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It's a relatively common sight at the airport: the conclusion of a short-term mission trip. A dozen suburban teenagers wearing matching yellow T-shirts talk about two weeks of manual labor at an orphanage and share iPhone photos of their trip to the jungle. Wheaton College anthropologist Brian M. Howell has puzzled over this phenomenon. Is it about service, tourism, personal pilgrimage, or something else completely? Are short-term missions even missions at all? Freelance writer Jeff Haanen spoke with Howell, author of Short-term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience (IVP Academic), about how Christians justify short-term mission trips, the problem with these stories, and how churches can do short-term missions better.
As an anthropologist, why write a book on short-term missions?
When I started teaching in the 1990s, I asked students about their cross-cultural experiences. Some hadn't done anything, or some maybe had taken a cruise. But when I came to Wheaton College and asked the same questions, I would get stories about northern Ghana, Mongolia, the Czech Republic—places people don't normally go on vacation. Short-term missions had exploded, and all these students had gone on short-term mission trips.
I was curious not just about the experiences, but the fact that they talked about them so similarly. They seemed to have this really well-developed narrative and vocabulary about what these trips were for and what they were like. It didn't matter whether they went to Mexico or to South Africa, it was all similar. I was interested in how these trips affected them culturally and made them think about their faith.
What was the common story you uncovered?
The common narrative goes something like this: "There's poverty out there, and we should do something about it because we're Christians. We've traditionally thought of missions as evangelism, but now we're thinking about missions more ...