My first mission trip was in 1991 as a high school student traveling 1300 miles in a school bus from Seattle to Ensenada, Mexico. Our team of 65 youth and leaders from church spent a week digging out the basement of a small church building so children could have a separate room for Bible class. The cost of this adventure was in the range of 10,000 man-hours and $25,000.

The sentiment of those who completed the 12-day quest was unanimous; “It meant way more to me than it did to them (the people we served)”. I am certain that is true.

I am not attempting to dissuade anyone from serving abroad, but this is my still-developing theory that short-term missions do more harm to those who are served than if we didn’t go at all. The exception is short-term missionaries that provide a particular professional service to people who need that type of help (legal, medical, or engineering would all fit into this category).

Tony Campolo recently wrote about all of the problems created by well meaning religious tourists who are wreaking havoc on the post-earthquake Haitian culture.

“Haiti has continued in a downward spiral into greater and greater poverty and social disorganization, not in spite of all these “good works,” but in great part because of them. So much of what has been done in Haiti has disempowered Haitians and diminished their dignity by doing for them what they could have done for themselves.” Tony’s Blog, March 2, 2010.

I can picture these missionaries going in to build a church, or some other structure, flying in with power tools, seemingly limitless resources, possibly spending $50,000 to provide a solution to people who can’t even articulate the problem. Do they need a school? A church building? A store? A home? You cannot pretend to know the answer to the question until you immerse yourself in the need of the people.

I am reading “When Helping Hurts” by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. The premise of their theology and philosophy of helping the poor is that all poverty is rooted in broken relationships. This is contrary to the prevailing thought that poverty is caused by one or more of the following, with the solution in parenthesis:

Lack of Knowledge (Provide Education)

Oppression by Powerful People (Work for Social Justice)

Personal Sins of the Poor (Evangelize and Disciple the Poor)

Lack of Material Resources (Give Material Resources to the Poor)

These are naïve and short-sighted solutions to the problem. Corbett and Fikkert theorize the following:

“(Missions and relief) exacerbates the poverty of being of the economically rich – their god-complexes – and the poverty of being of the economically poor – their feelings of inferiority and shame.” (Emphasis mine)

In other words: Well intentioned short-term paternalistic missionaries rob the poor of the joy of being a part of the solution. They do not really carry the burden of the poor, they take a Costco-sized sample, make a consumer-based decision for them (with THEIR money!), and go on to brag, even if only to themselves, about their experience.

Christ’s example does not allow us the luxury of living in two worlds. Their pain MUST become our pain (Luke 7:13 – read about compassion “splachna”). The poor MUST be a part of the solution (1 Tim 5:8). We must acknowledge our own brokenness (Romans 7:21). We MUST steward all that we have as Gods; never giving from our kingdom to His, but simply using what he has entrusted us to use as HE would see fit (Galatians 2:20).

Get to know someone, even if you never visit them oversees. Pray for them, even right now. Carry their burden. Know their families, and share in their pain and joy. Experience their suffering and, when the Lord leads, use what is in your power to transform their lives (Proverbs 3:27).