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Mission to nowhere: putting short-term missions into context.

Short-term missions have experienced explosive growth in the past two decades. (1) In addition to the many parachurch organizations promoting such trips, for many congregations this sort of "mission" has become a key component of youth group activities. In the United States short-term mission trips are widely promoted as a key means through which average church members can become involved in mission outreach and by which they can make a direct, even sacrificial contribution in the foreign missions work of the church. Today more than 1,600,000 adults and young people from the United States travel abroad yearly on short-term mission trips, most for two weeks or less duration. (2)

Aphenomenon of this scope certainly merits social-scientific observation, as well as missiological reflection. My expertise is as an anthropologist. Over a two-year period I observed a high school mission team in their preparation and visit to the Dominican Republic. My research uncovered multiple ways in which the group's preparation, travel, and return narrative served to minimize the contextual specificity of the trip's destination in favor of a more generic "short-terra mission" experience. The language of short-term mission (STM) too easily becomes an all-engulfing category, subsuming a wide variety of trips by creating a discursive commonality between disparate places and experiences.

In this article I focus on four elements of short-term mission practice that contribute to decontextualization. First, participants in short-term missions strive rhetorically to present what they are doing as something distinct from tourism, with the unintended consequence of losing focus on the context to which they are going. Second, the language of "missionary call" as understood in short-term mission practice works against engagement with the specific realities of a particular location. Third, the meaning of mission embedded within short-term mission too often leads to a mission based on plight and need. Fourth, post-trip pictorial representations of short-term mission trips meant to connect the sending congregation to the experience of STM become, paradoxically, a means of distancing the Other and decontextualizing the place visited. In these ways, the mode of travel unique to short-term missions can create a sort of "missionary gaze" (akin to the "tourist gaze") that serves to homogenize locality.

After identifying these tensions in a bit more detail, I show how they played out in the experience of one STM group. Finally, I suggest steps that can be taken to bring context intentionally to the fore in STM trips in ways that have the potential to reshape the experience of participants on both sides of the exchange.

Rhetorical Positioning

The Web site of a Christian short-term "leadership" mission organization declares in the large print that, for their organization, trips are "not about the destination." The text that follows goes on to distinguish the organization's trips from tourism that emphasizes "a photo album filled with snapshots and maybe some deepened friendships." Instead, they hold out the promise of "a trip that will challenge your students to make a difference in your youth group." (3) This promotional message illustrates a tension present for participants in short-term missions generally and certainly for those of my research: it is important to distinguish STM trips from "mere" tourism. In this way, seemingly ego-focused motives are rejected in place of ones that have theological significance and that hold out long-term benefits for both the receiving and the sending groups.

An unintended consequence of this emphasis, however, is that short-term missions become decontextualized. In marginalizing touristic impulses and elevating the theological/missiological significance of these trips, short-term mission organizers often de-emphasize the particularities of the location and context in which the trip will take place. Instead, a generic STM language and practice emerges that serves to make STM trips the same for participants, regardless of the specific location they visit. A particular place becomes transformed into a typology of place: Europe is the secular Other; developing countries are undifferentiatedly "poor;" urban life, particularly black urban life, is the chaotic "inner city."

Sense of Call

The rhetoric of mission is often rooted in the individual motive for travel. Although STM participants are recruited and encouraged to sign up for particular trips, the "correct" motive is framed as a missionary call. Sacrifice and a sense of calling have a long history in the discourse and theology of missions; as recounted below, both call and sacrifice remain central for short-term missions and for the manner in which many people speak about their motivation for going on an STM trip. (4) But use of sacrificial mission language discourages trip participants and STM leaders from placing emphasis on or expressing enthusiasm about the educational or cultural benefits to be gained from the trip. Focus on the specifics of the location is seen, whether consciously or not, as virtually incompatible with the language of call, of service, and ultimately of mission as embraced by short-term missions.

