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Screwtape on Summer Missions

Evangelism thought and praxis varies from person to person and place to place. Here, leaders in the fields of evangelism and missions take you deeper in thought as you be the mouth, hands, and feet of Jesus in the world.

EMQFrom Evangelical Missions Quarterly

Frampton F. Fox has lived in South America and Asia. He travels to Southeast Asia, lecturing and researching on intercultural issues. His writings focus on motivation and financial consideration related to cross-cultural interaction. 

Building upon the work of C.S. Lewis, the author invites the reader to look into a discussion between Wormwood, who is alarmed by the increasing interest in short-term missions in the West, and Screwtape, who is certain this interest can be used to thwart God’s plans. 

Screwtape on Summer Missions

In the dark tropical heat we moved through the thronging mass at the airport to meet our summer missionaries. As I searched the crowd for my little lambs, I was distracted by the sight of a foreigner who was evidently a traveling musician, probably into heavy metal by the looks of him. He moved toward me, shoulder-length hair blowing in the breeze and earring glistening in the soft light of the airport. This was my summer missionary. My wife and I joked later, “They must be having a good laugh back in the home office.”

Having hosted summer teams on the field, observed such teams, and recently led a team from the U.S., I hold both a sense of encouragement and concern about the explosion of interest in short-term missions. If I may be allowed to build upon the correspondence of C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, how might the two demons have strategized to misdirect the summer mission efforts of the modern local church? My intent is to not to detract from the classic work of those original letters, but in the words of Lewis himself, “to take over from them the technique of what may be called ‘diabolical ventriloquism’” (Lewis 151). I am not the first to build on this motif. For example, work on African demonology was done by Peter G. Bolt (Carlisle 1996). Peter Wehner fictionalized a letter to Wormwood with Screwtape’s advice on how to do damage to Christians in the area of political involvement (Wehner 1999). Following that precedent, this article will focus on what Michael J. Anthony’s (Anthony 1994) edited work, termed “the short-term missions boom,” through the voices of this imaginary and diabolic correspondence.

Involvement in and spending on mission trips is seeing an unprecedented increase, while recruitment for full-time mission service is flat. Could it be that Wormwood and Screwtape are up to something? For Wormwood, now on assignment to the West, the swelling interest in these trips is alarming. He writes back to his mentor for counsel.

Dear Uncle Screwtape,

It has been some time since I have written to you, but there is a matter that requires your expertise here in the region of my newest assignment. I am rather alarmed at the growing sense of excitement around the country about the subject of so-called mission trips (forgive my use of the m-word, but it is necessary to this conversation).

I fear that we may have a problem on our hands of disproportionate size if all these young people—and not only young people —even grandparents—experience what they call “the mission field” for themselves. One problem is that humans are frittering away good vacation time. I have not forgotten how you taught me that vacation season is harvest time for leading humans into various diversions that can further our causes. In my brief experience I have seen that there is nothing like summer holidays for promoting idle thoughts and for convincing otherwise faithful devotees that they deserve a break from their spiritual duties and even moral responsibilities.

Another concern relates to finances. Recent reports are that young people are giving up summer jobs to go on such trips. If they do not have summer jobs, they will not have money to spend on pleasure. Not only the young people are being affected but they often finance these expeditions by the unfortunate method of soliciting donations from older Christians. There are reports that extra spending on luxury, self, and excess are already down. These would-be missionaries are generating millions of dollars every summer that could well have been used to support my campaigns for capital projects more useful for our purposes, such as furniture, clothing, automobiles, or entertainment. Now you are well aware that it is only as down payments are made that we can continue the unprecedented growth in personal debt that we have seen during the last decade in our division. The income-to-personal-debt ratios are sure to drop if these funds are not redirected to more ignoble causes. If this use of funds increases, we are sure to see other detrimental trends, such as an increase in tithing and other mission giving. How might we direct their thinking in such a way that this may be avoided?

Finally, I am most concerned at the rumor that many of these who go on such trips are volunteering as career missionaries. If indeed summer missions are a kind of boot camp for long-term missionaries, then we must bring all our powers to bear on disrupting the flow of time, money, and energy on these trips.

It is therefore my humble suggestion that we assign some special forces to frustrate the comfort of these summer adventurers while they are on the field. I have understood that various tactics involving mosquitoes, diarrhea, bed bugs, and heat rash have met with some success in the past. With your permission, I will present such a plan to our superiors, mentioning your name of course, and volunteering to head up the campaign to discourage these accursed trips.

- Your faithful nephew, Wormwood

My Dear Wormwood,

While it was pleasant to hear from you, I must draw your attention to a variety of shortsighted perceptions expressed in your recent letter. Especially now that you have increased responsibilities, you must beware of the inclination to deal with humans at only the surface level. Human beings are a complex web of motives, aspirations, and desires, especially in the area of religious expression. You must look beyond the obvious to see what lies at the deeper level of humanity’s action and reaction.

