Are Short-Term Missions Good Stewardship?
We recently published the summary of a study by Kurt Ver Beek, assistant professor of sociology and third-world development at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which questioned whether short-term missionaries and those served by such missionaries experienced long-term life changes from such missions. We have asked Ver Beek to discuss his work further with Robert Priest, associate professor of mission and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. At the end of the discussion, Ver Beek and Priest will take readers' questions, which may be submitted via e-mail.
From: Robert Priest
To: Kurt Ver Beek
Greetings from Lima, Peru. Last week, at the departure gate of O'Hare airport, my sons pointed out that a third of our waiting area was taken by two short-term mission teams, identifiable by their T-shirts, traveling to the Dominican Republic and to Venezuela. The summer short-term mission season is in full swing!
Just how big is short-term missions (STM)? As a grass-roots, decentralized movement, its scope is difficult to determine. And yet your own estimate of between 1 million and 4 million North American short-term missionaries every year may well be a conservative estimate. The sociologist Christian Smith, based on national random survey data, reports that 29 percent of all 13- to 17-year-olds in the U.S. have "gone on a religious missions team or religious service project," with 10 percent having gone on such trips three or more times. That is, his data indicates that far more than 2 million 13- to 17-year-olds go on such trips every year.
This is an enormous phenomenon, and yet it has largely escaped the attention of scholars. Most of the 50 "dissertations" which Abram Honig referred to in his Christianity Today article, were master's theses or D.Min. projects, with but a few Ph.D. dissertations. Senior scholars have not made this central to their own research. Probably no other dimension of American religious life is so extensive while being so little studied or understood by scholars.
As you yourself note, the amount of money funding STM is enormous, perhaps several billion dollars a year, in all likelihood now surpassing the amount given in support of long-term missionaries. Your research graphically raises questions of stewardshipshowing that using short-term teams to rebuild houses in Honduras destroyed by a hurricane costs 10 times as much as having local Christian workers rebuild the house. How do we justify such use of resources? The biblical call to stewardship implies the need for careful assessment of the actual results of such expenditures. And it is, in part, through research that such assessment must take place. And so Kurt, I am thrilled to see your research, research of a high quality, on a timely topic, by a mature scholar.
One frequently articulated justification of STM is that short-term missionaries will subsequently spend a lifetime financially supporting such mission endeavors. Your own research tests this idea, and fails to find support for it. The original research reported by Roger Peterson on which this claim was based was flawed, comparing the giving of young adults before going on a mission trip with their giving five to ten years later. But the fact that 27-year-olds give twice as much to missions as 19-year-olds most likely reflects greater discretionary income. Since there was no control group, this data should not have been taken as evidence that short-term missions increases missions giving. In my own survey of 120 Trinity M.Div. students, 56 percent of whom had been on short-term mission trips outside the U.S., the amount of short-term experience was not positively correlated with giving to missions. This result was unexpected and unwanted: It suggested that for these M.Div. students, STM as currently practiced was as likely to lower financial giving as to raise it. Since your own research found similar results, we probably need to stop making the claim that STM in general leads to greater financial giving. Further research is needed to discover under what conditions STM might lead to stronger financial support for mission causes. Any thoughts on this?