The Meaning of Mission

The dynamics involved in the formation of STM teams and the distinctive character of STM trips serve to reinforce a particular construal of what mission is or means. In my research a valued quality on the part of potential team members was openness in regard to the group of which they would be a member, the task to which they would be assigned, and the destination to which they would go. The meaning of "mission" came to be a kind of sacrificial availability for carrying out an assigned task and a lack of connection to any particular place. Together, sacrificial availability and nonspecificity of location worked to position every trip as first and foremost a journey to accomplish a specific task and to meet needs "out there." The language used privileged activity over destination and reinforced seeing a relationship between the need for missions (both long-term and short-term) and the necessity of "bringing" something to a place where there was some demonstrable lack. Because every trip was "mission" and all missions involved meeting needs or accomplishing projects, every trip, regardless of destination, became a movement from plenty to want, from have to have-not, from wealth to poverty. Mission became, in the words of Native American church leader Craig Smith, "plight-based ministry." (5)

Pictorial Representation

Most U.S. Christians are familiar with at least one feature of short-term missions: the slide show. Though these mission reports now tend to be PowerPoint presentations, the idea is the same. Members of STM trips return with a pictorial narrative of their trip as a way of giving testimony to the efficacy of the money spent, often money donated by the larger church body. These representations require a great deal more analysis than can be provided here, but it is clear that they became another site where the paradox of "decontextualized Otherness" is produced. What is remarkable is the picture shows' degree of standardization. Typically, the slide shows proceed chronologically, beginning with candid shots of team members during the stages of preparation. These are followed by staged group pictures reflecting departure and arrival, pictures of or from the airplane, particularly with shots of the approaching "field" (often a literal field around the airport). Next come pictures of luggage being moved, the home where the team stayed, and the team working, ending with multiple pictures of the team surrounded by those served, particularly groups of smiling children.

A great deal of research in the anthropology of tourism has focused on the role of photography in creating constructed versions of sites and cultures, showing how photographic representations are framed in ways that serve the purposes, expectations, and contexts of those who take the photos, as well as how those images shape the experiences of subsequent travelers to those sites. (6) I cannot reproduce the entire discussion, but the idea that photographs reflect the interests and issues of the photographer, rather than some objective state, is of relevance here. There is no question that student members of STM trips are looking to highlight the kind of poverty, need, and otherness for which they initially prepared and which their audience expects. At the same time, as an experience of travel, there are tropes and images that come directly from a touristic genre, in spite of the explicit rejection of such impulses as appropriate motivation. Images of (usually) white faces surrounded by (generally) brown children, smiling with arms interlocked, suggests the centrality and importance of the project and the "missionary." At the same time, pictures of small, rural, or decrepit urban homes (often with a short-term missionary in the foreground, as if visiting a site of touristic interest), or shots of bathrooms considered unhygienic or primitive--alongside images of the team working to improve conditions for the inhabitants--become stock tropes of the short-term mission presentation.

The standardization of these presentations turns all the specific images of rural Ghana, urban Mexico, the periurban setting of the Dominican Republic, or even the Chicago metro area into a general field of "mission."

Recontextualizing Short-Term Missions

The various elements--preparatory linguistic practice, field projects among the poor, and subsequent presentations about the trips--conspire to reduce the particularities of the places involved and to blend STM travel into a generic "short-term mission" experience. Even those who have never gone on an STM trip, through exposure to the images and discourse of the trips, find themselves constructing a view of the "mission field" as an undifferentiated place of generic spiritual and material need--and find themselves with a corresponding inability to delineate the myriad political, economic, and cultural specificities involved. This "missionary view" of the world corresponds to the "tourist gaze" described in the anthropology of tourism. This "gaze," writes John Urry, is "often collective and depends on a variety of social discourses organised by professionals, including photographers, travel writers, travel agents, tour operators, TV presenters and tourism policy-makers." (7) To this list we might now add youth workers and STM leaders.

