Calling a Spade a Spade | Church Mission Trips – More Self-Serving Than Other-Serving

Last week I heard of a local church planning several mission trips to East Africa in 2013.  As a child of missionaries, myself, I’d like to speak to the immense popularity of mission trips among “Christian America,” recognizing and risking that readers might take exception to my perspective.

Mission trip promotional poster

Typical mission trip promotional poster

I acknowledge that this is not a thorough and researched treatise, as it were, on church mission trips. Rather, it’s a short, somewhat atypical perspective, which I hope will provoke at least a modest questioning and rethinking about mission trips.  I do not disparage any and all “good,” which might result from such trips, but I’m unconvinced “the good” outweighs “the bad.”

It seems to me that the underlying, oft-times unconscious purpose of many, if not most church mission trips, especially short-term and itinerant ones, could be typified as: 1) Self-enrichment; 2) Finding self and a life meaning; 3) Growing my church and “the kingdom”; and 4) Holiday-with-a-social-service add-on.  These, in contrast to an altruism of commitment to the well-being of “the different and distant others,” who according to Desmond Tutu, we should consider as “family.”

Jan Nederveen Pieterse, professor of global studies and sociology in the Global and International Studies Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, as well as author of White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture, made two observations about Christian missions, which I agree with.  Although he wrote in the past tense of the 19th and early 20th centuries, regrettably, I believe little has changed today.


First, missions were (are) engaged in, at least in part, as a rejuvenating cure for the home church’s faltering spiritual and numerical decline.

Secondly, fund-raising for overseas’ mission ventures was (is) dependent upon conveying a “demonized image of the heathen under the devil’s spell, and on the other the romanticized self-image of the missionary in the role of saviour.”

The two stereotypes were (are) interdependent, in that, “The glory as well as the fund-raising of the missions were (are) in direct proportion to the degradation and diabolism of the heathen.”  Btw – I could easily corroborate the continued practice of this second point simply by sharing verbatim from several recent emails in my Inbox.

My postgraduate mentor was insistent in telling students that language is formative in shaping people’s perceptions, attitudes and actions toward people different.  For example, he especially disliked the term “non-Christian,” because it implies a standard of value measurement, in which “Christian” is the absolute or sole source of good and truth, while any and all things and persons “non-Christian” are less-than. Instead, when possible, use an expression like “people of other faiths.”

Me and my South African mentor, John N. Jonsson

Me and my South African mentor, John N. Jonsson

In the same spirit, he warned students not to use “uneducated” in their semester research papers, because that too communicates a less-than-me attitude toward someone different and less economically fortunate.  Rather, in referring to a person(s) who lacks a school education, say something like “s/he lacks formal education,” but don’t ever say “uneducated” because many “uneducated people” of the world are without question some of its most intellectually brightest.

One example is the Khoi and Bushmen of Southern Africa’s Khoisan language compared to the relative simplicity of the English language. An early explorer’s impressions of the Khoisan language, as taken from Lancaster’s Voyages, states, “Their speech is wholly uttered through the throat, and they cluck with their tongues in such sort, that in seven weeks which we remained here in this place, the sharpest wit among us could not learn a word of their language.”

A San family

A San family

Many recipients of “Christian humanitarianism” of the 18th through 21st centuries, experienced “mission” in a less-than self and culture-affirming manner (*the enmeshing of Bible and Christianity with imperialism, colonialism, and present-day globalization is well-known, and succinctly depicted by historian Brian Stanley’s book The Bible and The Flag) .  


The coupling of so-called “good news” and reigning political and economic power is evident in a well-known statement attributed to Kenya’s independence fighters, the Mau Mau, “Formerly we owned the land and the whites had the Gospel. Then the missionaries came, they taught us to pray and close our eyes, and in the meantime the whites took our land. Now we have the Gospel and they have the land.”  

Despite advocates who argue that “mission” is a neutral term, citing its popular and frequent use in the corporate world of “mission statements,” from my perspective “mission” persists in conveying power, control and militaristic imagery, and communicates the idea that somethings or someones need “saving” or “saving from.”  It’s a tacit admission that “they” and “them” need “us” in order to experience a happy and fulfilled life, find God, and obtain a “get-into-heaven” pass code.

