The 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?