What is significant, for present purposes, about the "gaze" as it is constructed in contemporary tourism is its potentially homogenizing effect on the varieties of experience tourists actually have. (8) For the short-term missionary, as for the tourist, ability to perceive the experience of travel outside the preformed grooves of the gaze becomes difficult at best. The result for the tourist may be a lamentable but ultimately innocuous blandness in which real human connection is lost in favor of an "experience." For Christian missionaries, whose goals both religious and humanitarian depend on the host country inhabitants' perception of their actions, lack of connection would certainly pose significant problems.

In a study of short-term mission trips to Ecuador, education scholar Terry Linhart noted that" without substantive knowledge and reflection, the trip possessed a spectacle quality with a curricular hope that students would somehow positively grow from the formative encounters." (9) Lack of growth and a "spectacle" quality, I would suggest, are directly connected to decontextualization, something that is frequently found both during trip preparation and throughout the trip. Rather than removing barriers, STM packaging too often makes it difficult for students to examine history, context, and culture closely.

One Short-Term Mission Experience

These tensions gain concreteness and specificity when viewed through the lens of their outworking in the experience of one church's youth program. The following material draws on research I conducted over a two-year period. During that time I joined a high school mission team in their preparation and STM visit to the Dominican Republic.

STM trips have been integral to the mission program of Central Christian Church (not its real name), a large nondenominational Midwestern congregation, for ten to twenty years. With the visibility and institutional prominence given to STM programs, not surprisingly the current high school students--the majority of whom have attended the church their entire lives--are well acquainted with the Global Challenge Project (GCP), an STM program specifically for their age group. Of the twelve students on the Dominican Republic team, five had older siblings who had gone on a prior GCP trip, either to the Dominican Republic or to another country. In the previous year two of the team had been to the very site of our planned visit.

Linguistically, the practice of short-term missions is structured and expressed in many ways in the congregation. (10) For the point at hand, I want to focus on one principal semiotic element, the idea of what constitutes a "mission." The GCP trips are explicitly intended to provide students with insight into career missions, (11) Fund-raising and public vision for the trips are framed in terms of helping career missionaries supported by the church through the work the youth would be doing, thus making the trips "real missions" themselves. Leaders and trip organizers frequently framed the educational benefits of the trips in opposition to the real purpose of the trips, which was to "do missions." In one GCP board meeting, a member pointedly interjected, "It's important we remember this is real ministry. This isn't just travel. I mean, it's important that the kids are learning, right? But they're doing real missions. People need to see that these kids are with the missionaries, working alongside them. There is real benefit; these are real missions."

Student members of the team also expressed the importance of placing the educational benefits of the trip as secondary to the "mission" or "ministry" work, understood primarily as that which benefits the long-term missionaries, as well as what benefits the local people, including direct evangelism. One student's response in a pre-trip interview about her motivations expressed themes echoed by all the students at various points: "I'm excited to just help people. I don't know so much about missions, you know, but we'll be working with the missionaries doing real missions work, like sharing Christ and, you know, the Gospel." To the question, "Are there any other reasons you want to go?" she continued, "Well, ... I want to see what it's like. I've never been to the D.R., so I just want to see what it's like and stuff. But that's not really why I should go, just to see, right? I mean, it's really about missions, and I think it'll be, I guess, fun or good. Yeah ... it's just like a chance to do missions."

The emphasis on "missions" and the explicit connection of these short visits to the long-term work of missionaries supported by the congregation gave theological, social, and institutional validity to trips that are certainly open to criticism as "religious tourism." (12) Like pilgrims visiting a religious holy site, the members of these teams reject the idea that the purpose of their trips is principally the opportunity to visit sites, see sights, have fun, or otherwise engage in what can be portrayed as tourism-like activities. (13) The girl quoted above articulated that, in doing "real missions," motives of seeing the Dominican Republic were clearly secondary, if not even in tension with what it meant for her to "do missions."

