Kurt Ver Beek, assistant professor of sociology and third-world development at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, recently published the a study that questioned whether short-term missionaries and those served by such missionaries experienced long-term life changes from such missions. We summarized that study and 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.

Day One | Day Two | Day Three | Day Four | Questions

Dear Kurt,

Your commitment to exploring the impact of short-term missions (STMs) on the communities where STMs serve is right on the mark! Dr. Tito Paredes, a Peruvian missiological anthropologist, and I are leading a research team that is just starting research on this. With several Ph.D. students from North America and several Peruvian Master's students (themselves church leaders), we are beginning to explore the experiences of Peruvians with STM groups from North America, Korea, and Europe.

Of course we are not nearly so far along as you are, but are nonetheless already learning much.

Let me pick up just one of your themes this time around. You mentioned how much Hondurans valued relationships with North American visitors. Social scientists have often stressed that relationships and social connectedness are core to the good life in society. Whether within a society or on a global scale, such patterns of connectedness (of trust, reciprocity, relational commitment, volunteerism, and philanthropy) constitute a kind of "social capital." That's something well worth fostering. Furthermore, Harvard professor Robert Putnam has famously claimed that half of all social capital in America originates in religious institutions and practices. Certainly STM can be explored in terms of the extent to which it fosters social capital.

Putnam has distinguished between "bonding"and "bridging" social capital. "Bonding capital" involves the sorts of connections within a social group, while "bridging capital" involves building relationships across social divides. If an Anglo American youth group engages in activities that strengthen in-group ties, this fosters bonding capital. Certainly when a church group travels, lives, and serves together for an intensive two weeks, this often has an incredible effect in terms of bonding them together. They have shared memories, inside jokes, and personal relationships. Sometimes the very elements bonding a group together simultaneously serve to exclude and deny others.

But since STM teams are deliberately crossing cultural, racial, and ethnic divides, they are also potentially helping to construct bridging capital. In terms of our discussion, bonding capital benefits the sending church—and is without a doubt one essential outcome of STM practices. But bridging capital is my interest here.

"Status-bridging" (or "linking") capital involves relations across major differentials of wealth and social class. Scholars note that economically marginal and subordinate people typically lack the sorts of strategic social connections that others have, and that the well being of such people hinges on their acquiring "status-bridging" or "linking" capital. STMs frequently originate within communities having wealth (the United States, Korea, Singapore, Europe) and typically go to settings where such resources are in scarce supply. That is, STM potentially contributes to such "linking" capital.

But it is possible for elites to behave in ways that give the illusion of benefiting others, but which ultimately benefit themselves. For example, young people who travel and volunteer are acquiring cultural capital, which translates into stronger college applications and better job prospects. A core question, then, is whether STMs build durable bridging and linking connections "for members of recipient communities." Do the recipients end up with greater social capital? Or is it primarily the short-termers who acquire social capital?

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I believe this is an open empirical question, which likely has varying answers depending on the nature of the STM. I spoke with one short-termer who was 37 years old and had traveled on STM trips to 37 countries. He said his plan was to add a country a year for the rest of his life, describing himself as a "short-term junkie"—a description which itself is suggestive as to whose interests are being served. On the other hand, I've encountered teams from congregations that decided to renounce the "shotgun" approach to STM, instead adopting a stable commitment to a single congregation or ministry in Peru. In such cases, the team returns year after year, slowly building stable, enduring, and reciprocal ties.

Kurt, does your research shed light further light on the extent to which STM groups are fostering bridging and linking capital for those they serve?

All the best,

Robert

* * *

Dear Robert,

Thanks for your stimulating note. It is fun to think about my research from a different perspective, and your note pushed me to do that. When it is done properly, STMs can build the sort of social capital you describe (and I would even add one more category), but sadly they often do not.

First, I believe STMs will usually build "bonding social capital"—the STM group members will bond with each other, something that will help them in many ways in the future. However, the development of lasting "social bridges and linkages" is much more debatable. Both North Americans and Hondurans stated that during their time together they both experienced a connection.

A Honduran STM beneficiary who named her daughter "Laura Michelle" after two of the group members told our interviewer, "The best thing was the friendship we had with the group."

Likewise, when our interviewer asked a North American participant what the most meaningful part of the STM experience was, the reply was, "I would say the relationship you built with the people there. Yeah, I was amazed at how quickly we could really love these people, and that was the most important part of the whole thing."

