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It’s that time of year again when I get guilt-tripped into supporting people for short-term missions (STM). This year, I might just say no. Call me tight-fisted, and you’re right – I am being tight-fisted. But it’s out of anger that I’m tight-fisted, and not because of stinginess.

Over the years, I’ve become more jaded about the effectiveness of STMs. We spend exorbitant amounts of money for transportation, insurance, and room & board to send a team to a local (exotic) church for a week or two, money which alone could have supported that local church/ministry for years. We put on puppet shows, take the obligatory photos of being surrounded by lots of local kids (if you can hold a baby, that’s even better), make sure we collect hundreds of professions of faith at some evangelistic finale on the last night, and promise to pray for the new believers as we take off for our “decompression period” – a three-day stay at a local resort. While we think we have done good, we have actually violated basic principles of poverty-alleviation and created long-term harm.

When we get back to our home church, there will be the requisite STM testimonies. They all sound the same: God taught me how I take his material blessings for granted; I went there to bless, but I came away being the one more blessed. Show snapshot after snapshot of me-surrounded-by-local-kids. Throw out impressive numbers: 124 people raised their hands to receive Christ! Let a few tears trickle down. Job done. Everyone is happy, especially the STMer who is now among the spiritual elite. The expense has been justified.

Meanwhile, back in the foreign land, life for the local pastor (who is never invited for “decompression” despite his yearly, relentless toil), returns quickly back to normal. His church is still crumbling; none of the “new believers” show up at church the next week; some of the kids flee home or die; he might have to leave the ministry for lack of money.

STMs are set up to benefit the missionaries, not the local churches/ministries. They are set up to emotionally and spiritually and experientially enrich the already rich, while the local foreign church/ministry, notwithstanding the sanctimonious lip-service of the STMer, is left flailing.

Thus, for me, to write a check, is to perpetuate a system which profits the American church at the expense of the truly destitute and struggling foreign churches. And my decision to not write a check is even more valid in light of the growing popularity and effectiveness of volunteer tourism. If non-believers gladly sacrifice time, energy, and money to help the poor, then why can’t the STMer also sacrifice his own money and self-support himself, much like the volunteer tourist does? Why should I financially support your vacation? (And as aside: why do people in full-time ministry seem to have longer, better, and more frequent vacations than us regular working folks?).

In a fascinating reversal of the usual STM model, PaLM (Pastoral and Lay Ministries) is offering a “reverse short-term missions trip.” In their own words:

Every summer since 1992, PaLM has sent a short-term missions team to Little Black Spot Mountain on the Navajo Reservation in AZ to host a week-long Vacation Bible School (VBS). This summer, the reverse will happen – the Navajo are coming here for VBS and we’re calling the trip, “The Navajo to New York City Missions Trip.”

The Navajo will come to our great city where they will spend ten days learning about God, his work, and his people from a very different perspective than what they have seen, learned, and experienced up until now.

An intriguing idea, full of implications, objections, and potentially great insights.


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