Planning a mission trip or service project? Want to make sure you are helping rather than hurting? The following questions will help you determine whether your service will be transformative or toxic.
1. Whose needs are you serving?
You want this to be a meaningful experience for your group. But if most of your planning energy is being invested in ensuring that the event will be “a life-changing experience” for your members, this may be a clue that it is more about serving your group than serving the poor. This is a particularly difficult question for mission pastors and youth leaders since they are hired to minister primarily to church members. A well organized, spiritually-motivated, hands-on mission trip can be very satisfying to volunteers and yield moving accounts for back-home reporting. It is doubtful, however, that a “what-works best-for-us” approach will have transformative impact among those on the receiving end who are expected to accommodate to the schedules and preferences of their resourced visitors.
2. Is the proposed activity meeting a real need?
An African woman recently told us that as a child she never understood why Americans loved to paint so much. In preparation for the Americans’ arrival in her rural village her classmates were instructed to deface the school building with mud and stones so their guests would have something to paint. Her entire school building was repainted five times in the four years she was a student there. Extreme example? Perhaps. But unfortunately it is representative of the make-work projects often created to make compassionate volunteers feel good about serving. If a project is truly important to those being served, they will be first investors in that effort with their own leadership, labor and resources.
3. Is the proposed mission a top priority?
A group recently returning from Haiti recounted their experience of seeing mothers carrying infants wrapped in dirty rags and newspapers. Moved with compassion, the mission group purchased blankets and distributed them to the mothers. The following day the blankets appeared in the shops along the street, sold by the mothers to local merchants. Discovering the babies still swaddled in filth, the missioners were highly incensed – until it was explained to them that the mothers sold the blankets to buy food for their babies. Food, not blankets, was the higher priority. To determine the true hierarchy of need, enough time must be spent among the needy to understand the daily survival pressures they face. Repairing an inner-city widow’s rotting porch may not be as important as getting her water turned back on. Adapting our mission to the priorities of the poor is key to redemptive service.
4. Are the poor capable of doing this for themselves?
The poor are weakened when well-meaning people deprive them of the incentives and rewards of their own hard-won achievements by doing for them what they have the capacity to do for themselves. As one leader of a micro-lending ministry in Nicaragua lamented when describing the effects of US church partnerships, “They are turning my people into beggars.” Why get a loan to build their own church, the peasants reason, when the Americans will do it for them? Predictable by-products of such service include increased dependency, erosion of work ethic, and loss of dignity. Conversely, indigenous capacity-building is encouraged by joint efforts like co-investing, micro-lending and reciprocal partnerships.
5. How will you measure success?
Typically churches evaluate their service projects and mission trips by the number of volunteers involved, the activities performed, and the impact on participating members. Less attention is paid to the results on the receiving end of charity. If, however, preserving the dignity and self-esteem of recipients is important to you, then you will want to assess the amount of mutual collaboration, leadership sharing and reciprocity structured into your event. If your goal is to actually empower those you serve, you will focus less on volunteer activities and more on measurable longer-term outcomes such as leadership development, increased self-sufficiency, and educational and economic advancement.
6. Is it cost-effective?
The money one campus ministry spent on a spring break mission trip painting an orphanage in Honduras was enough to hire two unemployed local painters, two full-time teachers, and supply new uniforms for every child in the school. The cost of most mission trips is out of all proportion to the return on investment (ROI) when comparing it against the actual value of the service being performed. The billions spent annually on such junkets might be justified as a legitimate cost of spiritual development for church members but it lacks integrity if billed as effective mission strategy. Wise stewardship requires thoughtful assessment of the cost-effectiveness of mission investments.
A few suggestions to avoid mission toxicity. Mission projects can be genuinely redemptive. The best ones are joint ventures with mature, indigenous ministries that understand both the culture and healthy cross-cultural partnering. A few reality-tested principles provide a “code of conduct” to guide invited volunteer guests toward sensitive, mutually transforming relationships:
1. Never do for others what they can do for themselves (teach a man to fish).
2. Limit one-way giving to emergencies (most needs are chronic, not crisis).
3. Employment, lending, investing are best (use grants sparingly as incentives).
4. Subordinate self-interests to the interests of the poor (is this for our good or theirs?).
5. Listen to what is not being said (many needs are not immediately voiced).
6. Above all, do no harm.