The strategy of downplaying the relevance of location in favor of "mission work" and a specific attitude toward that work began in the earliest stages of team preparation. During prescreening interviews, questions never went into the specifics of culture or context beyond practical issues such as allergies or relevant skills (e.g., language). Rather, the focus was on putting together teams that could effectively accomplish the tasks (the "mission") the various groups would undertake. In one interview with a prospective leader for a trip to Costa Rica, it became obvious that the candidate was not informed about the country. The committee, however, did not suggest to her that it would be necessary for her to learn about Costa Rica herself. Rather, they spent more time on her "gifts" and the sorts of work she could do in helping the team prepare for and accomplish their specific projects. The chair did comment that she would learn what she would need during the preparation phase of the trip, although follow-up interviews made clear that little if any time was spent on Costa Rican history, culture, or economic information.


Related to the logistic need for flexibility was a theological significance of "openness," that is, being willing to go wherever the leadership deemed it necessary or, phrased more theologically, where God calls. Although the prospective travelers were invited on the application to give their preference for the team on which they wished to serve, in most of the interviews the panel asked the students some version of "How would you handle it if we wanted you to go on another trip?" In none of the interviews I observed did the applicants define their desire to go in terms of a specific location. Rather, all answered as did this high school girl: "Oh, it's not really important to me where I go. I mean, I'd like to go to the Dominican, because I've heard so much about it and how it's a great trip, but I just want to go where God wants me."

During one interview an applicant told the committee, "I really just want to be a servant. I don't care where I go or what I do. I'd be happy just holding kids or washing dishes or anything. It's really just about missions." Given this rhetorical link between, on the one hand, true missions as willingness to be flexible and available and, on the other hand, an indifference to the destination, it becomes difficult for members of the teams to ponder the contextual particularities of a trip or to think about reasons other than meeting spiritual or physical needs why they might choose one country over another.

Plight-Based Mission

The STM team I accompanied traveled to the Dominican Republic to build a second story on an educational center. The center was run by a North American Christian development group (sponsored by Central Christian Church), which also hosted our trip. The center provided after-school care and Christian education to local children in an impoverished neighborhood. This particular organization has developed an extensive program of hosting STM teams, which in turn provide the labor and materials for the work. Each person on the team provided approximately $200 toward the general operating expenses of the ministry, plus paying for the materials used in the construction. The team was often told that the various buildings were erected by North American teams and how invaluable their work was. "It is only through the work of teams like this," the missionary told us, "that any of this exists."

Even for GCP teams traveling to wealthier (First World) countries, mission was framed in terms of poverty and need. In the case of trips to Spain and the Czech Republic, the poverty was framed more in terms of spiritual need than material need, but the language of poverty remained. One leader on the Czech Republic trip, noting the Reformation history of the country, saw the trip as "bringing some hope" back to a country that was "spiritually desolate." Similarly, those traveling to Spain framed the work in terms of "the lack of any Christian presence" and the need for the team to bring a Christian witness to a country where there was "total spiritual poverty."

By framing the GCP trips in terms of poverty (material or spiritual), all five trips gained a commonality that not only obscured significant differences between the teams but also obscured dynamics within particular contexts. Several months after the trip to the Dominican Republic, I interviewed team members about the experience, asking each person some version of the question, "What do you feel you've learned about Dominican culture?" A few mentioned something about the importance of family or community, but each person described the culture as "poor." One girl, when asked to characterize Dominican culture, said, "I just learned that Dominicans really live with, like, nothing. They just have to make do with almost nothing. I mean, I know America is well off or whatever, but when you compare our cultures, it's just so amazing that Dominican culture is just totally poor." Aside from the confused conceptual issues of culture versus economics (not surprising, given the age of the respondent), the comment is striking given that the team spent its time in a mountain town that serves as a summer getaway for wealthy Dominicans. The team bus regularly passed massive summer homes and elegant neighborhoods where Lexus SUVs and Mercedes sedans sat in the driveways. Many students commented on these at the time, but in retrospect, their memories of "Dominican culture" became paved over with the gloss of "poverty." Given that the stated purpose in going was to meet the needs of "the poor," it is not surprising that the entire culture would become characterized as poor, providing little in the way of language or conceptual framework for identifying or recalling the evidence of economic inequality. Few of those reinterviewed months after the trip made any comments about the middle-class and professional life they encountered (if briefly) in visiting a Protestant church, during time in tourist areas, or through the Dominican teachers and other workers at the ministry where they served.

