I’ve taken three days on this book because I think it very good and very important. Anyone with a heart for the poor or who has ever tried to help the poor should read this book. Today we come to the final section.

Part Three: Practical Strategies for Helping Without Hurting

The most provocative chapter in the book is Chapter 7, entitled “Doing Short-Term Missions Without Doing Long-Term Harm.” It’s no secret that the number short-term missions (STMs) have exploded in recent years: 120,000 in 1989, 450,000 in 1998, 1,000,000 in 2003, and 2,200,000 in 2006. In 2006 alone, Americans spent 1.6 billion (!) on STMs, most of them trips of two weeks or less. I’ve been on STMs. Our church sends them out. They can do good. But they often don’t. STMs are very often costly, ineffective, and harmful to the people they mean to help.

For starters, most STMs do relief work where rehabilitation or development is called for. It’s no wonder that STMs focus on relief. You can’t do rehabilitation or development in two weeks. But you can give things away, or build a house, or run a VBS. We can come in and do stuff for people, but this often reinforces feelings of inferiority, creates a pattern of dependency, and can lead to resentment toward local ministries. I know this will rain on a lot of good hearted parades, but why should a group of Americans go run a VBS in Mexico for week. Don’t they have parents who can do that for their children, and in Spanish?! Fikkert tells the story of a group that came to a poor community in Latin America to do Bible studies for children. After the group left, they kids did not want to go back to the indigenous ministry, because their materials and crafts were not as fancy. Many STMs reinforce notions of paternalism, undercut local initiative, and make learning dependence on God harder not easier.

People on STMs often don’t know the language and by nature of the trip itself they are trying to accomplish a lot in a short amount of time. They also don’t understand the cultural dynamics of time and relationships. On top of this, someone must watch the group of 12 teenagers for a week, translate for them, cart them around, help them when they get sick, etc. It’s no wonder, that “research is finding that most host organizations would rather have the sending organization give them money instead of sending team” (171). Steve Corbett writes, “I know that if someone from Switzerland said to my small church of 130 people in rural Georgia, ‘You can choose between our sending thirteen people this summer to help with your VBS or our giving you the $25,000 it will cost to send the team,’ we would definitely take the money. We would use $20,000 to finish of the church addition we have been working five years to build debt free. And the remaining $5000 would nearly double our normal VBS budget, so we could have a dynamic VBS as well” (171).

But, the experiences we have on an STM are so rich! They can be then the trip is really about us and not about helping them (172)! If we want experiences, we can save up our money and go to Belize and visit a poor community while we’re there. But don’t make the church pay for it and call it missions. As a pastor I get solicitations in the mail for outfits that do nothing but cater to American STMs. The materials I get from some of these “missions” organizations are nothing less than appalling. They advertise the shopping trips and overnight stay on an island. They offer different trips for different costs. If you want the low rate you’ll have to sleep in a tent. But pay a little more and you’ll get a nice hotel and a visit to the art museum. This is a vacation, not missions.

This is not money well spent. Fikkert comments, “Spending $20,000 to $40,000 for ten to twenty people to be on location for two weeks or less is not uncommon. The money spent on a single STM teams for a one- to two- week experience would be sufficient to support more than a dozen far more effective indigenous workers for an entire year…The profound stewardship issues here should not be glossed over” (173).

But, STMs are an investment in the long-term. Many STMers will become missions advocates or long-term missionaries themselves. Actually, a recent study has concluded “that there simply is not a significant increase in long-term missions giving for either the team members or their sending churches” (174). If all the STMs were producing such long-term fruit, why have neither missions giving nor the number of long-term missionaries gone up in the US over the past two decades?

So are STMs nothing but a waste of money? Often, but not always. There are a number of ways to improve the impact of STMs. (1) Make sure the host organization and community members have requested your STM to come. (2) Design to trip to “be” and “learn” more than “do.” (3) Don’t do things for people they can do for themselves. (4) Keep the numbers of team members small. (5) Don’t think you are going to go change the world. (6) Include pre-trip, on-trip, and post-trip training. (7) Screen the team members. Don’t send people who just want to see the world or get a little adventure. (8) Make everyone on the team pay for at least a portion of their own expenses.

