Rethinking Mission Trips
Do short-term missions do any good in the long run?
On one hand, the day was a complete success.
Despite the no-show of the packing mules we had been promised, every person on our team of Paceñan translators and U.S. medical professionals had arrived at our Day 2 destination alive. The expectations of us all, concerning the steepness and duration of this segment of our 4-day jungle trek, had been a comical underestimation. It would have been brutal even with our packing mules.
Why were we here? Did the four residents of this mud hut we were staying in or the fifteen people in the village a few meters further up really need a toothbrush or ibuprofen that badly, at the cost of dehydration and extreme fatigue of our team members? Was it really necessary to pose risk to the well-being of our group simply to prescribe temporary solutions to a handful of people?
An exhausted mind does not lack honesty. It is not until these moments—the moments of diminished blood sugar and extreme fatigue, the moments exotic jungle sounds and sights fade to a new monotony, the moments cultural differences become “annoying,”—when the tough questions begin to surface. Using one’s vacation time to “serve the needy” on a short-term medical missions trip appears on paper as a noble pursuit, but what is the mission? If the mission is to help those in need, why is $60,000 spent for 20 volunteers to go hand out ibuprofen in remote areas for a week when a permanent hospital could be built for a comparable price? Why are stereotypes of superiority allowed to be reinforced by people from rich countries walking into poor villages and taking charge for a day?
As we were gearing up to leave the next morning after our very un-heavenly hike, Felix gathered our group together to share a few words before our next day-hike across the valley. A leader in the community, Felix had translated for us during our clinic there. We encircled him, with curious ears. “We live way out here,” he began. “You show God’s love to us through your sacrifice. Not even our own people in the next village come to see us or help us up here. This day will make history–the day I forget your kindness will be because I have died.”
And there was something in Felix’s words that made it feel like our hike could be remembered, our sweat was not in vain, and our gifts to them extended beyond the temporary, though supplies would run out.
I like Jesus. Jesus was always talking about a “Kingdom.” Human tendency associates kingdoms with Big and Beautiful–Incan ruins, shiny skylines, the Seven Wonders. But I picture Jesus’ disciples staggering from vertigo at the immensity of the Jerusalem temple while Jesus suddenly shouts to them “Hey! Come look at the Kingdom of God!” as he watches a poor widow put a penny in the temple offering. It seemed Jesus constantly drifted just below the surface, noticing a Kingdom that placed potential for nobility on the ordinary things in life.
His Kingdom marries the Ordinary to the Noble. Suddenly, we discover a world below the surface, where maybe the rich are not the ones truly blessed, but rather those poor in spirit. Maybe those with plenty are not the ones truly satisfied, but rather those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Maybe the ambitious are not the ones truly strong, but rather those who are merciful and humble.
As I sit in air-conditioning, months after my jungle trek, and imagine the mud huts sprinkled along the cliffs, I cannot help but speculate that, by now, the ibuprofen is gone, the parasites are back, and without a doubt every one of the children’s balloons have popped or been swept into the valley. I long to do more in those remote areas and am devoting my career to this very desire. But for now, as I sit here and imagine, it is easy to look back with my natural eyes. Those in the remote, resource-poor settings we visited remain there with scarce resources; those of us born in the States return to a culture of comfort and write about our crazy experiences in some remote jungle. Another short-term medical mission; more material for cool web articles; the end.
So often, my eyes search for high temple walls while the poor widow slowly shuffles to the offering box behind me. I believe it is the Kingdom of God for which our hearts search, and we must train our eyes to do the same.
Is it cost-effective? Is it sustainable? Does it empower the community? These are incredibly important questions that should not be ignored when investing in missions trips–in fact, ignoring these questions can actually bring harm to the communities in need. But the danger is to believe the rest is nothing. The danger is to think a caring Creator is confined to a human business model, where success is measured by a tangible cumulative outcome. It is tempting to allow the “Kingdom moments” to fall through our earthly sifter simply because the medical care is not sustainable or because potable water is still lacking. But God’s Kingdom lives, in Felix’s grateful words, in the compassionate touches, in the thankful sun-withered faces, in the fútbol games with rowdy village children. Jesus aimed to salvage the seemingly insignificant things in life.
My challenge is for those of us seeking a life in Jesus’ steps to go deeper into this Kingdom mindset–and not simply in order to feel good about short-term medical missions trips. There is Life to be sought in our own individual Ordinary. The Kingdom of God can be sought in tomorrow morning—in the mundane gray shades of our routine life, our routine desk job, our routine church service, our routine grocery shopping. This is it. The Kingdom of God is at hand.
“When the eyes of the soul looking out meet the eyes of God looking in, heaven has begun right here on this earth.” – A.W. Tozer