Team Preparation

By this point it will not be surprising to learn that pre-trip team preparation focused on attitudes and ministry tasks and contained virtually nothing about the location and context to which the team was going. After selection or assignment, each team was expected to meet at least monthly to prepare for the trip. The Dominican Republic team chose to work through a curriculum titled Before You Pack Your Bag, Prepare Your Heart. (14) The booklet provided twelve lessons in the form of inductive Bible studies on everything from goal setting and defining a purpose for the trip (lesson 1), to cultivating the right attitude (lesson 3), to identifying cultural patterns of U.S. behavior and thought (lesson 5), to developing good team dynamics (lessons 10 and 11.) The team did not go through every lesson, although it did several, including lesson 5, about identifying cultural patterns. What the guide could not accomplish, of course, was to provide information specific to the context of the Dominican Republic.

One team--one going to the Czech Republic--did have a twenty-minute PowerPoint presentation on Czech history and culture given by a church member who had traveled there on a previous mission trip. The Dominican Republic team watched a video about the ministry in which it would serve, which included some information about the country, but it was largely ministry-specific without much context.

In addition, the teams were encouraged to attend a workshop on evangelism given one evening by the church's pastor of evangelism. This workshop, open to the entire congregation, was not specific to the short-term mission teams; rather, it was geared toward church members generally. The message was particular to the North American context, without giving a sense that this would need to be adapted to another cultural context. That is not to suggest that those on the trips were not expecting cultural difference (generally), but such workshops served to further mute the cultural specificity of the trips--not only between the different trips, but even between ministry in the U.S. context and the sorts of adaptations that might be necessary in the places to which the teams would go.

Four Suggestions

How, then, might the most glaring shortcomings of current modus operandi for short-term mission trips be ameliorated, and the trips' positive potential be reinforced and enhanced? The suggestions below, framed as questions, seem Congruent with experiential education thought generally. They seek to encourage reformation of the ongoing discourse around short-term missions.

* Would it not be advisable to spend more time in the preparatory phase focusing on, for example, the history, politics, and religious context of the trip's destination, rather than giving attention solely or primarily to preparation for the trip's "project"?

* Could not the return presentation be made more constructive by deliberately selecting photos that depict local Christians and others in positions of authority and power, rather than focusing exclusively on the short-term team members themselves?

* Would it not be desirable to build, at the congregational level, a partnership approach to short-term missions and to cultivate specific relationships over the long term, possibly involving exchanges in which leaders from partner congregations abroad could visit their counterparts on this continent to serve and learn in their own short-term mission experiences?

* Finally, should not every trip be framed in terms of the larger missio Dei, the whole mission of God? This would permit inclusion of relationship-building activities, conversations with local leaders, and time spent listening to those in the field, including long-term missionaries. Such reconceptualization, rather than detracting, would greatly enhance the "real" work of short-term mission teams.


These are simply suggestions. It has not been my intention to suggest that short-term missions are fatally flawed or irredeemable, theologically or pedagogically. The comparison to tourism may suggest I have a negative view of these trips, but as an anthropologist who encourages my students to travel and experience cultural difference, nothing could be further from the truth. In order, however, for STM trips to meet the goals of sending bodies and for them to be beneficial to the receiving communities, a minimal requirement is surely that the trips foster real connections with real places throughout the world.


(1.) Robert J. Priest et al., "Researching the Short-Term Mission Movement," Missiology 34 (October 2006): 431-50.

