. However airfare alone, coupled with project labor, could make significant dents in Alaskan projects where money or volunteers don't exist. Many churches constantly raise funds for these trips. Often travelers self-fund their airfare and local expenses, some are church-funded, and some are a combination. I'm unaware of any individual project in Alaska where this many people from two churches pooled one to two weeks, and $200,000 toward project(s) of meaningful value to our communities.
Meanwhile, it's summer in Alaska and churches from the Lower 48 send dozens of mission teams to fix and repair churches across the state, while mission tourism teams from Alaskan churches are traveling overseas on exciting short-term mission trips.
I'm heartened by one Anchorage church whose individual members voluntarily fully fund a native missionary/family in India for $150/month. For less than the cost of airfare to India or Africa, this missionary is funded for a year! They support approximately 30 India missionaries this way. A huge plus is that the local India village economy is helped by funds being spent locally by the missionary. Occasionally this church sends a senior pastor to India to help these missionaries through onsite training and support.
While short-term missions have exploded, long-term missions have declined. Many researchers tie this to the rise in short-term missions. Alaska alternatives are available to spiritual adventure-seekers: Micro-finance programs, Habitat, local homeless initiatives, food banking, tutoring, spiritual caregivers in our villages and many more.
I encourage local church leaders to set the right expectations for short-term mission teams, leading, training, and balancing their financial impact with unmet local needs. Churches that locally lead by example can do much good. Let's show our neighbors our walk matches our talk.
Chris Thompson is a church consultant, blogger, school teacher and Rotarian. Email, firstname.lastname@example.org.