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Short-Term Missions

Debates over short-term mission trips are nothing new. But a theological argument that approves of teams spending a day at the beach? Coming from an anthropologist? For everyone who’s ever thought about a short-term mission trip, Dr. Brian Howell’s thought-provoking new book offers insights that may help shape the experience. by Jeremy Weber '05


“Where have you traveled outside the United States?”

Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Dr. Brian Howell has long asked this question of students in his introductory anthropology classes. In St. Louis, where he taught before coming to Wheaton College in 2001, students would usually cite Caribbean cruises or family trips to Canada. But at Wheaton, students often mention countries such as Ghana, China, and Bulgaria—places American students don’t normally go on vacation.

The reason? Short-term missions (STMs). Recent studies suggest more than two million Americans go on such trips each year.

“I hadn’t realized how widespread the phenomenon had become and how diverse the trips were,” says Dr. Howell. “Yet I began to see that, whether Inner Mongolia or Paris, people talked and thought about these different trips in a similar way.”

Not only did these trips produce similar photos of “North Americans engaged in manual labor” and “a single white face surrounded by brown-faced groups of smiling children,” but Dr. Howell also discovered a surprisingly common narrative: “I thought I had a lot to give, but I ended up receiving a lot more.”

He was intrigued: Where did this common narrative come from? How was it learned? But he also wondered: Is this the best narrative to be told?

“We have to ask ourselves whether this is the best takeaway,” says Dr. Howell. “Is it worth the incredible amount of resources just for people to become grateful? Is that enough?”

Dr. Howell is not the first to raise such questions about short-term missions. Many have critiqued the phenomenon as an inefficient use of resources at best and Christian tourism at worst. But what separates his from many other voices—especially among anthropologists—is, at the end of the day, he’s not for abolishing STMs, but for reforming them.

“I’m not an anti-short-term missions guy. I think we should keep doing these trips,” says Dr. Howell. “I don’t think they do terrible harm. But I do think they could be so much more, and I think people want them to be so much more.”

Many experts and scholars have focused on providing STM teams with better training. Others have focused on better follow-up. But Dr. Howell says more is needed: cultural change.

He argues that STMs should be seen as a cultural practice distinct from other forms of travel or missions, and thus such efforts at reforms will be limited until the structures and narratives change. So Dr. Howell, who had gone on his own STM to Mexico as a high- schooler in 1986, decided that an ethnography (a scientific description of the customs) of STMs was needed.

In the past, anthropologists might go and study a little-known people in a place far from the “civilized world.” Dr. Howell decided to follow a group of students attending high school in Wheaton.

He found a group following a common pattern—a two-week trip focused on construction and children’s ministry in a Spanish-speaking country—and joined them on an STM to the Dominican Republic in 2006. Just as the students did, he interviewed to become part of the team and sent out support letters. He then joined them on the trip, and interviewed participants before and after. Dr. Howell had also traveled to the Dominican Republic the year before in 2005 (thanks to a faculty missions trip grant from the Alumni Association) and spent seven weeks observing the host community.

“There are different kinds of teams; some are well prepared and some are not. But both have a dynamic at work that we need to think about,” says Dr. Howell. “It’s not a matter of finding good teams and emulating them, or finding bad teams and stopping them. There is something about these groups that we need to study and study well.”

In his resulting book, Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience, Dr. Howell suggests that part of the response is to ground STM narratives in a more robust theology of mission.

“It’s not just about evangelism or just about humanitarian aid, but the missio Dei—God reconciling humanity to himself and reconciling humans to one another,” he says. “This works against the false dichotomy between education and mission, listening and doing, and even personal enjoyment and sacrificial service. Any time spent listening to local leaders or visiting with villagers—or visiting a beach, touring a museum, or even shopping—is as legitimately a part of STM as building a house, performing a mime skit, or leading a VBS.”

Christian leaders in developing nations will often describe the importance of Americans coming to listen and learn, but this is a tough sell to American churches that think mission means doing. Because most trips are initiated and funded by American churches, the American model of what missions fundamentally is—“doing”— dominates the shape of what ends up happening.

Bruce Wilson ’86, missions pastor at College Church, knows this full well. He and his wife spent 11 years with Pioneers in Southeast Asia, where they hosted many short-term teams. “We had very little return from the teams, and it took a ton of our time to organize these trips,” he says. So Bruce reversed the process and had career missionaries submit requests for American teams instead. “It sounds simple,” he says, “but it’s a critical paradigm shift.”

“Local missionaries are not just the conduit through which you reach the target audience,” he says. “The number-one purpose of a short-term team should be to serve the local ministry and propel that ministry forward.”

Bruce had great interest in reading Dr. Howell’s book when it was released in October. Why? Because the high school group that served as Dr. Howell’s case study—called Central Wheaton Church in the book—was his.

“I always welcome evaluation,” says Bruce. “We can always improve. And [Dr. Howell] underlines a lot of important principles that we agree with and want to do better.”

Darren Carlson, president of Training Leaders International, sends pastors and seminary students on STMs to train indigenous pastors. He found Dr. Howell’s emphasis on cultural learning to be very helpful.

