By Valerie Halim
”How do I make the most out of my Spring break?” says every college student has told since the dawn of higher education. For those of you who are interested in humanitarian issues and cross-cultural traveling, short-term missions (STM) trip is often an apparent go-to option.
Despite the absence of recent statistics on participation levels of STM trips, experts in the missions field (drawing from a 2005 study done by scholar Robert Wuthnow) estimate that there are about 2.4 million Americans making STM trips every year.
The allure of STM trips
There are a number of good reasons to go to an STM trip. With thousands of different options available on the internet , you can easily find a suitable trip that fits your schedule and interest. Moreover, if you attend a church that sponsors STM trips, you are in luck, because most congregations would be willing to fund your trip.
In an article published by the Gospel Coalition, founder and president of Training Leaders International Darren Carlson described how willing the church is when it comes to supporting STM trips.
“I have often witnessed a situation where a church struggling to support a skilled and trained long-term missionary for $200 a month won’t question raising $40,000 to send many untrained workers for a week,” he wrote.
So, going for an STM trip should be an obvious “yes”–right?
Before you press the click button, it’s worth taking the time to consider whether you should even go on the trips in the first place. In a phone interview, Break Away Ministry student director Given Tanri shared his concerns about STM and why we all should be cautious about it.
STM trips does more harm than good
Having done STM trips himself, Tanri noticed that STM trips are often doing very remote work without a long-term vision. Sadly, these types of STM trips could worsen the economy of the people they were trying to help. Moreover, it can also sometimes disrupts the work of long-term missionaries in the area. He also referenced the book “When Helping Hurts” to build his case. The book argues that STM trips often reinforce the poor people’s sense of inferiority and lack of self-esteem by continually doing evangelism and giving them material wealth.
“Not only does this hurt the people we are trying to help, but these kinds of STM trips also trick people into spiritual heroism, thinking they have made a significant change in the people’s lives,” he said.
In his lecture “Flourishing and Human Life,” author Andy Crouch also expressed his skepticism in the good STM trips bring to the people they were trying to help. Instead, Crouch argued that the best way to bring relief to people who are suffering is through giving your time and intentionality. According to him, these are the things people cannot provide during a one or two-week trip.
Impact on participants
Yet, it is impossible to deny the fact that STM trips do have some benefits.
“I think that trips like this allows me to do experiential learning and learning the local culture of the places I served,” Tanri explained.
Although, he would stress that the more one reflect on it, the more one can get out of it
Tanri has also heard testimonies from some alumni of his college that STM trips were what eventually led them to become a long-term worker at the missions field.
Missiology researchers generally agree that these trips help promote civic and social activism among participants. However, it is still unclear as to whether or not STM trips have a long-lasting impact on trip-goers.
In short, research seemed to suggest that STM trips can be beneficial to one party, but not necessarily to the other. Having considered all the good and harm STM trips can contribute to both parties, it is difficult to say for sure if people should still be going to such trips or support it financially.
Dealing with the dilemma of STM trips
When asked if he would encourage people to do STM trips, Tanri said that he could only give two rules of thumb to deal with the dilemma. According to Tanri, prospective trip-goers should first make sure that the program has a long-term vision. They must also have an on-going project which would not harm the people they are helping both financially and emotionally.
“If for some reason none of the STM trips you are looking at does fulfill both criteria, it is often better not to go and just help fund organizations that are working on a well-thought, long-term project,” he said
In his closing answer, Tanri suggests that there is no short and easy way to help people. According to him, STM trips are not an alternative for people with limited time to do charity.
“If you want to help people through ministry, there is no other way but to be a full-time missionary,” Tanri closed.