What you have termed the “mission trip movement” has been the subject of my attention for some time. In fact, this is not a new phenomenon but has been on the increase for many years. I recollect that such tours have a precedent dating back to the first century, but they were far more dangerous in those days. At first consideration this does appear to be an area for concern, but further analysis will show you why this may actually be a campaign that is working in our favor in thwarting the global cause of our Enemy. There are some steps that we must take, not to discourage, but to encourage this movement.

First of all, the use of vacation time for such trips may prove to be an opportunity for our cause. Vacation, in modern Western culture, is a time when especially workaholics finally stop running around like ants and have the opportunity to reflect on the larger issues of life.

Thus, if we can keep them occupied even during these down times, feeling that they are “doing something good,” we will essentially have a mindless mass to shepherd. While it may be true that many petty infractions occur during the summer, such trips may prove to be a source for further opportunity when looked at from the underside. For example, who is less likely to make a long-term impact on our worldwide campaign of deception than those who feel that by running a quick sprint they have earned the right not to participate in the marathon? Instead of discouraging such participation, which is already out of our control, we must use these foreign experiences to inoculate the travelers from further infection with noble causes. To use a phrase from their modern parlance, we must develop in them the attitude of “been there, done that.” For this to work, we must give careful attention to infiltrate their attitude toward the larger mission enterprise. If they can be made to feel that they have “been a missionary” during these brief tourist ventures, then we can quiet some of their inner promptings toward deeper involvement. Then, when they feel the inner voice moving them to sacrifice, we can easily use these experiences of discomfort and pseudo-sacrifice to muffle their consciences.

Now as to the matter of finances, while it is true that money spent on such Christian diversions is not going to be available for more serious mischief, do you realize the significant damage that would result if these millions of dollars were to be spent directly in the context of the mission fields where these tours occur? Take for example, Arcadia Community Church where you are now assigned and the two thousand dollars that young Brian Trapp is spending to go to Ulabongo. He will go there and be discouraged by the heat and dirt and never go back again. But if that same two thousand dollars were spent by Pastor Ndebe Ocala to send a missionary to the yet captive people of inner Ulabongo, irreparable damage may be done. I would rather take my chance with young Master Trapp than to think of the cleanup involved after a year of national mission work to an unspoiled group of animists. Of course, I am not blind to the relative dangers of what an illumined young person can do, but generally such a youth will be allowed little room to influence their congregation. This brings me to another point.

We must try to keep the adults thinking that summer missions is for teenagers and the teenagers that summer missions is for adults. In this way, the adults will not want to participate. The teens who are pressed into going will have the mindset of teenagers on family vacation, who do not feel any sense of ownership for the experience, but only that they are on personal missions to find entertainment in spite of an adult-controlled event. This generational division has worked remarkably at many levels to deaden church life, especially in America.

To get back to this money thing, just imagine the horror if the total summer mission budget of only one church like Arcadia Community were to be more strategically deployed. The twenty thousand dollars that they will spend could do much harm to our cause by establishing a permanent church building and developing the long-delayed Bible school that Pastor Ocala is praying and agitating about so incessantly. Of course, there is a remote danger that the foreigners will become partners with the church of Ulabongo. But while the team is there this summer, we will work to stir up stewardship thinking, with the effect that since so much has been spent on this trip, no other requests should be entertained for this country in the near future.

At the same time we will not delay to put it into the heart of the group a touch of the cul-de-sac perspective, that some should feel led to go back again for yet another ministry experience next year and so on, ad nauseam. I chuckle to think of the mission trip addicts that we have created. This will be a means of perpetuating whatever confusion we have stirred in the previous years. This diversion will be highly marketable to churches that have only a token involvement in global missions. These often encourage summer missions as a kind of make-up time. Through their summer plans they may unconsciously be saying: “Since we have not grown in our mission budget and vision, let’s plan a big summer trip that will create a lot of smoke in the church calendar.” Such guilt motivation is one of our keenest tools, because as you well know, good works done out of a sense of guilt lead only into legalism.

Wormwood, I am encouraged that you have been able to discern the singular nature of this endeavor. It is on just such trips as this that the Enemy at times stirs the heart of otherwise self-concerned young people to consider becoming full-time foreign agents. Our preparation for this eventuality will require a shrewd campaign of disinformation. We may want to think of using the classic but unfailing tack of: “Everyone is a missionary.” This has often worked to take the extraordinary out of missions and, in case short-termers’ hearts are warmed toward career missions, they can be easily convinced that they have already served a tour of missionary duty and can now continue their ministry in more comfortable surroundings.

