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Short-term missions: Service or Christian tourism?

David A. Livermore, Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence (updated edition). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2013. 190 pages. $13.99.
Brian M. Howell. Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2012. 254 pages. $20.
Summer mission trips have become a rite of passage for Christian teenagers today.
About 4 million North Americans travel internationally for mission trips each year, and 29 percent of high school teens have participated in cross-cultural service projects, according to recent studies by Princeton and Notre Dame universities.
So common are short-term missions that they’ve acquired their own acronym — STMs. We must question, however, the overall effectiveness of these ministry experiences. Do these trips have a positive impact on the participants and the recipients, or could this effort, energy and money be put to better use?
Two recent books seek to explore the effectiveness of short-term efforts. They also call us to be more intentional in our designing, training and reporting about these trips.
In an updated version of his book “Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence,” David Livermore, executive director of the Global Learning Center at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, argues for short-term mission work but maintains that the preparation and training of those going is of utmost importance. From a conversation with an indigenous church leader, Livermore realized that most workers have prepared “just enough to make them dangerous.”
Short-term missionaries often come to generic conclusions about the people and culture: “These people are so poor, yet they are so happy!” “People are people throughout the world. We really aren’t that different.”
Globalization has reinforced these ideas, which can help us adapt to our new surroundings but also may hinder our understanding of the people and of our ministry.  Overgeneralization tends to ignore the decisive role that culture and customs play in every aspect of an individual’s life — from their understanding of time to their interpretation of Scripture.
Livermore contends that short-term mission work is most effective when participants serve with cultural intelligence, or “CQ” — “the ability to adjust how we think and behave in various cultural situations.” He breaks down CQ into four components: drive, knowledge, strategy and action. He develops each of these in terms of why they’re necessary and how to train mission participants in each area before departure.
This book provides a catalyst for discussion during training. In chapter 13, “The Heart of the Matter,” Livermore gives practical guides for trip preparation, team training and CQ application while on the field.
This would be a wonderful book to help leaders train short-term teams.
Brian Howell, professor of anthropology at Wheaton College, discusses the “how” and “why” of such trips in “Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience.”
He argues that short-term trips provide “shared narratives” that are valuable. Yet he also is concerned that these experiences do not have the impact on the participants or the host culture that we believe.
In order to be more effective in our efforts, Howell argues that our preparation must focus on three areas — training before the trip, debriefing after the trip and narrating our experiences during the trip and after we return home.
Ultimately, Howell wants to move our understanding of short-term missions beyond what we get out of it or the effect that our work has. Instead, he calls us to reframe our experiences as “short-term learning opportunities,” a chance to simply be present in a new culture “with no other agenda than to be with (them).”
We are not called to completely change their world, Howell says. We are not called simply to “Christian tourism.” Instead, we are called to an intentional practice of shared growth and learning — both spiritually and culturally.
Howell’s book would be an excellent catalyst for conversation in a college class or among members of a missions committee. But the information he provides is often overly technical for the typical youth group or short-term mission leader.
Short-term mission works can have an enormous impact on the lives of the participants, but they must be approached with humility, cultural intelligence and intentional training if they are to be more effective than just “Christian tourism.”
Daniel McGraw is community minister for the West University Church of Christ in Houston and a former missionary intern for the Caballito Church of Christ in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

  • Feedback
    Thank you for including the review of the two books dealing with the subject of short-term mission trips. The popularity of these trips has skyrocketed and I believe now is the time to more closely examine their long-term benefits, and to also take seriously the potential pitfalls. We owe it to ourselves, and–most importantly–to the people whom we wish to serve, to be radically honest about how to most effectively fulfill our mission as Christ’s ambassadors.
    Bart Dodson
    Iglesia de Cristo Ciudad Mateo
    Tegucigalpa, n/a
    June, 14 2013

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