When the first few notes of the guitar solo that begins Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" rang out across the crowd, several hundred Singaporean teenagers began to scream. The 1980's-era hit gained a new generation of fans when it became the theme song for the first season of the popular television show "Glee," and the Asian teens knew it by heart.
The band, a group of 10 American college students, transitioned from Journey to the Backstreet Boys to Big Daddy Weave, a song selection chosen by their Youth for Christ hosts. The crowd loved the show, and most of the teens stuck around afterward to learn more about the local Christian ministry that sponsored the concert.
Although the Youth for Christ worship leaders, all Singapore natives, also had a band, they didn't bother trying to play in public to attract attention. No one wanted to listen to them because they weren't anything out of the ordinary, said Thomas Hardesty, an English teaching major at the Indiana State University who played guitar for the visiting band.
"But when they see white Americans playing music, they pay attention because it's really popular," he said.
The Youth for Christ team used the American musicians to help draw people to their ministry, a strategy mission experts say works well for short-term trips. The band members knew they had a very specific role to play as members of the support staff, not the stars of the show, Hardesty said.
But too often, students take short-term trips with unrealistic expectations about what they can accomplish in very little time. While experts applaud today's emphasis on service, they say many short-term mission trips fail because they are built around the preferences of the people who go, rather than the long-term development needs of the community. Experts say students who want to do short-term work should evaluate their options based on the way the planned tasks fit with a long-term development strategy and the relationships the sending agency has with local ministries.
Imposed blessings, unnecessary relief
One of the biggest pitfalls of short-term missions is that they can become imposed blessings, said Scott Bessenecker, associate director of missions for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Teams have a tendency to tell local partners what they want to do on a trip, without regard for what really needs to be done. The locals don't want to tell the team no and run the risk of damaging a relationship with people who can provide resources the poor community needs, so they agree to the project, even if it won't really help them.
One of the InterVarsity global project directors who leads trips to Guatemala once asked a local pastor what he wanted the next group to do during its visit. The pastor told him he wanted the team members to tear down a pavilion another group had just built. The builders never asked the pastor if he wanted the structure, Bessenecker said: "It wasn't useful. In fact, it was actually in the way of something else they wanted to do. But that group, out of the goodness of their hearts, decided they should build a shelter."
Another common problem with short-term trips is that they tend to emphasize meeting material needs in poor communities. Serving meals, distributing clothing and taking on minor repair projects are easy for teams to tackle, but they don't address what most poor communities really need, said Brian Fikkert, founder of The Chalmers Center for Economic Development and co-author of "When Helping Hurts." Communities faced with some kind of crisis need material items that help alleviate immediate suffering. But very quickly, assistance should transition into helping establish long-term solutions to problems like poverty. As long as poor communities continue to look to others to provide their basic needs, they will feel a sense of shame and inferiority, Fikkert said. And offering relief can actually undermine efforts by local churches to minister to the people in their community.
Fikkert tells the story of a pastor in the Dominican Republic who was working to get the village children to come to Bible camps hosted at the local church. He was making progress, with more children attending each time, until an American team visited one summer and held a camp of its own. Excited by the opportunity to interact with the foreigners, all the children came to the camp, where the missionaries lavished them with candy and toys and taught them using colorful books and pictures. After the Americans left, none of the children wanted to go to a camp put on by the local church, which didn't give out candy or toys and didn't have fancy teaching materials.
"The development of that entire ministry was undermined by one mission team," Fikkert said.
Distractions from real ministry
Short-term missionaries often arrive in a foreign country without much cultural training or language skills. They depend on local ministry partners or established missionaries to play host, a time-consuming task that often disrupts established outreach efforts.
During the first few days of a recent short-term mission trip to the Middle East, Amy Wright spent most of her time learning her way around the city she would call home for the next nine weeks. The area's permanent missionary served as her guide, putting her ministry work on hold to take Wright to the grocery store and show her where to get her money changed.
In preparation for her trip, Wright, had been praying for the missionary and the relationships she was trying to build with several young women. One in particular had started asking a lot of questions about Christianity and was reading the Bible. The missionary thought she might be close to accepting Christ.
As she showed Wright around, the missionary's phone rang. It was her young friend, asking her to meet for coffee. Even though that might have been the meeting that changed her friend's life, the missionary had to postpone the date because she was busy with Wright.
"I remember feeling so bad that I had prayed for her to have this opportunity but my presence was preventing her from taking it," said Wright, a graduate student at the University of Mobile, in Alabama.
Although short-term mission trips can be ineffective, even harmful, if not done right, they also have the potential to allow American teams to share specific skills, raise awareness of long-term development needs and encourage missionaries with support from home.
Several years ago, mission trip organizer Brent Harrison connected a small church in Watkinsville, Ga., whose members were mostly farmers, with another small church in Peru, where villagers needed help with their crops.
The Peruvian church used its land, divided up into small plots offered to villagers, as both an outreach ministry and a source of income, with farmers tithing from their crops. But the hard soil and harsh climate made the harvests small. The pastor knew the church needed a greenhouse, but he didn't have the knowledge to build one or the money to buy materials. The American team had both and worked along side the men in the village to build the structure. Between breaks in construction, they taught the villagers new techniques to improve their crop yields.
"If we don't line up our gifts with opportunities, or find opportunities within our gifts, we're handicapping people," Harrison said.
But even people who really aren't qualified to be on a mission trip can benefit from the experience, Harrison said. After watching God use mission work to take people out of their comfort zone and open their eyes to the reality of suffering and need, Harrison is loath to stop someone from going on a trip, even though he or she might seem unqualified.
But Bessenecker disagrees.
"To what extent are we using the poor, the lost and the broken for our own discipleship?" he asked. "As great as that might be for someone, it's still a form of exploitation. There are other ways that people can grow in their faith and understanding of the world."
Although Wright shares Bessenecker's concern about exploitation, she also agrees with Harrison. And after taking short-term trips almost every summer since high school, so far visiting 25 countries, she thinks most long-term missionaries value the contributions of short-term trips, even as they struggle with their drawbacks.
While the visitors focus on what they can do in the community, sometimes their biggest contribution to the ministry can be encouraging the long-term missionary, Wright said. Before she travels anywhere, even if it's not related to mission work, Wright contacts families serving in the area and asks if she can bring them anything from home. Butterfinger candy bars, cans of Dr. Pepper and the fried onions that top green bean casseroles are the most common requests.
Being a missionary is tough, and often they just want someone to encourage them and share their struggles, even if it's only for a little while, Wright said: "Let them know they're not out there alone and that we're praying for them."
Go as learners
Brent Harrison's Peruvian farming trip succeeded because the Americans had specific skills that helped with long-term community development, but most college students don't yet have extensive knowledge to share. The ability to pay often is the only qualification young Americans have to engage in missions, Bessenecker said. Even sharing the gospel usually is best left to indigenous pastors who know the people and speak the language.
Both Bessenecker and Fikkert encourage college students not to think of themselves as missionaries. Instead, they should consider themselves learners. Americans who go to poor countries with humility, seeking to learn something from the people they meet, can impart dignity, Fikkert said.
Bessenecker challenges InterVarsity students to try and consume at least two gallons of tea in a week. If they do, he knows they've taken time to really listen to the people they meet. And he encourages them to ask their hosts what message they can carry home to share with their friends and communities: "Advocacy and solidarity are two gifts university students have to give."