Chapters 8 and 9 finish off the book. Did you know “For the first time in U.S. history, more poor people live in suburbs than in cities” (183)? They are hidden in old houses, run-down apartments, and behind stip malls. That’s the point of Chapter 8 “Yes, in Your Backyard.” Chapter 9 looks at the possibilities and pitfalls of the global microfinance (MF) movement. Microfinance institutions (MFIs) can be great success stories, but most churches will not have the know-how, business sense, or guts to do them well.

Conclusion

This is an important book. You should read it. A wrong response to a book like this is: “Well, everything I’ve ever tried to do to help the poor is apparently wrong. So why bother.” Another wrong response would be: “See, the poor just need to do it themselves. We shouldn’t be wasting our time on this kind of thing.” No, the poor need our help. But passion and generosity may not, by themselves, be very helpful. Often, they are downright hurtful. We need wisdom, patience, and humility. The poor need our help, and we need their help too. We are all broken. We all have sins we can’t see. We all need reconciliation.

These are not truisms, but the very cornerstone of effective ministry. Sometimes we do more, by doing less. We can usually do more by doing it smarter. And we can always do more by realizing that God is the one already at work.

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8 thoughts on “When Helping Hurts, Part 3”

  1. Josh Caleb says:

    actually an interesting listen to (the notorious) Peter Singer in a new book he has out on non-relious based charity and a critique of western selfishness. Aside from the fact he can't logical ground his claims, i totally agree with the target he aims at and arguments he uses.

    http://www.pointofinquiry.org/peter_singer_the_life_you_can_save/

    mp3 is free and recommended for all thinking Christians!

  2. Karin says:

    Hubby has been saying exactly this since he accompanied his students on two different STM placements – one in Poland and the other in Brazil – 25 years ago! Finally, someone is listening! Thanks for this post.

  3. R W S says:

    Sound points . The funny thing that I have seen is that many don't believe that poverty exist in our own backyard. I have always said it is much more glamorous for upper middle class Christians to give to over sea missions then at home because they don't want to see how close it really is.I know within my own community real poverty exist. I know of families who go close to the brink of not eating or losing shelter because they are stretched that tight.Its not the same as say the Congo or South America but it is stress inducing and real. Within our area families have gone without heating oil for their units because in winter it is a choice to eat or heat , it happens . Plus my brother had a friend go one a mission trip to the Boston area and he was shocked to encounter some of the slums . It opened his eyes up because most of people were working trying to live in what he described almost 3rd world condition .
    I know I don't always do things right in helping others but I think its clear that a Christian is called to help eliminate suffering wherever they see it.

  4. Glenn Penner says:

    Thank you for these excellent reviews. I have ordered the book for our COO here at The Voice of the Martyrs as we seek to retool how we do miinistry with the persecuted. This looks to be an important resources to help us in this process

  5. atchkingster4426 says:

    Question:

    Do they differ between cross-cultural STM and state-side STM? For instance, I would wonder what they thought of non-profit aid and week long missions trips for the Katrina aftermath in New Orleans. Part of me knows that some of the houses we worked on were still condemned, but I don't think all of them were. Just a thought that feedback from someone would be appreciated.

    Anyways, Its good that you talked about sending money, but that can open a different can of worms. Dan Schriber from the Joshua Project has talked about how the sending of money has lead to churches disintegrating to nothing. Also, numerous churches have literally made their yearly budgets planned around our financial aid, which is not healthy either. Like I said, I am glad you brought it up because most people would think that is the equivalent of a sin not to do CC-STM's, but giving money still has it's own set of problems.

    Nonetheless, you have done a great job in this, and it has gotten me thinking how I can be an aid to those who are impoverished without causing more damage to them. I look forward to hearing some plans on how we can realize this at URC.

  6. abu 'n um tulip says:

    Very well done. These points are especially poignant now, when long-term workers are having difficulty with funding. Maybe some churches should take a break from STM if their budgets are not good.

    -Abu Tulip

  7. Check out the organization one mission (www.onemission.us) its an organization dedicated to mobilizing people for the long term good. enjoy the experience of short term missions AND support an on going community development program owned and led by local leaders and pastors.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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