(2.) This figure comes from the Global Issues Survey conducted by Robert Wuthnow. See Robert Wuthnow and Stephen Offitt, "Transnational Religious Connections," Sociology of Religion 69, no. 2 (2008): 218. Other researchers, however, have put the figure far higher, as Wuthnow's data do not include high school students, nor do they necessarily track those who have participated through parachurch or college trips. Cf. Priest et al., "Researching the Short-Term Missions Movement." See also A. Scott Moreau, "Short-Term Mission in the Context o f Missions, Inc.," in Effective Engagement in Short-Term Missions: Doing It Right! ed. Robert J. Priest (Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 2008), pp. 1-33.

(3.) LeaderTreks, Student Leadership Development Resources, www

(4.) For historical perspective on volunteerism and the individual sense of "call" in mission, see David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in the Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991), pp. 327-34.

(5.) Craig Stephen Smith, Whiteman's Gospel (Winnipeg: Indian Life Books, 1997), p. 68.

(6.) See Stanley Milgram, "The Image Freezing Machine," Society 14, no. 1 (November-December 1976): 7-12; also Mark Neumann, "Making the Scene: The Poetics and Performances of Displacement at the Grand Canyon," in Tourism: Between Place and Performance, ed. Simon Coleman and Mike Crang (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2002), pp. 38-53.

(7.) Carol Crenshaw and John Urry, "Tourism and the Photographic Eye," in Touring Cultures: Transformations of Travel and Theory, ed. Chris Rojek and John Urry (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 176.

(8.) George Ritzer and Allan Liska, "'McDisneyization' and 'PostTourism': Complementary Perspectives on Contemporary Tourism," in Touring Cultures, ed. Rojek and Urry, pp. 96-109.

(9.) Terry Linhart, "They Were So Alive! The Spectacle Self and Youth Group Short-Term Mission Trips," Missiology 34 (October 2006): 452.

(10.) The theory of linguistic practice as a structuring force of social life is most fully developed in the work of Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press, 1990), and anthropologists such as William Hanks, "Discourse Genres in a Theory of Practice," American Ethnologist 14 (1987): 668-92. Although I refer to and rely on the theory here, space constraints prevent a fuller explanation of these ideas.

(11.) Many proponents of STM have claimed that participation in short-term trips increases the likelihood of career missions, suggesting that exposure is both central and influential for the short-term visitors. See Roger P. Peterson and Timothy D. Peterson, Is Short-Term Mission Really Worth the Time and Money? (Minneapolis: STEM Ministries, 1991); Paula Harris, "Calling Young People to Missionary Vocations in a 'Yahoo' World," Missiology 30 (2002): 33-50; Susan G. Loobie, "Short-Term Mission: Is It Worth It?" Latin America Evangelist, January-March 2002; Steve Whitner, "The Value of Short-Term Missions," in Short-Term Missions Today, ed. Bill Barry (Pasadena, Calif.: Into All the World Magazine, 2003), pp. 54-58. These findings have been challenged by subsequent research; see Priest et al., "Researching the Short-Term Mission Movement," p. 435.

(12.) See Miriam Adeney, "Shalom Tourist: Loving Your Neighbor While Using Her," Missiology 34 (October 2006): 463-77; also Edwin Zehner, "Short-Term Missions: Towards a More Field Oriented Approach," Missiology 34 (October 2006): 509-21.

(13.) See Erik Cohen, "Pilgrimage and Tourism: Convergence and Divergence," in The Anthropology of Pilgrimage, ed. A. Morinis (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992), pp. 47-61; Brian Howell and Rachel Dorr, "Evangelical Pilgrimage: The Language of Short-Term Missions," Journal of Communication and Religion 30 (November 2007): 236-65.

(14.) Cindy Judge, Before You Pack Your Bag, Prepare Your Heart: Short-Term Mission Preparation Guide, with Twelve Bible Studies Plus Trip Journal (Wheaton, Ill.: Campfire Resources, 2000).

Brian M. Howell, associate professor of anthropology, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois, is the author of Christianity in the Local Context: Southern Baptistsin the Philippines (Palgrave, 2008) and coeditor (with Edwin Zehner) of Power and Identity in the Global Church (William Carey Library, 2009)
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Author:Howell, Brian M.
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2009
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