Missionary proposition: Work the home front?

Livinstone missionary.jpgThe growth of short-term mission trips by young Americans has often struck me as little more than what is derided as “religious tourism,” although I am ambivalent in my criticism: Missionaries and church leaders and young people themselves talk about the experience as life-changing, or at the very least alerting them to a much wider–and more complex–world than they ever knew existed. Yet a recent Washington Post story shows that churches themselves are rethinking these missions–and it introduced me to an irresistible new epithet, “vacationaries.”
The headline says it all: “Churches Retool Mission Trips: Work Abroad Criticized for High Cost and Lack of Value,” and in it Jackie Salmon writes about growing concerns over the value both for the sending church, for the receiving country, and for the young people themselves. She cites numerous tales of clearly value-less projects. But she also notes the trips don’t seem to be delcining in popularity yet, with good reason:


A Princeton University study found that 1.6 million people took short-term mission trips — an average of eight days — in 2005. Estimates of the money spent on these trips is upward of $2.4 billion a year. Vacation destinations are especially popular: Recent research has found that the Bahamas receives one short-term missionary for every 15 residents. At the same time, the number of long-term American missionaries, who go abroad from several years to a lifetime, has fallen, according to a Wheaton College study done last year.

Not that everyone can do like the famous David Livingstone, the Scottish missionary to Africa shown here being carried “The Last Mile” to die at his home in Tanganyika. Still, is this new trend really anything more than Spring Break for Jesus?

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Kevin D.

posted July 13, 2008 at 6:48 pm

Of course the cost is going to outweigh the benefit, if we are talking monetary benefit or any other sort of quantifiable benefit. But the benefit is not quantifiable; it is spiritual, and the truth is that these trips are immensely beneficial to the vast majority of youth who go — even if it takes years for (some of) them to realize the benefit. And this is worth the sacrifice it takes for churches to do these trips. My generation (so-called “Y”) is increasingly materialistic and selfish — this is the core reason for why we are not producing many missionaries — but the problem would only be worse without mission trips. It is not a solution, but it can be part of a solution. And, in truth, the Evangelical churches are producing a decent amount of missionaries, even if per capita the number has decreased. The Catholic churches, however, are as pitiful as ever in producing either missionaries or any other clerical/religious vocation. So, it is especially odd to have a Catholic deride youth missions.

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James Martin, SJ

posted July 14, 2008 at 2:17 pm

Well, this is a very popular tool these days in many Catholic high schools, colleges and universities, particularly in Jesuit schools, where the “service trip” or “service-learning trip” or “third-world experience.”
I share some of the concerns about “third-world tourism” or, as one Jesuit referred to it, “a visit to the museum of the poor.” As someone who spent two years working in East Africa, I met many people for whom this experience seemed to be “If this is Tuesday it must be Nairobi.”
And yet I have also met many students–dozens, even scores–for whom these experiences are real eye-openers about the world in which they live, and a startling realizing about the way that Jesus’s parable of the sheep and the goats, in the Gospel of Matthew (Chapter 25), in which he speaks of caring for the “least of our brothers and sisters” is not simply an instruction, but a real invitation to be evangelized by the poor themselves. Likewise, many of these trips end up “doing” something concrete: building a school, painting a church, constructing a house. Just last night I spoke to a Jesuit who took a group of seven students to Mississippi where they laid linoleum and patched walls in a small church for a week. Overall, then, I still think that these trips have great value.

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posted July 15, 2008 at 3:51 pm

The Catholic Church is not necessarily producing the sort of missionaries that evangelical Protestantism does, but what about those in the priesthood and religious orders who perform the spiritual and corporal works of mercy in mission lands?

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