Each year, up to 1.6 million American Christians embark on overseas mission trips, according to Princeton University sociologist Robert Wuthnow. With good intentions thumping in their hearts, they travel to often rural and impoverished corners of the world. With them, they carry over a billion dollars a year worth of food and necessary supplies and with their hands, they build schools, hospitals, and homes. They spread the word of Christianity, hoping to save a few fellow souls of the world. Missionaries change the lives of so many people, right? Well, not exactly — it’s much more complicated than that.
In order to understand the problems underlying mission trips, we have to turn back the clock to 19th-century colonial Africa. Popular ideologies like social Darwinism and European superiority flooded Europe and as a result, missionaries believed that it was their responsibility to civilize and convert the “inferior” Africans. According to notable author Rudyard Kipling, it was the “white man’s burden” to care for the colonized African people. Though the missionaries had good intentions (many advocated for the end of the African slave trade), they tried to bring African states under European rule. Some religious leaders tricked illiterate African rulers into signing treaties that gave up their sovereignty to European imperial powers. Others gave valuable information of the land to colonizers, paving the way for European imperialism in Africa. These missionaries failed to understand the desires and needs of local communities.
Times have changed since the era of sugar plantations and political revolutions and overseas missions have evolved into opportunities for young people to serve impoverished communities for short periods of time. However, the issues of historical missions — the supercilious ideas, the misunderstanding of people’s needs, and the disregard of the local culture — continue to plague today’s short-term missions. Behind the perfectly filtered Instagram photos of Western teens cuddling an African child or a friendship bracelet crafted by an Asian artisan are genuine problems.
Modern missionaries of all races and religions rely on the assumption that these impoverished societies are “less culturally advanced” than and socially inferior to their own society. They impose their Western culture and ideas onto the societies they visit and often fail to understand the local culture. In 2016, a video surfaced of missionaries dancing to a parody of Justin Timberlake’s “I’m Bringing Sexy Back” in traditional Ugandan clothing, which was almost sacred to some Ugandans, while scrubbing their feet and waving machetes in the air. The disregard for Ugandan traditions by missionaries sparked controversy as one of many examples of missionaries’ lack of understanding of the cultures they serve.
The short-term effects of missions also fail to provide the much-needed aid and basic necessities for local communities. The poverty that these communities face often can’t be fixed by a newly built school or a little bit of extra food. The hunger and illiteracy are symptoms of larger issues like political corruption or environmental degradation that require planned sustainable solutions. The money spent on expensive plane tickets and lodgings for short-term missionaries may also be better spent on donations and charitable gifts that directly go to the communities in need. As of 2012, 85% of aid money allocated for African nations, including funds for mission trips, have never reached the intended recipients, demonstrating the dire need for improved distribution of funds.
While missionaries have been instrumental in providing crucial aid and care to local people, the system of missions has many problems that must be solved. There have been some benefits to missions —missionaries, particularly the young ones, have a newfound awareness of their privileges and communities often receive some urgent disease and economic assistance. However, it’s time to restructure and redefine what it means to help another community in need. Perhaps it can be reaching out to a struggling neighbor and providing the warmth and comfort they need. Perhaps it can be raising awareness for a cause that afflicts other corners of the world. Whatever it is, good intentions are only the first steps in the equation; they must be executed with structured, thought-out plans.