Reasons Humanitarian Trips Are Replacing Mission Trips

Immediate. You can find and fund a small business in a developing nation in under five minutes on Kiva.org. Buy a pair of Tom’s Shoes, and a second pair is sent to a needy child in a developing nation (you can actually go on a “Shoe Drop” trip and deliver the shoes yourself). The action is (or, at least feels) immediate. Typical mission trips have been cast more as investments in the future. Nobody believes in the future anymore.

Tangible. Extreme (American) pragmatism is always concerned with the bottom line. Value is determined by dividing the total cost of involvement by the measurable results. People want to know that their work is producing something. At the end of the day, people want to be able to point to the building they built, the people they fed, or the number of salvations and say, “This was worth it.”

Socially acceptable. Everyone thinks (or, at least says they think) that it’s cool to support fair trade or finance micro-enterprises or buy shoes for the shoeless. If Bono, Coldplay, and all my Facebook friends are talking about it, it’s cool. No one gets ridiculed for wanting to save Darfur or free Tibet. Getting time off of work to help plant a church in Malaysia, however, can be difficult.

Pendulum swing. After years of prayerwalking, backyard Bible clubs, and tract spamming on strictly “spiritual” trips, believers are looking for better ways to connect with people. The missions scene tends to go back and forth between social ministries (feeding the hungry, digging wells, medical missions) to a more decidedly “spiritual” focus (“reaching unreached people groups,” public gospel presentations, etc). Things now are trending toward social action.

Platform. There are only a few places left in the world where a “missionary” is free to enter and do whatever he/she wants (and even in those places, it’s not wise to do so). Many believers realize that need-based humanitarian action is an ideal social access platform (reason to be in the country that is valued by the hosts).

Marketing. Social non-profits do a better job of marketing. Their campaigns incite and inspire while creating a sense of identity for those involved. Just look at “To Write Love On Her Arms” or the “Junky Car Club.” They allow people to determine their own levels of participation, and they are adept at using social networking media to get their messages out. Missions sending agencies, on the other hand, are still pushing “Xtreme Missions” (seriously- goolge “xtreme missions”- with or without the “E”).

Guilt. A generation (or two) of white, upper-middle class suburban Christians are starting to realize that not everyone in the world is born with the opportunities they enjoy. One trip to a developing nation will change one’s perspective on a multi-million dollar building campaign. Many believe that justice will require a sacrifice on our part.

Missiology. An emerging generation has gone back to theological basics in many respects. The “missional” movement is an example of this sort of reconstruction. It seeks to balance the direct teachings of Jesus with Paul’s missionary example. The emerging missiology is holistic, relational, and service-oriented. It doesn’t distinguish between “humanitarianism” and “missions.”

Experience. Many churchgoers have been on “mission trips,” and a great deal of those were not positive experiences. The process was too complex. They didn’t feel that their money was being used wisely, or they didn’t want anything to go to overhead/administrative fees. The hosting missionary didn’t seem to know what he was going. They didn’t feel useful.

Awareness. In this noisy world we live in, it is less and less likely that a church member is going to even know about the many ministries in relatively obscure places. A ministry with a high-profile spokesperson has a much better chance of getting through to churchgoers than an organization with a four-color brochure and a homemade website.

About E. Goodman

Ernest Goodman is a missiologist, writer, teacher, and communications strategist.