Are they hurtful or helpful to the communities they serve?
Ciudad Juarez, El Paso de Norte, or to us English speakers, Juarez Mexico. At one point the most violent city in the world, crime has been on the decline since 2010 — not because the cartel has been dealt with, but because the gang wars in 2007 have ended with the Sinaloa Cartel currently reigning supreme.
There are a few other possible explanations for the decrease in crime, like the dismissal of dirty cops. Please forgive me if I may be so bold, but I don’t think Juarez may be the happiest place on earth, I think Disneyland still is the king of that hill.
So it’s not too surprising that when I walked out of church the other night I saw an opportunity to take a mission trip to Juarez. I get to spend my spring break constructing schools and helping out locals.
But in talking to my secular friends about missions it has come to my attention that not everyone has a positive mindset regarding missionaries. And sure, I can see how someone without a background in the church may feel negatively about it.
If my only reference when talking about missions were the Spanish missionaries of the 1760s or the shallow Instagram post of impoverished children people have “helped” in other countries, maybe I wouldn’t think so positively about it either.
So that leads me to the question that has encouraged me to write about this article: Are missions ethical? Is that something I want to take part in? Because we should think critically here, myself included, I shouldn’t just believe something to be true because I grew up thinking it was good.
The meaning behind the mission
I think that the heart behind missions is true, and most Christians are just trying to carry out a great command to tell people of all nations what they have seen. Matthew 28: 18-20 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
So, Christians are simply trying to put their faith into action. To be a Christian in more than name only, which I think is admirable.
The potential harm
That doesn’t mean that they are inherently without harm. The first being the possible negative consequences it may have on a local economy. Why hire someone locally for a job that foreigners will do for free? Furthermore, they often bring donated goods like toys and clothing meaning local retailers will stop purchasing products from local textiles and toymakers.
There are also some other things to take into consideration, like not being considerate of local traditions. For example, Christianity being talked about in Mexico isn’t anything new. Missionaries have been working there for centuries now.
That being said, it would be nonsensical — stupid even — to send a mission trip the week of Nov. 1 to Mexico City.
Seeing as how Nov. 1 and 2 are Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, that would be silly. It’s also harmful to dismiss these traditions because they showcase a lot of important beliefs held by Mexicans. Despite the macabre name, Dia de Los Muertos is not a sad holiday. It’s a day to celebrate those who are no longer with us and to deny that is to deny valuable Mexican culture.
All this to say, you can be Christian, you can believe in the resurrection of Jesus on the third day, and still recognize that there is value in other cultures and holidays. You’re there to spread the love of Jesus, not westernize. That’s a topic I have talked about at length in another article. It just comes down to being respectful of other cultures.
Another thing that should be considered when doing missionary work is the effect you may have on local children. You don’t want to leave children harmed by your going.
Are they going to be sad their new friend is going home? Sure. But it’s not fair to form really intense bonds and tell these children that you love them when you are leaving the next day. Especially if you have no intention of returning annually or keeping in contact with the children you are forming these relationships with. That’s not fair to them, and if you’re going to be showing people what Christians are like, then do a good job of it.
Finally, mission trips are not vacations; you are there to serve. Don’t volunteer to go on a trip, work for two hours and then spent the rest of your time at a resort. That’s not a mission trip. You can enjoy the culture, the flora and fauna of these new places, but not at the expense of providing the service you said you were offering. If you’re there to build a church, then do that.
The potential good
There are positive effects of missions too. Medical missionaries often go to underserved regions of the world providing medical care for free or for reasonable rates. Missionaries can also do things like AID/HIV protection classes that provide education to local communities.
And even with offensive cultural exchanges there can also be positive cultural exchanges. It’s a lot harder to think less of people from other countries and other people when you are living among them. They are no longer statistics and photos, they become people with lives and personalities that you’re able to empathize with; people who live differently than you do.
There can also be positive spiritual effects for both parties involved; the missionaries and the people they are going to serve. You get to see how a force greater than one person is changing lives for the better and that’s a beautiful thing. The other party is getting to hear a message of hope.
But if you’re going overseas to serve people when you’re not willing to help the beggar at home, then more than likely you’re going with the wrong intentions. If you’re going on a glorified vacation taking pictures for your Instagram writing about “how humbled” you are, then you likely have done more harm than good.
And these are all cause and effects of short-term missions. Long-term missions are a different game. My best friend and her family were missionaries in Russia for years.
Long-term missions often have few of the same problems that plague short-term missions. Long-term missionaries often adapt to the culture they find themselves in by learning the language and customs. They set up businesses and are able to contribute to the local economy in a positive way by being business owners or running and creating their own non-profit organizations.
And that’s where I think missions thrive the most. When you go long-term, to be a part of a community, to live among others spreading the word of the gospel. Short-term missions are fine for what they do, great even, but I think the real magic happens when you do have those close knit relationships with others. The best remedy for those is time and I just don’t think seven days is always the best way to do that.
Helpful or harmful?
So when done correctly, with the right heart, I don’t think missions are unethical. But if you’re going over there and not taking into consideration the culture, the economy and the needs of the people you are serving then yes, it can absolutely be damaging.
These are the types of things that I will be looking into and thinking about when choosing to go on a mission trip. As someone going into a helping profession like social work, it would be an amazing experience to help people globally, but it would be unethical and irresponsible of me not to ask these questions and agree to something that my heart isn’t in.
But I also don’t think missions deserve the bad rep I see them getting on social media. There seems to be this idea that when Christians go overseas they are only providing volunteers if the local community does X, Y and Z to deserve it. Like we will only build you a school if you say you love Jesus.
And at least every project I have ever heard or been a part of, that’s not been the case. It’s much more like we are going to build this school, and if you want to ask us about Jesus, great, then we love to do that but we are not going to withhold help.
So do people need to be examining their hearts when they go on missions? Absolutely. Do trip organizers need to be taking into account any effect they may be having on local businesses? Without a doubt. But I don’t think missions are an inherently negative thing. Just like anything else, it has flaws and it needs to be done with careful consideration.
Not only because of the impact it may have on the community but because some of the places that need the most humanitarian aid are dangerous. Haiti had a mass kidnapping of missionaries over the weekend.
They were there working in a local orphanage. With the natural disaster and political instability, Haiti is essentially run by gangs. Those aren’t my words either. In the New York Times coverage on the kidnappings, the interviewee expressed their dissatisfaction with the way Haiti is dealing with the gang issue.
In short, being a missionary is a tricky business. The pitfalls are many and it can be dangerous. So it’s imperative that you go into it with the mindset of helping others, not in name but in practice and you figure out if it’s helpful in the big picture.