“I’ve been against going to museums, because it sounds like you’re going on a vacation,” he says. “Dr. Howell’s point—that part of going is to learn about the culture—made me realize maybe I’m a little too self-righteous about these things.” Carlson recently returned from an STM to Greece. “We went to all the places the Greeks wanted to take us, and that included museums and historical sites,” he says.

Rodney ’87 and Kathy Smith Duttweiler ’87 have hosted many STMs over the past 13 years—including the Wheaton football team during most spring breaks—since the couple became career missionaries in Senegal. “I am encouraged that our practices over the past years are being affirmed,” says Rodney, now in South Africa. “We have spent many hours seeking to shift the focus [of STMs] from ‘getting the work done’ to ‘seeing what God is doing in this place and joining him in it.’”

Rodney cites the example of two Wheaton football players whose task for the day was to hang neon lights and wall fans in a dormitory with Senegalese partners. Power outages, incorrect tools, and missing parts resulted in only one fan being installed. “The Wheaton players talked about how it was a wasted day, frustrated because of their lack of achievement,” says Rodney of debriefing the team. “The Senegalese were thrilled with the day. They had spent time with their two new friends.” This difference in perspectives highlighted the participants’ cultural tendencies: placing greater value on either people or the completion of tasks.

Cindy Judge, an STM consultant and author of Before You Pack Your Bag, Prepare Your Heart, agrees with Dr. Howell’s advice to build time for more cultural learning. “We practitioners have often packed too much physical labor or other work into a 10-day trip,” she says. “Appreciating every aspect of our hosts’ world is essential to appreciating them. This is how the narrative changes from being ‘me-centered’ to being ‘other-centered.’”

However, Cindy Judge cautions that the common narrative Dr. Howell heard from students is “hardly a fair assessment” for judging STMs broadly because many churches have shifted STMs to adults only. She recommends that groups consult Ellen Livingood’s M.A. ’75 Catalyst Services, as well as the Standards of Excellence in STM (SOE) organization.

Spring 2013 Short-Term Missions

Restructuring Your STM

Dr. Howell’s main goal is to help STM leaders better accomplish their own desired reforms by understanding how structure and narrative inhibit the changes they seek to make. So he offers two suggestions:

1. Read the existing research. STM research may be scant, but it does exist. Empirical research from Robert Priest at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS), preparation and activity guides from Ulrike Sallandt in Peru, and quantitative studies of STM participants from Kurt Ver Beek at Calvin College should all be helpful.

2. Develop a theology of short-term mission. The command in Matthew 28 to “go and make disciples of all nations” undergirds most missionary activity but is a poor fit for most STMSs. Instead, Dr. Howell recommends Micah 6:8’s command to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” because it helps focus STMs on the missio Dei. “Our guiding narrative should be one of humility and fellowship even more than service and sacrifice,” he says.

“Until the agendas of STM are structurally reoriented around the missio Dei, with education and community as the primary goals, or at least equally missional as the activities and projects of visiting groups, then the narratives of theses trips will continue to be created primarily by the cultural context and historical trajectory from which travelers come,” he writes.

As an anthropologist, Dr. Howell wants people to travel and experience what God is doing in other parts of the world. For him, the question has always been not should STM teams travel, but how should they travel.

“The opportunity to learn directly from Christians in other countries is a new resource that should be nourished, not extinguished,” he said. “By recognizing the cultural dynamics of STMs and then reshaping them through an understanding of how culture changes, these travels may begin to have more lasting and substantive effects on everyone involved.”

Before, During, and After Your Trip

Dr. Howell’s book is emphatically not intended to be a how-to manual—which might frustrate pragmatic-minded evangelicals. “I’m not telling churches what to do,” he says. “I’m offering new ways to think about what they are doing.” But he does list some quick interventions based on his research.

Before the trip:

  • Spend as much time studying the history, economics, politics, and spiritual context of the community as fundraising and preparing for the activities. “It is worth the sacrifice in efficiency to develop a more robust ability to see and understand the context in which the team works.”
  • Invite people from the country or community to which the team is traveling to address the group. “Such a visit would open up ways of speaking about what is happening in the country (politically, spiritually, economically) in ways that are both personal and relevant.”

During the trip:

  • Spend more time talking to community leaders about the problems, solutions, and initiatives already at work. “Many STMs spend the vast majority of their time with children, but that’s such an asymmetrical relationship. Children are less likely to point out the ways a traveler is misunderstanding a situation.”
  • Present visits to a museum, monument, or natural site as part of the mission, rather than just tourism. “All aspects of learning and exposure that lead to the healing and creation of community honor God and his purposes in the world.”

After the trip:

  • Plan mandatory follow-up meetings to review what people have learned, how it has affected them, and what changes they have made or should make in their thinking or behavior. This is where narratives can be shaped so that takeaway impressionsare richer than the all-too-common one: “They’re so poor, but they love God so much better than we do.”
  • Focus presentations of the trip on the resources in the country and the work going on there, rather than a portrayal of the needs and how the team met them. “Presentations of STM travels are an important aspect of the generation of narratives. Consider how the photos represent the people in them. Who is shown as having power? As being competent?”

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