By TARIN PARADISE, guest columnist
Not long ago, a friend whose church was considering restructuring their missions program asked me if I thought short-term missions were a waste of time and money. She forwarded an article written by Michelle Lynn Stayton titled “7 Reasons Why Your Two Week Trip to Haiti Doesn’t Matter: Calling Bull on Service Trips.”
The article, critiquing “voluntourism,” volunteering as a vacation experience, contained nothing I haven’t heard before. In fact, a quick internet search produced a host of similar articles in Newsweek and Forbes magazines as well as news outlets like CNN and Reuters.
And now, the idea seems to be gaining some traction among Evangelicals.
That churches are even considering this as the basis for restructuring their missions programs is nothing short of astounding.
Stayton’s article, and others like it, suggest that short-term volunteers embark on these trips merely for self-fulfillment. They write of volunteers driven by the desire for third-world photo ops and cite the general lack of impact of their efforts, as well as wasted funds which could be directed toward larger, more effective outlets for aid.
While this may be true of the volunteers Ms. Stayton and other secular organizations have worked with, the motivations for mission work within the Church are vastly different.
I have, on occasion, been on trips with individuals like those she describes, but in my experience, this type of self-serving volunteer is rare — the exception and not the rule.
For the church, ministering to the physical merely opens the door for our real purpose on the mission field: sharing our faith, and that’s something only believers on the ground can do.
For us, those opportunities come when we’re doing the big things like construction projects with a team of engineers and when we’re doing the small things like painting rooms at an orphanage or sitting around a cook fire peeling potatoes. For us, every team member’s contribution has value.
Ms. Stayton may not think that a cook has a place on a team of engineers or medical workers, but imagine the importance of a prepared meal after you’ve just worked a 16-hour day.
Likewise, we cannot underestimate the magnitude of holding a child who needs a hug or encouraging words. Jesus did a lot of big things, but he also spent a lot of time just visiting with people.
Those who would malign the efforts of short-term volunteers who perform these “menial” tasks underestimate the value of the shared human experience, regardless of how insignificant the context may seem. For the church, sharing the mundane tasks of daily life with those on the mission field allows us to build relationships around our common humanity, providing a natural springboard for supernatural opportunities and conversations.
While it’s impossible to deny the impact of larger organizations like UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders and Oxfam, that should never minimize the work God can do with smaller teams.
Organizations with larger footprints provide invaluable services, but only the Church invests eternally in the lives of others. Today, and throughout history, that was done primarily by individuals and small groups.
We may never see or know the full impact of all that God is doing through us or the people we come in contact with on a short-term mission trip.
Finally, short-term volunteers are critical to smaller ministries both here and overseas. I’ve been working with an African ministry for six years now, and it’s been my experience that while not every person who has ever visited becomes a regular supporter, nearly every one of our regular supporters does so because they have visited our site.
In terms of generating support for our children and ministry, nothing takes the place of seeing and experiencing God’s work up close and in person.
The “voluntourism” Ms. Stayton and those of like mind describe refers to poorly planned and loosely managed efforts by unqualified team leaders who know little about the cultures they attempt to serve. This is vastly different from the prayerful, intentional service that the body of Christ provides through sustained long and short-term missions.
That said, I am grateful for every belly filled, every house built, and every vaccination given to needy children and their families by volunteer teams around the world — regardless of their motivations. All our efforts combined will never be enough.
Tarin Paradise is a former teacher who splits her time between Brown County and Africa where she works on behalf of women and orphaned children. She can be reached through the newspaper at firstname.lastname@example.org.