Brian M. Howell is associate professor of anthropology at Wheaton College and author of Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience (IVP Academic, forthcoming).
Churches should not abandon travel, but we should abandon most travel-intensive "projects."
It is good for American Christians to visit Christians in other places to witness what God is doing around the world. It is good for American Christians to visit missionaries, learning firsthand about their work and how to pray for them. The opportunity to learn from all our brothers and sisters living and working around the world is a gift many of us have received due to our relative wealth, access to technology, and leisure time. We should accept this blessing gratefully.
When it comes to projects, however, the good we do is often outweighed by the warped impressions left on both sides. For example, sending high-school students to do construction in front of poor, underemployed adults furthers the humiliation of the poor as they see wealthy North Americans casually doing jobs they would happily accept, while it reinforces the views of many American Christians that poor people cannot help themselves.
Our projects further promote views of poor people as lacking personal agency, as short-term mission teams often spend most of their time interacting with children conducting Vacation Bible School or teaching games. Teams often leave with the impression that the whole country is childlike, vulnerable, and in need of our care. When short-termers do interact with adults, it is often in unequal relationships—cooks, drivers, and other employees of the American missionaries—where true fellowship is difficult. Those ministries ...