If you question my evidence for the historical and continued militaristic conveyance of “Christian missions,” spend some time researching church and missionary archives such as the Congregationalists’ American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.  You will observe that young boys and girls were organized into local “Mission Crusader” clubs, all with the express purpose of “fighting for Christ and His Kingdom . . . against the Evil one and his Kingdom.”  In the mid-1840s, the analogy of Napoleon’s conquests was utilized as incitement and preparation for overseas missions.

American Board missionary to Syria, Eli Smith, in an address to members of the Society of Inquiry stated, “They forget that the object for which the church is organized, is not so much the maintenance of fortresses already taken and garrisoned, as for universal conquest.”  Later he described foreign missions as a “foreign war.”  Furthermore, each issue of The Missionary Herald (mission magazine) contained sections entitled “Recent Intelligence” and “Foreign Intelligence.”

Although a missionary was supposed to be a spiritual herald of good news and an ambassador of God’s love, his primary vocation, according to the American Board’s own “mission commander,” Rufus Anderson, was as soldier to the cross.  Their order was to “make conquests, and to go on . . . ‘conquering and to conquer’. . . the idea of continued conquest is fundamental in missions to the heathen.” Elsewhere he wrote that the “idea of spiritual conquest is the predominant and characteristic idea of the [mission] enterprise.”


Concluding thought:

What prompted this blog’s topic, and what disturbs me most about the popularity and fondness of Americans for overseas mission trips, is the absence of much, if any, suggestion or emphasis on reciprocity – i.e., the idea that American Christians need “them” (the religious and cultural “different others” targeted by mission groups) as much as, if not more than they need us.

Church mission trips, from my perspective – with some exceptions, of course – persist in demonstrating and communicating a singular, single stream attitude and perspective: We save them, We help them, We give to them, We pray for them, We teach them, We heal them, et cetera.

As former Columbia University professor, Edward Said, persuasively argued in his book Orientalism, identity is a construction, and as such, it is “bound up with the disposition of power and powerlessness in each society.”  What I have discovered through years of exposure to mission groups is that by and large Christian Americans are seldom conscious of how entwined with their nation’s own Super Power status their faith and worldview is.

It is disappointing that churches are quick to organize, promote and engage in overseas mission trips, yet upon questioning them, one often finds their awareness of and involvement in their very own residential backyards (communities/cities) unknown and unmet. The movie Blind Side depicted this side of Christian America, in that many of Leigh Anne Tuohy’s (Sandra Bullock) rich friends were aghast that she involved her family in the life of a young black man from a poor, crime ridden section of the city.

Meanwhile mission trips and their participants repeatedly convey to the world’s poor and struggling people of Americans’ economic and political power / dominance by spending billions of dollars on airfare, visas, travel inoculations, 3 to 5 star hotel accommodation, food, travel accessories, clothing, and most times a final several days’ “safari” – a great percentage of which monies, could arguably have been spent on direct aid to people and communities in need.

I’m not necessarily advocating eliminating church mission trips.  But I do think, at minimum, they should be re-named for what they are.

Mission trip participants boarding a plane

Mission trip participants boarding a plane


Filed under Africa, Culture and Africa, Mentor, Perspective, Relationships, Religion and Faith

8 responses to “Calling a Spade a Spade | Church Mission Trips – More Self-Serving Than Other-Serving

  1. Reblogged this on MMM — Munson Mission Musings and commented:
    A lot of points here. Not sure I feel like the term “non-Christian” should be viewed as inappropriate… seems like a useful taxonomy to me… but much to consider. Ethnocentrisim/Imperialism, lack of cultural reciprocity, and rejection of intracultural missions are some important points here to take seriously.

  2. Adrian Thomas

    Hey, my good friend…I have to comment…as a fellow MK, PK, pastor, and, now, a missionary!

