Study Questions Whether Short-Term Missions Make a Difference
Short-term mission trips to foreign countries are the biggest trend to hit the evangelical Christian outreach scene since vacation Bible school. Between 1 million and 4 million North American Christians reportedly participated in STMs in 2003, and the number keeps rising.
Praises and critiques of the trend tend to be proportionately extreme, touting STMs either as miraculous recruiters of long-term missionaries or insidious sowers of third-world dependency.
But a new study, to which I contributed the literature review, suggests both sides are off the mark.
According to Kurt Ver Beek, professor of sociology and third-world development at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, traditional STMs don't do much at all.
That conclusion might sound odd to those familiar with any of the with the 50-odd dissertations written on the subject in the last 15 years, or with Roger Peterson's well-known studies in the subject. Most of these papers conclude that STMs significantly increase participants' spirituality, financial giving to missions, prayer for missions, likelihood to become career missionaries, and so on.
But in his survey of 127 North American short-termers and 78 Hondurans for whom they built new homes after 1998's devastating Hurricane Mitch, Ver Beek found that neither group had experienced notable life changes.
Why such different conclusions? Ver Beek ascribes the difference, in part, to methodology. Many previous studies involved small sample sizes, interviewed short-termers soon after their tripswhile they were still on a missions "high"or failed to take into account social desirability bias, the human tendency to exaggerate one's goodness in surveys and interviews, he writes.
Few checked reports of increased giving against other sources, such as church giving records, and almost none solicited opinions from people in the third world who received STM groups, he says.
Ver Beek's study is unusual in that it does both. The results, therefore, are also unusual.
While 52 percent of respondents claimed to have increased their giving to the sending organization after the trip, according to the organization's records 70 percent of the participants in their STM trips to Honduras didn't send in a single direct donation in the three years after the trip.
Collection-plate giving from the congregations involved did go up by an average of $2,600 a year, but Ver Beek says that's nothing worth shouting about.
And when he interviewed the Hondurans whose homes the missionaries rebuilt, he found that if given the choice, they'd prefer short-termers stayed home and just sent down money, "thereby using less resources on their own travel expenses and more on the people they intend to help."
"The truth is that they don't have to come here to build homes. If they come, they should come for the friendships, for the cultural exchange," says one Honduran NGO worker quoted in the study.
Unfortunately, Ver Beek found that few lasting friendships were built. While 92 percent of the North Americans said they had meaningful contact with Hondurans for at least part of every day of their trip, less than a quarter stayed in touch with their Honduran friends after they returned home.
"While we were there, you know, you have notions of maintaining contact with them, but we never have," says one short-termer quoted in the study.
"This study shows that short-term missions as done now are not having the impact that people think or want, even if done to levels of excellence," says Ver Beek. "If that's true, it requires a whole rethinking of whether or not we're going to do this, and if so, how."