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The drawbacks of short-term mission trips

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By Francesca Nevil

Recently I traveled to Mazatlán, Mexico to visit my grandma during my school spring break.

Over the years we have found much value in taking time to serve in “the other side of Mazatlan.” Years ago, we found a church group who partners with community members to meet needs of the most vulnerable in various colonias around the region. They allow visitors to participate in many of their services and ministries. My family began doing this when I was around 8 years old. The visits have become something I have personally come to love and I have learned so much from each encounter and experience.

Two men in Mazatlán, Mexico/Francesca Nevil

However, over the years the program that we work with has become more and more commercialized to attract visitors and their donations. One of the challenges that arises with this is that the incoming tourists usually don’t know the culture, the language, community or history. And now seemingly just come to take their photos to post online and say they did something meaningful on their vacations. I fear that these trips are now doing more harm than good in the Mazatlan community.

I have always been a strong proponent of mission/service trips as I think they are truly beneficial and highly impactful in opening up our western minds to other ways of life, to poverty, injustice and new perspectives. I have personally been on a multitude of mission trips to areas in Central and Latin America, Africa and in the U.S. So, have had many personal experiences to witness the pros and cons of these trips. I honestly think the lessons that I learned throughout the years from the encounters and connections that I made have had an incredible effect on who I am today. Additionally, from a Christian perspective, I believe in the importance and calling to evangelism. However, I think short-term missions can and often do have drawbacks; they can be harmful if not approached in a respectful, thoughtful place of awareness and equity.

Looking back on these trips and those that friends or family members participated in, in many instances I fear that these trips don’t have a lasting impact, as short-term missions don’t provide an opportunity to really learn the language, culture, build relationships and make disciples in such a short period of time. On top of that, they are too often approached from a savioristic stance- with the haughty belief that these white-folk can single-handedly change the nation in a few weeks.

Father Greg Boyle describes kinship as there being no us and them, there is only us. “Compassion isn’t just about feeling the pain of others; it’s about bringing them in toward yourself. If we love what God loves, then, in compassion, margins get erased. ‘Be compassionate as God is compassionate’ means the dismantling of barriers that exclude.”

I do hold my experiences with missions dear to my heart and know that I am who I am today in part because of some of those experiences. Hence, I seek to maintain some of the relationships that were created during those trips and take Jesus’ command to His disciples to go into the world and make disciples of all nations to heart (Matt 28:19). We should pursue world missions because God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4). More, participating in missions helps disciples to develop a deeper passion for knowing Christ and making Christ known. As I have learned through my trips, missions teach people dependence on God, in a way that usually isn’t possible in the comfort of one’s comfortable, western lifestyle. Individuals experience the power of prayer, and a change of heart/mind as they experience cross-cultural missions. These experiences have the power to clear judgments and wrong impressions of different cultures and help to better understand the purpose of missions, which today with so much xenophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric is much needed in our society.

Therefore, if one feels called to participate in missions, I believe that they can overcome the harmful effects with godly wisdom, training and heart. If they answer the call to “go” and do this with an awareness of these concerns and seek to simply partner with communities to meet needs and bring the good word then missions can be a beautiful, powerful, godly thing.

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Francesca Nevil
Francesca Nevil
Francesca Nevil is a sophomore student at Gonzaga University studying International Relations and Sociology with minors in Social Justice and Leadership. She is originally from Wenatchee and grew up in the valley engaging in all seasons of recreational activity with friends and family. She has a very strong faith life and holds her Christian identity at the center of who she believes and is. Meeting new people and engaging in different cultures brings her the most joy, hence she loves to travel. Nevil spent a year following high school graduation on a solo backpacking trip through Europe, then spent four months immersed in Costa Rican culture. Further, she thinks becoming culturally aware and religiously literate are of the utmost importance, so when she received a Wolff Fellow position partnering with SpokaneFāVS she said she was ecstatic.

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Kristi Philip
Kristi Philip
6 years ago

Thanks for your good insights. I’ve been a part of several short-term mission trips in Mexico with Habitat for Humanity. Two of those were with Gonzaga students. I loved those times and building relationships with folks in tiny pueblos who lived with grace and courage in the midst of poverty. I always thought we were the ones who received the most on these trips. Yes, we helped to build a house and that was significant. But we took away the experience of another culture — its emphasis on family, its ability to be happy without many of the things we take for granted. I loved seeing the students’ eyes opened to some of those things and I know these trips had a huge impact on the years that followed. (One student later immersed herself in language study with a hope to return to a people and culture she came to love.). Another thing I loved was the time each evening when we gathered to share our experiences, pray together and look forward to what the next day would bring.

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