If You're Signed Up For A Short-Term Trip This Summer, Please Just Don’t Go.
“Where should I put this?” I asked my friend, gesturing to a paper bag of money. It was the first of several bags that would make up approximately $15,000, our budget for an upcoming short-term missions trip. Neither of us had ever held that much money, and ultimately decided to keep it on the counter of our upstairs bathroom.
A couple of weeks later, 45 teens and adults stepped out of the airport in Guatemala City, donning bright matching t-shirts and brand new Chacos, the classic short-term missionary look. We corralled everyone onto a private bus we had rented and began the 12 hour journey to the north of the country, where we would be spending the week.
My co-leaders and I were all on staff at a long-term missions base in Antigua, Guatemala, and this was the largest of several short-term trips we were responsible for that summer. We had spent months preparing for this particular trip, and it was surreal to finally be on our way.
Late that night, we arrived at our home for the week, an oasis on the edge of the jungle. Of all of my ministry work in 20+ countries, this was one of the nicest places I’d stayed. The ministry was a school for the local kids, indigenous Mayans from families of poverty.
The school provided a good education, and we were told of the opportunities many students received. The school band was honored nationally. College scholarships were awarded. Access to technology was granted. Of course, all of this came with a Christian message, and Christian missionaries like ourselves were a mainstay.
Throughout the course of the week, we would split off and do various tasks to assist the running of the school as well as the upkeep of the property. We collected firewood from the jungle, helped with gardening, tore down trees, baked cookies for the kids, and organized school materials.
Every evening, we would present a teaching to our short term team, part of the required curriculum of our organization. We would teach the teens about things like listening prayer, praying for healing, and speaking in tongues. It was all from a charismatic perspective, which for many of the students and their leaders was a new, uncomfortable experience.
After the teachings, we would have times of prayer and worship. As the designated worship leader, I would strum quietly in the background as the students prayed, confessed their sins to one another, and rededicated their lives to God. Then, I’d play “Oceans” as the students passionately lifted their hands in the air, some with tears streaming down their eyes.
One afternoon, we ventured out into the local villages, splitting off into groups to play games and pray with local churches. We visited an orphanage, where I suspect many of the teenage boys saw a woman openly breastfeed for the first time. We sang American church songs and played with kids we’d never see again. We were one of so many groups of well-meaning white people who stayed only long enough to feel bad for the children in the orphanage.
On our last evening in the jungle, moments before we boarded the overnight bus to take us back to Antigua, we were given a presentation about the ministry we had worked with all week, how we could financially support them and the impact our financial support would have. Like so many other overseas Christian ministries, they relied heavily upon the financial contributions of the short-term teams that visited them.
Once we arrived back in Antigua the next morning, one of my co-leaders and I mustered all the energy we could and took our visitors out on their ‘adventure day,’ a hike up one of Guatemala’s many active volcanoes. This was a favorite of short-term teams, a very Instagrammable trek complete with roasting marshmallows over a lava field.
We returned from the hike a few hours later, exhausted and dirty, and took the team out for a final celebration dinner. We went to a favorite restaurant of short-term teams, Monoloco, known for their massive portions. “Oh my god, I’m going to spend $400 on nachos!” my friend exclaimed, using up most of the remaining money that had once sat on our bathroom counter. The final money would be used to pay for our hostel stay that night as well as the vans that would take the team back to the airport to return home.
Just like that, in six days, we spent $15,000.
Short-term missions trips are often touted for the impact they have on their participants. I struggle with this suggestion for so many reasons, the biggest being that it fails to recognize the negative impact short-term missions can have on the local communities. The physical labor the teams did could have been done by locals who likely would have benefited greatly from the pay for their work. Our short visit to an orphanage turned the kids that resided there into an exhibit, and a token for the Americans to place their sadness upon.
You’ll often hear people promote overseas missions trips because of the impact they can have on the lives of the participants. What this ultimately suggests is that the supposed opportunities for personal growth of the visiting Americans is more important than the lasting damage inflicted upon those receiving the ‘help.’ And unfortunately, there is a complete lack of evidence that these short term trips actually change people.
I often wonder what kind of impact could be made by the millions of dollars spent on short-term missions each year. Would that money even be raised if there wasn’t the promise of an exotic trip to a foreign land? How can we support communities to grow and flourish without having to impose our culture upon them?
After spending four years overseas as both a short-term and long-term missionary, I don’t have the answers to these questions. I don’t have solutions for how we can do better. But I do firmly believe that the impact that short-term trips have is far more damaging than they are helpful.
And that I why I implore you, if you are signed up for a short-term trip this summer, please just don’t go.
Author: Katie McNeil
My name is Katie McNeil and I live in Austin, Texas. I obsess over coffee, craft beer, and the enneagram. I go to concerts as frequently as I can and play a few instruments at a mediocre level. I'm a software engineer at a startup that is changing the world and couldn't love my job more.
Its nice to meet you.