    Although I enjoyed reading this blog and your thoughts (you touched on some valid points), I had to take exception to the statement “don’t think the “good” outweighs the “bad”. I could go through your blog statement by statement, but I would rather make a blanket statement…”you cannot put a price tag on a changed life”. In my experience, short term mission trips have a powerful impact on both those who go on mission trips, and those who receive these short term mission trip teams. I don’t think there is any harm if one of the motives of a mission trip is to see lives changed ( as we often say…”to be blessed and to be a blessing”.), either those that go on the mission trip or those on the mission field the team visits. For instance, of the missionaries I know here in the Dominican Republic, the majority (not all), were impacted (called, motivated, whatever word you want to use) to become a missionary on a short term trip. One example, of many, is of a couple who came on a mission trip, were so impacted by what they saw, gave up their life in the States, came to the DR, and are now positively impacting the lives of hundreds of Dominicans through a variety of much needed ministries. This also works the other way….one of the pastors we work with has a wonderful story. When he was a young boy, far from God, he, out of curiosity, went to see what was going on at a nearby baseball field, as he had heard there were a bunch of “gringos” in town. He makes it clear that he was not interested in church, God, or anything Christian, but was drawn by the excitement of a bunch of foreigners in town. Whilst there, on the fringes, one of the ladies (who spoke no Spanish), came over, and gently encouraged him to participate. He reluctantly came over, got involved in the craft, heard the message of Salvation, and surrendered his life to Christ. Since then, he has followed Christ faithfully, planted 5 thriving churches, and has a radio and TV ministry touching the lives of thousands of Dominicans. He makes it clear that without the visiting short term team, his life would not have been impacted and changed for Christ as it was. It is stories like this that remind me “you cannot put a price tag on a changed life”…whether it is a member of the visiting short term team, or one of the nationals they impact through their visit. I am a very strong supporter of short term mission teams. Yes, there are problems, but, in spite of all the problems, lives are being changed and impacted in positive ways all over the world through short term teams. My final thought….the missionary who accepts a short term team also has a big part in making sure many of the things you mentioned do not occur. With us, all our teams stay in a mission house (no hot water, no air conditioning, etc), and experience, as close as we can get, a true cultural experience. We do not provide what we call “mini-cations” (ministry and vacation tied up together). As well, we partner these teams with local leadership and churches, and work side by side to reach local communities. These local leaders and churches are part of the decision making process of what the team will be involved in and accomplish whilst they are there. These short term teams are “used” by us to accomplish the vision of the ministry. Short term teams that contact us and ask to do things that are outside of the vision, are gently encouraged to look elsewhere. The missionary needs to stand in the gap, and protect the people they are called to minister to, even from short term teams. Okay….I could share a lot more…but, that is a start!
    Thanks for sharing, and, hopefully, some of your thoughts will get people thinking….

  3. I made a video that deals directly with the content of this post for a semester research project on short term missions. Most of our research was derived from Brian Fikkert and Robert Lupton’s literature. Feel free to watch and share.

    • Scott Houser

      Thanks for sharing this, Arley. How are you currently or planning to use it?

      • The video is currently being used for a class at my school that is a essentially a semester service project – my group and I researched this topic and I put together this video to be used the classes beginning seminar. The hope is that groups in the class will render thoughtful and relational service to the local community. The video has also been passed around to different non-profits, churches, and classes for ideas and precautions on doing short term missions and projects. My hope is that it will find a wider audience! If you know of anywhere or anyone that could benefit from watching this, let me know.

  4. Trish Fulbright Harrell

    I really don’t know how I happened on to this blog but I’m so glad I did. First I saw your “resume” and I am so impressed! And I feel a little undereducated. Ha Congratulations not only on your education and publications but for living it out in the real world. That is a great testimony.

    This blog caught my attention because the subject matter has grieved me for a long time. I just didn’t know how to word it without being offensive. I hope you don’t mind if I share this site with some other believers.

    Seriously, you have given me hope tonight. I don’t know if you are still Baptist affiliated and it doesn’t matter. But I have struggled for several years with the type of doctrine Baptists in my corner of the world are believing. I would love it if my husband and I were close enough to just chat. Maybe one day.

    Thanks again!

    • Thanks for sharing this, Trish. ALWAYS nice to be on the receiving end of kind words. We’re in Austin, TX, so if ever you and your husband are near here give a shout.

  5. Pingback: My Ideas on Short Term Mission Trips | Marti's Miscellany

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