Why I Would and Wouldn’t Recommend Short-Term Missions
...and why you should and shouldn’t take me seriously
Last year I finished my fourth gap year. Though I don’t call them ‘gap-years’ any more (now that I’m unsure what they’re a gap between), the term does help me communicate what my years since High School have looked like. There are plenty of things that I can’t boast of, but I can boast that I’ve had my fair share of short-term mission experiences.
For the last seven years I’ve volunteered abroad with three international Christian mission organisations. Across five continents I’ve been on volunteering trips that varied in length from one week to six months. I’ve worn the many hats of an overseas Christian worker: teaching English, offering prayer, painting classrooms, building buildings, taking photos, making videos, leading Bible studies, collecting rocks, shovelling goat poo - you name it. I’ve been on trips that felt comfortingly well organised and I’ve been on trips where I didn’t have money for the return flight home. I’ve been on teams of three and teams of ten, travelled only with girls and travelled as the only Brit. I’ve had head-lice, Delhi belly and mice in my bed. Based on these credentials I want to speak about short-term missions (or ‘volunteering abroad’ if you’re not a Christian).
By the way, have your pinch of salt at the ready. I came back from my last trip full of questions and a tinge of bitterness. This no doubt will mar some of what I have to say. Too, my experiences of short-term missions are just that - they’re mine. I can only refer to what has been true for me and feel aware that there is much that I have yet to see, learn and experience.
Why I Wouldn’t Recommend Short-Term Missions
- Beware of the ‘I can change the world’ stance. My first experiences of short-term missions were tainted with the belief that I was a part of something really helpful for the receiving country. In my opinion, the ‘help’ I/my teams have been able to offer if anything has been very slight, or it has been a short-term solution within a problem that remains ongoing.
- The longer you volunteer, the better. I’m beginning to believe this is true to the extent that ideally you serve so long it can no longer be called ‘short-term missions’. I'd warn that volunteering in a place for a short amount of time is incredibly romantic. You don’t stick around to see the years of patience of investing in someone or something. You don’t really see the pain or disappointment of offering aid with little fruit. At worst, you swoop in, feel affirmed that you’re a good person and then you leave.
- Do you have subconscious prejudices? Coming from a Western and wealthy country naturally conditions us to think that people from less developed countries are somewhat lesser. We see them as people in need of our help and our time and our money. I believe it contributes to a power imbalance between the people serving and the people being served. The only antidote is a worldview of equality that recognises our need (in the West) to be taught, and that a child in a slum may well have a lot to teach and offer us. In my experience, kids in slums have perfected gratitude better than anyone I know.
- Resist offering aid without guidance for what is needed. I think the root of presumptuously offering aid is embedded in arrogance that we know what’s best. Our opinions of what another needs can be grossly different to what that person or community longs for or would prioritise. Actually, this guidance either needs to come from locals who can speak on behalf of the whole, or from a project that is established in the area and who themselves know what the people want. The best way to volunteer, I think, is to join a project or organisation that is already established and understands what will be helpful.
Why I Would Recommend Short-Term Missions
- You learn that you’re not normal. Through short-term missions you can travel beyond what you already have, to a place that doesn’t speak your language/that feels culturally unfamiliar/with a foreign climate/with a different national religion. In doing so, your innate assumption that your world and experiences are ‘normal’ will be rudely confronted. It’s a lesson worth paying the flight-price for.
- The world looks different when you’re not a tourist. Nelson Mandela said that you don’t know the true state of a country until you see its prisons. I’d argue that when you’re a tourist, you see what somebody else has pre-prepared for you to see. In volunteering you spend time in places that benefit from volunteers and naturally you're exposed to different desperate circumstances. Ideally you would be living with or near locals and absolutely not in a resort or a Western hotel.
- You learn that money isn’t everything. It’s a healthy lesson to learn (through volunteering) that not everybody needs to pay you for your time. It’s humbling. It broadened my view of what I can offer without thinking about how money will be involved.
- Manual labour is a great teacher of humility. Working on a joint project with a team can be a unifying experience. I would recommend decorating and building jobs for a first missions experience because it is encouraging to tangibly see the work you’re doing. However, make sure you contribute to a project that legitimately would benefit from more hands and free labour.
- Recurrent short term missions trips can strengthen relationships between two overseas communities. This best-case scenario (where a short-term missions trip strategically returns to the same place frequently/annually) gives opportunity for both communities to learn from the other’s cultures, worldview and way of life.