The Value of Going on a Short Term Missions Trip vs. Just Sending Money

March 28th, 2011

Before I went to Haiti I was concerned the money I was spending on the trip might be better spent donating directly to someone.  The expense of short term “missions” trips is a frequent complaint regarding them – and there is no denying cash is needed many places… 

I was only in Haiti one week (!) but by the end was convinced there is much that can only be done in person.  Some things money can’t buy.

For instance…

  • …Giving a hug
  • …Playing with kids
  • …Praying with someone
  • …Saying an encouraging word
  • …Offering our time
  • …Holding an orphan
  • …Showing compassion
  • …Listening
  • …Being there

And this may sound bad, but I believe even the simple act of treating those on the lowest economic rungs (like those in the tent cities and several others I met who were nearly destitute) as equals could help impart a sense of dignity to them?  Often these people feel discarded by society.  And for sure we can identify with our brothers and sisters in the Lord no matter what their socioeconomic class.

We (the well-to-do) tend to define poverty in terms of a lack of material possessions.  However, the poor themselves often define poverty rather in terms of a lack of dignity, or a "poverty of being."  And as a lack of hope that their situation will change or that they have any ability to change it. (referenced from a book I recently read, When Helping Hurts)

Servants Asia put together an article regarding ministry among the extreme poor, particularly ministry that involves moving into their neighborhoods and living among them “incarnationally.”  Below is an excerpt from that article I found very thought provoking, dealing with this issue of the "dignity of our presence."  (also discussed back here on simplefollower)

Incarnational ministry sends a message to the host culture that love is real and that it can be costly. The message of love that can be inferred when we incarnate to a neighborhood is especially important for those we minister among, the last and the least.  Poor people can see that if love is costly, then they, as the target, are worth much. This redemptive message is incredibly important to the poor who so typically suffer the world’s lowest self-esteem and build up enormous emotional scar tissue from being at the bottom.

Time and again our neighbors have told us that they are certain God must love them because we have come from "so far." Others have told us that we are the first Christians they have met that "seemed real," "made sense," or treated them as peers. Our proximity through incarnation can inspire this kind of appreciation and trigger a sense of empowerment.

G. K. Chesterton writes: "No plans or proposals or efficient rearrangements will give back to a broken man his self respect and sense of speaking with an equal. One gesture will do it." 

[Additionally], in choosing to move in with the poor, we more than help raise self-esteem. We validate hope by showing our neighbors we entrust to ourselves the same upside-down gospel we proclaim. In living as poor among the poor, we express with our lives that we believe in God when He declares that those of "humble circumstance" may "glory in their high position" (James 1:9), and that in His economy, He raises the needy "to sit with nobles and inherit a seat of honor." (I Samuel 2:8)

I cannot emphasize this enough.

The message we send to the poor when we do not relocate among them is that their environments are too toxic for good Christians to live in, despite what the Bible says about the blessedness of the poor.  This … can lead them to conclude that the state of their poverty is of graver significance than the state of their souls. 

~Incarnational Ministry Among the Poor

I didn’t relocate to Haiti permanently, but I think there were still ways I was able to say, "This place isn’t too toxic for me."

For example…

  • Sitting down beside someone in the dirt to talk
  • Entering a person’s impoverished home (ragged tent) and allowing them the privilege to treat me as an honored guest
  • Putting my arm around a kid covered in sores, filthy, ill clothed

These things were the least I could do, but I’m wondering if they weren’t also perhaps important things. Things that affect a body on the inside, their dignity versus 1) giving a chair to the person sitting in the dirt or 2) insisting a poor person come to my house or 3) merely handing out a clean tee-shirt.

I’m sure they could all use both, but perhaps the intangibles are what touch the heart.  And these intangibles can’t be sent with a check. 

So my conclusion is this: there is a benefit to going. 

But what is really convicting is how I should be an encouragement wherever I am, at home or abroad.  I guess on a “missions” trip (I don’t like that term) one can feel as if the whole goal is to serve people, so we do more than usual.  But isn’t that what we’re called to do anyways, regularly?

I’m going to wrap this up with a quote from my friend Will Miller who is serving in the Philippines:

I had no idea how much my presence meant to Sully until we talked a little after.  You see, one thing that I’ve learned is that 90% of the ministry out here is just showing up and being social with the people.  Just the fact that I’m willing to come and eat rice and fish with my hands in a shack with dirt floors means a lot to these people. They take pride in the fact that they can host a "real life American".

~ Day 294 — Sully

Perhaps the most precious gift we can give anyone is our time. 

Agree?  Any other examples come to mind of how this plays out in our everyday lives?

4 Responses to “The Value of Going on a Short Term Missions Trip vs. Just Sending Money”

  1. Amanda Says:

    Indeed, time and self-sacrifice are the foundation of God’s love toward us (1 John 4:10 – 33 human yrs, and giving his life), and our reflection of that love to others (1 Cor. 13 – these attributes are mute points, unless paired with time/relationship with others).
    I could say more, but I don’t have time. Besides, “I agree” and “well said” sum-up anything else I might say.
    So, I agree; well said!! :)
    Thank you for sharing!!

  2. Seth Says:

    Nick, I just finished the book you loaned me, “When Helping Hurts”, which talks about some of these concepts.

    I thought about a time when I visited a village in Mali… the village elder had traveled 4 hours to summon us and we went with him back to his village. When we got there, it was just a few tents and shacks. We quickly did our assessment and wanted to head home before dark. They had prepared food for us, but our interpreter insisted that we wouldn’t like it and would get sick. While I was saying my goodbyes, I saw my 3 soldiers eating snacks and MREs in the vehicle. We left just as they were bringing out the cooked goat.

    I’ve often thought what a horrible message that sent to the people – they had killed the fatted “calf” for us and invited us into their dirt huts. We sent the message that their food makes us sick and they were not worthy of our presence other than assessing how much material things they lacked.

    I saw that day that we had really done the people (and Jesus) a large disservice, but your story has revived old feelings of guilt. Your thoughts are exactly right and it is good to think about them before going to any poor community.

  3. Patsy Rillo Says:

    Clifford just sent a note telling of your blog the last day or so. Once I have found it I can hardly stop reading before I go to bed. Your statements are so true. God bless you and you are so right about treating people as equals. Your Grandpa and Grandma truly lived among the people in Jamaica. I remember helping your Grandma clean the campground after everyone had left, and how she scrubbed and cleaned. She had the campground ready for the next group of campers that came to there. You Gandpa worked so hard to clean and fix the place up so that the toilets worked, etc. They truly lived among the people and served them, and most of the people there never knew how hard they worked, but they truly did it because they cared for the people of Jamaica coming to know the Lord. Thanks for these writings. God Bless, A. Pat

  4. Patsy Rillo Says:

    This going on short mission trips reminds me of a Supervisor I once had when I was teaching in Intermediate School. She made the remark one day as we were writing curriculum for the Humanities team for the coming year – that if the school board would just pay to take all of the 7th and 8th graders to Central or South America and let the live there those two years and study and work with the people there, we would have the best schools in the country when the kids returned , and it wouldn’t cost any more than what we paid to HOUSE them those two years here in the states. Wise woman – and a wise article you have written here. God Bless,
    A. Pat

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