I only recently happened upon Stephen Neale’s blog Building Jerusalem. So far, I’m enjoying it, and him, very much. Stephen is a pastor in the Oldham area near Manchester, UK. As I understand it, this once-thriving industrial area is now blighted, not unlike our own Flint, Michigan or any number of formerly-great industrial cities here in the States. Ministry-wise, besides the economic factors, Neale’s ministry field is dominated by Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims. All of this makes his writing insightful and compelling.
Having just returned from a short-term missions trip to Uganda, I was intrigued when I saw his recent post itemizing five reasons against sending out short-term missions teams. A few reasons he gives include how the work started is often unsustainable after the team has gone home, the incredible amount of lead-up planning and distraction (my word) it puts on the organizing pastor and how it can “lull” the local church away from their own evangelistic responsibilities. So how did Pastor Neale’s points line up with my own recent experience?
My Trip to Uganda: An Overview
My trip to Uganda was an almost-three week evangelism trip. You might be wondering, Why Uganda? Because last November I was invited to join a team on a short-term missions trip to …Uganda! Never before had I any thought of going there.
Uganda was described to me as being a “revival culture” right now, where the Spirit is especially turning the hearts of men, women, and children to repent and believe the Gospel. The purpose of the trip was to exhort believers in the need for committing to regular evangelism, and giving them a practical model of doing it.
About 30 of us from around the United States, Colombia, and South Africa went. For the first week we stayed at the missions house in Kampala/Entebbe where we were trained and exhorted over long days of group prayer, lectures, meals, and a concluding guest speaker each evening. Our training completed, we set out to Kaphorwa first then Tororo for small teams evangelism and open air preaching over the remainder of our time in-country.
The team was headed up by a pastor/professor based here in the States who has been ministering in Uganda via short-term trips for many years. While in-country we were also joined the entire time by one local pastor and a national coordinator for the small ministry I went with, as well as a few other Ugandan pastors, campus ministry workers, and church members helping as interpreters for those we’d meet who didn’t speak English.
I’ll be writing more about my own trip in upcoming blog posts, so that’s all I’ll say about it for now.
And Then There is the Cost
The point Neale emphasizes the most is the cost. Short-term missions is a costly endeavor, no doubt. Neale argues the money could be better spent if it were simply donated to the local church.
The very church you are going to help on these trips would almost certainly be helped more if you took all the money you were going to spend on each person coming and gave it directly to the church to use in the sustainable work of weekly gospel ministry that they are trying to maintain.-Stephen Neale
Well, could it? Decide for yourself:
I spent $3,200 on the trip, plus another $300 donated by others towards my travel. And that didn’t include the $1,000 in required vaccinations and travel essentials listed on the suggested packing list and my own research. Plus there was money spent on material donations for Ugandans I hauled over in suitcases (mostly ladies and children’s clothes, hand towels, and pillow cases). Add some pocket money for incidentals like food in the airports, snacks in-country, and a few souvenirs and we’re now approaching US$5,000. Now multiply that by 30 (the size of our team).
Where I Agree
I loved my time in Uganda. I thanked God everyday for the opportunity to be there. I loved the experience and the friendships that came out of it. It changed me to see first-hand the broader perspective of what God is doing around the world and what fellow believers deal with day-in and day-out.
Let’s also not forget that experiencing the lack of so many American conveniences was, in itself, a crash course in enduring trials patiently and with joy. And just like cross-cultural traveling for secular reasons does, the experience made me a little wiser about the people and cultures of the world we live in. And yes, there is no question that some of the people we talked to truly became born again.
All that said, as I read through Pastor Neale’s article though, I found myself agreeing with every point. It was a herculean logistical effort on the part of the organizers, it took a tremendous amount of local resources before and during our time there, and all of it cost a great deal of money.
Where I Disagree
But does this mean we do away with short-term missions entirely? Do we just look at the bottom line and take our missions cue from there? I don’t think so.
If we’re just going to look at the bottom line for everything, what about efforts like nursing home ministry? I just preached this past Sunday to a dozen or so people in a nursing home, most of whom were asleep or only hardly aware of what was happening around them. The Bottom Line would say that, too, was a waste of time and resources.
I know that it is not at all what Pastor Neale is saying, and I’m not at all trying to setup a straw man to knock down. I’m only saying that there are non-quantifiable aspects to a lot of what is done in Christian ministry. Our shared faith is full of paradoxes. Short-term missions may simply be one of them.
So where do we go from here (or, to the question at hand, do we even go anywhere!)? I don’t disagree at all with Pastor Neale’s assessment, although I would add that there are some short-term missions projects that may be better returns on investment than others.
Missions that helps build a building, dig a well, train pastors and lay leaders, trains women in poorer areas on health and business, and other such concrete projects may, in the long run, be more viable short-term missions options than other efforts. But, then again, is there no one locally who can put up a wall or dig a well, or a pastor in a neighboring state or country who can train other pastors?
I do think short-term missions has non-quantifiable benefits. I think that so long as they are not “gospel tourism” trips, short-term missions trips can provide value. Would I, by comparative example, spend $5,000 on a three week class learning about art history by traveling across Italy? Or, as I did a few years ago, surprise my wife with a trip to a place she’s always wanted to go (Ireland)? Yes. So me and the others on the team going on a three week trip to share the Gospel and learn what God is doing around the world still seems like it was time and money well spent.