Are Short-term Missions Trips a Scam?

Neil meeting our sponsored child.

Neil meeting our sponsored child 2 years ago.

I’ve already alluded to my upcoming  short-term missions trip to India this summer. While staying in India is relatively inexpensive, flying an open jaw there in late August is not, and we’ll also do a fair amount of flying in-country, which also hikes the price. Friends and family have generously donated toward my trip, and I cannot express my gratitude enough. In addition to taking the edge off the $3500 price-tag, knowing that a host of comrades are behind me offers inexpressible moral support.

Neil also “raised” a portion of the cost by flipping a car. With fairly minimal effort, he turned an $1800 profit on a car a co-worker sold him at a killer friend price. More on this soon.

But short-term missions trips invariably raise questions about the best use of funds, and as this is a fair objection I’ve wrestled with myself, I hope this post will provide some answers. The trip may also raise an eyebrow from a personal finance perspective and here I’ll address why it’s worth the money to us.

Couldn’t that money be better used over there?

Could the $3500 cost of the trip feed a lot of hungry kids, dig some clean-water wells, or fund many micro-loans? Absolutely. I care about those causes, and we donate monthly toward poverty relief and church-planting in India & Ethiopia. In fact, generosity is one of our goals for pretending to be poor. You can read about why to give away money in these posts:

I also believe this trip will change my sense of agency and urgency regarding these causes. Neil’s (somewhat less expensive) trip to India two years ago spurred him to help raise the awareness and funding to sponsor an entire rural village, bringing in food, clean water, hygiene education, agricultural development, education for children, skills training for adults, and spiritual leadership for those interested. The Adopt-a-Village program is a $75,000 total commitment over five years. This far exceeds what it cost Neil to witness the stark needs in a rural village first-hand, though it was certainly not a poverty tourism trip.

Who is this guy?

Who is this guy?

I’m hoping the trip will change not only my commitment as a donor and an advocate for people in need, but also bring some perspective to my admittedly cushy life. I know I shouldn’t complain when the store is out of the exact type of milk I want; I know I shouldn’t bemoan the “heat” when my thermostat reads 82 degrees and I “have to” decide whether to turn on the air conditioning. Friends who have visited  testify that nothing puts our first-world problems into their proper place like visiting a developing area.

Another reason I consider it worthwhile to go is that the organization, India Gospel League, invites people to “come and see.” They operate on a streamlined budget, with relatively little spent on overhead, administration, staff, etc. They know the needs firsthand and what our trip costs could accomplish if spent elsewhere. Yet they invite us because:

  1. They invite sponsors to see where their money goes each month. Visiting overseas is by no means requisite to entrusting an organization with money. However, IGL’s value of eyewitness trips indicates a level of transparency.
  2. They invite sponsors to meet their sponsored children and/or villages. Neil’s trip highlight was meeting our sponsored child. I’m hoping to meet him as well, and imagine this will impart a new passion for praying for him and writing him. We’ve certainly sent him a lot more gifts and letters since Neil met him.
  3. They invite foreigners to teach the Bible, for a couple reasons:
    1. People like to hear those from other countries speak. We’re the same way, right? Maybe they achieve better conference attendance by bringing in cross-cultural speakers.
    2. As an American, I’ve had more ready access to Bible teaching than the average village woman in India. This doesn’t make me more qualified; I’ve simply been blessed with advantages like literacy, Bible classes, and other resources.
  4. They understand these trips strengthen partnership and interdependence, which is IGL’s vision for their relationship with foreign churches. They are very emphatic about outside financial support being temporary, and using funds effectively. For example, “barefoot pastors” receive outside support for two years, at which time their church takes over financial support. Programs like vocational training, elementary through post-secondary education, and micro-loans all “teach people to fish” rather than simply giving hand-outs.

There are many other things we could do with the money I’ll spend on the trip. However, it is for opportunities like these that we want to be financially flexible.

Can I really do anything useful in two weeks?

Along with my team, I’ll teach two women’s conferences of 50-100 women who pass the knowledge and convictions to the women in their villages. So while teaching a couple times through a translator seems like a pittance compared with the world’s needs, there is potential for a ripple effect. Again, I don’t feel qualified as a great speaker, but I trust that IGL understands how to leverage our efforts, and God certainly does.

