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Researchers study return on short-term missions
Terry Goodrich, Associated Baptist Press
May 04, 2011
5 MIN READ TIME

Researchers study return on short-term missions

Researchers study return on short-term missions
Terry Goodrich, Associated Baptist Press
May 04, 2011

WACO, Texas — Research has revealed students who participate

in short-term mission trips tend to have lower levels of materialism, greater

appreciation for other cultures and a better understanding of missions as a

lifestyle, says a Baylor University professor studying whether short-term

mission trips are good stewardship.

The number of United States Christians taking part in trips

lasting a year or less has grown from 540 in 1965 to more than 1.5 million

annually, with an estimated $2 billion per year spent on the effort. That investment

of time and money has sparked debate whether the money might better be spent

giving directly to a country’s Christian partners for spreading the gospel and

offering medical aid, construction assistance or other help. Some long-term

missionaries complain that culturally insensitive short-term mission

participants do more harm than good by damaging relationships that had taken

years to build.

Dennis Horton, associate professor of religion at Baylor

says the answer to whether volunteers missions “is worth it” is

a qualified “yes.”

Two-thirds of short-term trips last two weeks or less, with

a host of purposes ranging from evangelism to digging wells or teaching

English-as-a-Second-Language classes. On the surface, Horton said, the trips

seem a win-win-win situation — for those who send participants, for team

members who make the trips and for host countries.

“It is very much worthwhile. But I’m qualifying that by

saying I think a lot of churches and groups need more follow-up to help mission

team members incorporate what they’ve learned on their trips into their daily

lives,” Horton said. “Long-term involvement, whether global or local, is where

you see transformation taking place.”

About 600 students and 48 short-term mission trip leaders

participated in the study conducted by Horton and four Baylor University

undergraduate research assistants—Claire Aufhammer, Matt Berry from Idalou,;

Daniel Camp and Amy Rozzi.

For long-term effects on those who go on short-term mission

trips, some studies show little difference between those who have participated

short-term trips and Christians who have not, Horton said. Patterns are similar

in terms of giving, materialism and believing one’s culture is superior to

others.

What makes a difference, according to virtually all studies,

is pre-trip training, on-site mentoring and follow-up after the trip, he

explained.

“We appreciate the zeal” of students, he said. “They want to

be on the streets evangelizing. They say, ‘We need to get out there and share

the gospel.’ But the missionaries are saying ‘Wait a minute.’ In many

countries, the most effective way to reach others is through friendships built

over time rather than quick presentations of the gospel that can endanger the

work — and lives — of long-term missionaries and local Christians.

“The study shows that many short-term mission trip leaders

are doing a much better job training their team members about cultural issues

and connecting with host countries. They’re doing a lot of things right and

learning from past mistakes.”

Recent guidebooks are aimed at helping trip leaders aid team

members move from mission trips to a lifestyle of missions, Horton said.

“The desire is to ensure that short-term mission experiences

become more than spiritual tourism in which participants travel to an exotic

place, take a myriad of photos and return to their relatively isolated home

environments, as well as their pre-trip behavior and routines,” he said.

But researchers found post-trip follow-up by team leaders,

usually from churches, schools or mission agencies, falls short.

Because students may be scattered after the trips, it can be

difficult to do much follow-up other than online or through periodic reunions,

Horton said. Churches, campus ministries and Christian colleges that offer

coursework can play a huge role.

In their study, Horton and his research assistants surveyed

students with different amounts of short-term missions experience (and some

without any) about their levels of materialism, ethnocentrism and their

interest in long-term involvement in missions or ministry.

For some, the trips reinforced a calling to vocational

missions.

For those who were ambivalent, the trips clarified how or whether

they would be involved in vocational mission work.

Many people make a commitment at Christian youth camps to

become missionaries, Horton said, but “some find out a little bit more and say:

‘Oh, that isn’t for me. I can do this for a few weeks, but I like my

technology, my comforts.’ It wasn’t that they didn’t still have an interest or

wanted to work with local missions. But as far as vocational missions, they

need to have a definite call and realize this is how God can best use them.”

Some opt against career mission work when they see its

challenges.

“In some countries, there are immediate responses to the

gospel, with hundreds of people becoming Christians, but in other countries,

you could work for years and have only one or two convert to Christianity,”

Horton said. “Students hoping to see instant results on a two-week trip may become

discouraged in these areas where people need more time before responding in a

positive way to the gospel.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Goodrich writes for Baylor University.)

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