However, in my research in Honduras, Kenya, Thailand, and Haiti, one of the most consistent complaints is that the STM groups do not stay in touch with them after they leave. Despite the importance participants gave to the relationships they established in Honduras, since returning, 76.4 percent had not stayed in touch with the community they had visited. As one North American participant said, "While we were there, you know, you have notions of maintaining contact with them, but we never have."

So at this point I will bang on my old drum once more. For this sort of social bridges and linking to become strong and lasting, we must create structures and expectations that push the participants to see the STM experience as only one part of a larger commitment to learn more, pray more, give more, and do more for the families, church, community, and country they visited.

Finally, your discussion of bonds and bridges (it sounds like a board game) left out one important aspect that will allow me to get on my last soapbox J. We should be concerned about the social bonding that takes place between the community members receiving the STM group. I would argue that this type of bonding is even more important than the others. These communities are often poor, marginalized, and oppressed, and while a connection with the North American group may improve their lot somewhat, their best and most reliable means to change their situation is working together and loving each other.

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I think it is therefore at least as important how the community feels about itself and its level of motivation after the group leaves as whether they have a new coat of paint on the church or a set of new latrines. If community members feel empowered, to do good work together, and if the STM group helped them to see their own strengths and abilities—then they will likely keep doing exciting work on their own. One Honduran we interviewed had been part of a group in which all built each other's homes without a STM group."We were like a family," she said, " and still continue like a family."

But if the community feels weak and poor after the visit from the outsiders—if they feel they need others to come and help them with their next project—then the new latrine may not have been worth it. In our study, while some of the communities were like family, starting cooperatives and building more houses, others were fighting among themselves and doing their best not to pay back their loans. In general, this sort of community bonding will not be the result of a one-week short term mission, but of the long-term work of a missionary, local church, or organization (see my study for more details).

So I would like to conclude this note with a call for all STMs to pay much more attention, not to the concrete work they do (how many teeth they pulled, bricks they laid, or tracts they handed out), but to how the families, churches, and communities feel about themselves when they leave. And the best way to make sure that the families, churches, and communities will feel motivated and empowered by a one-week visit is to think seriously about it beforehand, and to work with organizations, missionaries, and others who are concerned and making this happen year round.

Thanks again for getting me thinking,

Kurt

Monday: Ver Beek and Priest answer readers' questions about making short-term missions more effective.


Related Elsewhere:

See our earlier coverage of Ver Beek's work, "Study Questions Whether Short-Term Missions Make a Difference."

Ver Beek's study, along with a PowerPoint synopsis and bibliography, are available at his Calvin College site.

Ver Beek presented his paper at the 2005 missiology conference at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.

Earlier parts in this series include:

Who Gets 'Socially Rich' from Short-Term Missions? | How communities feel about themselves after receiving a group may be more important than the number of latrines dug or homes built. (July 8, 2005)
Mission Trips or Exotic Youth Outings? | Not everything in your church's missions budget may be about missions. (July 7, 2005)
Do Short-term Missions Change Anyone? | Or do one week's good intentions fall flat without a concerted effort to follow through? (July 6, 2005)
Are Short-Term Missions Good Stewardship? | More than 2 million teens go on such trips ever year, and giving may exceed that given to long-term missionaries. But is short-term ministry built to last? (July 5, 2005)
Study Questions Whether Short-Term Missions Make a Difference | Missionaries don't keep giving after they return; hosts prefer money to guests, Calvin sociologist finds. (June 20, 2005)

STEM Int'l has more information on short-term missions, including missions opportunities. The ministry will launch Mission Maker Magazine in late September.

Peterson's "Maximum Impact Short Term Missions," "Is Short-Term Mission Really Worth the Time and Money?" and "Can Short-Term Mission Really Create Long-Term Missionaries" can be purchased at the STEM International site.

Earlier Christianity Today coverage of short-term missions includes:

Agencies Announce Short-Term Missions Standards | Similar codes have been established in Great Britain and Canada. (Sep. 30, 2003)
McMissions | Short-termers have their place, but not at the expense of career missionaries. A Christianity Today editorial by Miriam Adeney (Nov. 11, 1996)

See also Marshall Allen's October 2001 article for FaithWorks magazine, "Mission tourism?"

This American Life, a public radio show, spent a week with the youth group from Covenant Presbyterian Church in Chicago as they took a missions trip to West Virginia.