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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 trips—while 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 ...

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