Questions raised about mission approaches
When consulting 15 years ago with a church in what was then called "a developing country," its leader asked me to meet with a young English volunteer. Based on her skills, he had no idea how she could contribute meaningfully to any of their current needs. After chatting with her, I too was at a loss; beside her enthusiasm, she brought nothing the church needed, and I didn't know what to suggest. Nor did I know how she and the church should deal with this mutually frustrating situation.
A decade later, I served as the interim principal at a small Christian school in Puebla, Mexico. Their new principal had pulled out at the last minute, and they were happy to have me for the fall semester even though I had no K-12 experience. I had taught only at the university level, but I brought a Christian commitment, administrative experience and a passion for education. That combination met their needs.
The school's missionary teachers and administrators knew what they were doing and brought training that admirably served the school.
These contrasting experiences set me thinking and then writing. The result is a satirical novel: The Mission Trip to San Pedro 2, published last November. It pokes fun at an approach I call "parachute missions," where a church group makes a week-long pilgrimage to a country whose language they don't speak and whose culture they don't understand.
The book tells of one such group that, because of their travel agent's error, end up in the wrong San Pedro. That's just the beginning of the woes facing the youth pastor and nine high-schoolers. They set out to "help," but these unexpected guests instead need help from two local churches—evangelical and Catholic—to get through the week.
The novel is not an anti-mission diatribe. On the contrary, Christians need to take seriously Jesus' Great Commission to share the Good News.
The history of Christian missions is a mixed bag, however.
During the colonial era, European monarchs sent explorers, soldiers and missionaries into uncharted territory, claiming land, resources and people for the king and queen—and claiming souls for God.
Recently many Christians in the West have thought more carefully about missions and evangelism. Having distanced themselves from the imperial, colonial approach and culturally superior mindset, most missionaries today serve with greater cultural sensitivity and humility.
That's not always the case.
Each summer, some U.S. churches still send high schoolers to paint churches or do other unskilled tasks that could easily be done by locals who would welcome the employment. Typically, these groups have no particular skills, at least none that are urgently needed.
Do these week-long trips, which I call San Pedro Syndrome trips, accomplish anything worthwhile, such as raising awareness of the importance of missions?
Sometimes they do, but Robert Lupton, in his book Toxic Charity, cites research by academics at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School that "suggests service projects and mission projects do not effect lasting change. Within six to eight weeks after a mission trip, most short-term mission-trippers return to the same assumptions and behaviors they had prior to the trip."
Should we end all short-term mission trips? No, but books like Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts—resources for anyone considering international missions—demonstrate that we need wiser ways of responding to Jesus' Great Commission, respecting those whom we presume to "help" and avoiding the San Pedro Syndrome.
* Gordon Jackson, who grew up in South Africa, taught journalism for 32 years at Whitworth University. Since retiring in 2015, he has written five books, including three satirical novels.