I’m in the midst of reading Toxic Charity: How the Church Hurts Those They Help and How to Reverse It by Robert D. Lupton. The author has joined a growing chorus of critics who argue that most short-term missions’ (STM) trips are expensive, distracting, unproductive, harmful to local recipients of mission teams and they primarily exist to gratify Western Christians’ self-delusions of adventure and sacrificial charity.
As an RCA Missionary who has hosted dozens of volunteers in the mission field, I know that these critiques carry a great deal of merit in the global mission community and they should be taken seriously. When folks ask me if they reflect my experience, though, I always reply “No.” My primary rationale is that because Niger is a hot, dusty, poor, non-English speaking country that is expensive to visit and possesses few easily-accessible tourist sites, it simply doesn’t attract the kind of volunteer who often frequents short-term trips in more agreeable settings. Lupton notes, in comparison, that churches in the Bahamas receive 1 volunteer for every 15 residents in those tropical islands!
We just don’t get that many visitors in Niger. I have supporting churches that send STM teams all over the world, but only a few have ever approached me about bringing a group to Niger. Those volunteers that we do get are generally quite conscientious of how little they know about the place. Most come with a willingness to serve and participate as local Christians and the missionaries best see fit. Of course, we RCA missionaries (there are 2 couples in Niger) try to coordinate with team leaders and explain our context and work with the volunteers to shape the likely program before they ever arrive. Our groups tend to be small in number—5 might be the average—as we know that most of the time we can’t successfully handle the logistics for many more than that.
I’d like to share a short-term mission story that I think Lupton and others would embrace as the kind of volunteer successes that we need to encourage because it combines the generous gifts of time and money (travel funds) with a committed personal investment toward productive change:
In 2003 Greg decided to participate in a STM “work” trip because his cousin, an RCA church member, had invited him to come along to get his mind off his problems. Greg, who isn’t in the RCA, had a difficult previous year in which his adopted son had committed suicide. Events spiraled to the point that Greg and his wife briefly separating over the resulting grief and incriminations surrounding their son’s death. Greg needed to get away and the plan for the work trip was simple: to pour a cement foundation and to anchor the support structure of a new Bible school classroom building. Although Greg worked as a professional physical therapist (PT), he intended to do manual labor like the other members.
As the host of the mission team, it didn’t seem right to me for Greg to work up a sweat doing things that others could do better (especially most Nigeriens) when there was a leprosy hospital 2 km from the work site that had long-term disabled patients. I arranged for Greg to visit the hospital and a dotty, self-proclaimed rehabilitation missionary nurse (yes, she had no training in PT, but thought someone should be doing the work) of English origin welcomed Greg with open arms. Soon he had seen several difficult cases and was providing hope and care to those who had long suffered with physical ailments that medicine alone couldn’t cure.
Greg and I talked during this time and I suggested to him that maybe God was calling Greg to conduct physical therapy in Niger. These words resonated with Greg, as unbeknownst to me he was adjunct faculty with the University of Minnesota’s Department of Physical Therapy. Less then two years later, Greg came back to Niger to learn more about physical therapy training in the country. He discovered that, in effect, there was no program to prepare Nigeriens to do what he did. Even in the country’s only university-level medical school, few of the professors and medical doctors had ever been exposed to the field of physical therapy. Most Nigerien patients in need of PT simply had no other choice but to manage their pain through medicine or to accept the permanent loss of function.
Greg, with the assistance of our Nigerien church partners who acted as intermediaries, made the necessary arrangements with his University of Minnesota colleagues and with Abdou Moumouni University officials to introduce the first ever intensive PT course to Niger’s future doctors. Many current faculty also sat in on the lectures. The response was overwhelmingly favorable. With the coordination of newly-arrived RCA missionary doctor, Susan Beebout, the PT course gained a permanent place in the medical school’s curriculum. Greg and his Minnesota colleagues have since returned to Niger each year to teach and have also brought U of M students along for their final clinicals in international PT.
Because of Greg’s sense of calling to offer his PT skills to God in Niger, the appreciation for physical therapy has grown to the point where the Nigerien university is seeking to launch a full-time PT program. To assist the effort, the RCA is now recruiting for a missionary therapist to come and teach in the nascent program. Soon thousands of Nigeriens will be benefitting from physical therapy treatments and a new class of medical professionals will be created for this poor country!
All of this came about because one guy agreed to come on a short-term mission trip to pour cement—a job almost any healthy Nigerien man could have done. Now, I know this kind of story is an exception to what occurs on most STMs’ experiences. This positive outcome wouldn’t have happened if someone (in this case, me) hadn’t pulled Greg off the cement detail and put him in a setting where his real gifts in PT could be used. So, let us not simply write-off short-term missions because too many STM experiences are often poorly conceived and executed. Rather, let’s do a better job of discerning how God can use us in STM settings.