We’ll also visit two house churches and do a song and dance (literally) for the children’s home at the mission base. We’ll play with kids, meet our sponsored children, tour IGL’s facilities, and interact with adults. Neil served lepers lunch while there; others prayed with cancer patients. The main reason I don’t think this trip is a scam or waste of time is that the Indian leaders have ongoing, established work there through local churches. We are just partnering by bringing our resource of Bible teaching at their request.

If you’re interested in sponsoring a child, pastor, micro-loan, or otherwise donating to India Gospel League, check out their web site to learn more. It’s a great way to inflate your usefulness instead of your lifestyle by improving someone else’s life significantly.

What do you think of short-term missions trips? Or spending on travel in general?

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19 Responses to “Are Short-term Missions Trips a Scam?”

  1. Kirsten says :

    Oh, I hope your trip is successful in so many different ways. I’m very accustomed to folks who go on short-term missions, though the context is usually a little different (going to help out a church that was planted in a third world country, for example). I don’t have a problem with ANYONE spending money to go help others out. You are going to come back with a new perspective and you’ll be sharing what you learned here. The trip will have ripple effects beyond you.

    • Kalie says :

      Thank you for the encouragement! I do look forward to gaining new perspective and sharing some of that here.

  2. Holly says :

    I think what you’re doing is wonderful – even if it costs a lot of money to get there.

  3. Abigail says :

    I’m not religious, but it sounds like you’re going to get a great experience. And I’d imagine that it’s pretty impressive to get a 2-week trip to any non-North American country for $3,500. Granted, you won’t be lounging in the sun, but it sounds like you’ll be doing meaningful things in line with your beliefs. I don’t see how that could be a scam or a waste.

    • Kalie says :

      I do love to travel, so it should be a good experience on a personal level, too. I’m sure some things will be stressful but my husband had a great time and wishes he could return.

  4. Hannah says :

    I think short term missions trips can be awesome for several reasons, not the least of which is that it is critical to encourage people who are working in difficult situations.

    I also hate that so called poverty tourism has gotten such a bad rap. I think it can feed a sort of white savior complex, but I think it’s much more likely to help a person make poverty personal.

    • Kalie says :

      Great point about encouraging those working in hard circumstances. Encouragement is one of the main goals of our speaking at the conferences. I can see why people take issue with poverty tourism but the term probably gets over-applied. I like the balanced view you describe.

  5. DC YAM says :

    I think short-term mission trips are great for many reasons. I think they are IDEAL when they are linked up with a local organization or missionary. I’ve been on a couple of short-term mission trips. but my trip to Juarez the Summer after my freshman year of college was life-changing. My wife was on the trip and I got to know her through the trip, but that’s not the only reason it was life-changing. I created some deep friendships with others on the trip, saw what great need there was outside of the US, and really just went away with a whole new outlook on life.

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks for sharing your experience. It’s great to hear that your trip was so eye-opening. I am definitely hoping to gain a new outlook, and I have the privilege to travel with some dear friends so that’ll make it really fun, too.

  6. Jim Swearingen says :

    A short term mission trip I took early in life was very educational for the rest of my life on poverty. We visited Brazil with the first Columbus Xenos missionaries working with PAZ.
    A friend of mine wrote a book on some challenges to consider when doing foreign missions to help people avoid some problems that can arise with creating dependency:
    Toxic Charity
    How the Church Hurts Those They Help and How to Reverse It
    Robert D. Lupton

    • Kalie says :

      That sounds like an interesting read. Thanks for the resource and your testimony. You have certainly lived out your burden for helping the poor ever since!

  7. Forticus says :

    found your blog via the recent “rent vs buy” at MMM.
    In terms of that discussion I would consider short-mission trips as an investment and it’s opportunity cost probably less mental and financial support to the projects from “outer space”. It may also get some local white collar start to think. Although visitors should avoid the impression to know the better.
    I wrote down two cases on the fundraising side from my experience, too long for the comment. Could send it by email.
    As an agnostic I send you blessings for your trip(s), just I don’t know if they work.

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