Remember, whenever missionaries are lifted up as heroes and heroines, we must counter this with a focus on how ordinary and human they are. We must inspire more indigenous scholars to criticize missionaries for their colonialism to the exclusion of the considerable damage that their sacrifice has done to our interests. Some who may feel a sense of guilt for not having responded to a missionary call may see the summer episode as a payoff. One such dear soul stood and testified that he realized that a one-week trip to Switzerland was how God intended him to fulfil his desire to become an overseas missionary. I laughed to see a couple who had retired as missionaries from the jungles of the South Pacific wincing during this testimony. Incidentally, missionaries must be taught to keep their inner lives a secret so that such deceptions may succeed. Such thinking helps to muddy the waters so that genuine seekers can be kept off-balance by the ethos of misunderstanding around them.

As an example of this muddy thinking, I felt most satisfied recently to hear another testimony of an adult mission leader in a congregation where I had been previously assigned. That poor soul was able to finally quiet a childhood mission calling through his encounter with internationals in the workplace. Suddenly, for him missions became something that did not require consideration of anything beyond his own small world. Yes, we may lose a few souls that wander into the traps of zealous young people, but that is incidental when compared to the exponential effect of an aggressive field agent.

You see, Nephew, American followers of the Enemy are so caught up in their day-to-day reality that they can be easily led to believe that only felt and experienced needs are worthy of their concern. Needs that are outside their immediate area of emotion become part of a nebulous world of the justified “other.” As evidence of this, consider our success with the marked lack of interest in the lives and work of missionaries in the modern Church. Of course there are isolated moments on Sundays or during special meetings when interest peaks, but generally, outside these official moments the average missionary is never asked about the details of his or her life or ministry. Wormwood, this sphere of self-interest is where you must be a good bartender, serving mixed potions of guilt and sentimentality in measures that keep the seekers drunk with their own emotions and unable to experience the kind of practical compassion that missions requires.

Another tactical favorite of mine is the myth of the “home mission field.” People can easily be led to continue in their comfortable circle of friends, family, and culture if they can only be given a semi-reasonable rationale. Magnifying the spiritual needs of the homeland and especially their native region is the key. In addition to feeding them a distorted picture of the relative needs around them, we must hide from them the competition and duplication in Christian circles. Why, it did my heart good the other day to hear of one associate pastor vacancy that had more than one hundred and fifty applicants! Similarly, many are being mysteriously burdened to plant churches near where they are comfortable with social and financial conditions. This is a masterstroke of our strategy!

For example, I learned of an area where several churches have recently been started in a region of the country where the density of churches is estimated at 250 per 15-mile area! Being unable to hold off the church starting intent, our agents used the eddy effect to send their momentum right to their own backyards. Wormwood, are you able to grasp the implication of this for our cause? The Enemy’s forces are in essence all deployed in a manner in which they give most of their efforts and resources alternately competing with each other and supporting each other in conferences and committee meetings in order to improve the quality of work in a small microcosm of the greater need. In effect, they are insulating themselves from the totally undefended regions of our campaign. In this regard I salute you and your comrades for your excellent diversionary tactics. So Nephew, I will close for now and look forward to news of your progress in our cause.

- Your uncle, Screwtape

What are the implications of this imaginary correspondence for the practice of short-term missions today? First, from the perspective of the career missionary, when naming short-term visits by amateurs, we should call it what it is. Just as going on an eco-tour does not make one an ecologist, going on a mission tour does not make one a missionary. Second, from the perspective of the national hosts (whose culture may not allow them to say this), mission trips could do more for less with an emphasis on quality and less quantity. Perhaps recruitment should focus on those who are considering career missions or who are growing world Christians. Third, from the perspective of God, we need to be more conscientious of financial stewardship and how best to give God “glory among the nations,” rather than just having a good program for the young people of the church.

Summer missions can have beneficial side-effects both in boosting local church morale and in generating donations to foreign ministries. At the same time I have been told by a number of very sincere mission leaders in Southeast Asia that they will not even allow a “white” person to visit their mission fields. From the Western perspective there is a danger of allowing the modern mania for vacationism, global travel, and extreme adventures to drive the programs of the church. Perhaps there is a golden mean somewhere that “holds on to the one thing, but does not let go of the other.” The “one thing” being what is helpful for boosting the local church program and the “other” being the ultimate good of both missionaries and nationals in the summer mission process.

All of the players, both at home and abroad, need to be alert to how the Wormwoods and Screwtapes are working to short-circuit the good intentions of summer mission programs. Personally, I am pro summer missions. And in case you were wondering, my “heavy metal summer visitor” turned out to be a sterling short-termer!


Anthony, Michael J. 1994. The Short-term Missions Boom: A Guide to International and Domestic Involvement. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker.

Carlisle, Cumbira, ed. 1996. The Unseen World: Christian Reflections on Angels, Demons and the Heavenly Realm. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Paternoster Press.

Lewis, C.S. n.d. The Screwtape Letters, rev. ed. Mattitck, N.Y.: The American Reprint Company.

Wehner, Peter. 1999. “A Screwtape Letter 1999.” Brookings Review 17(2):18-20.

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