Short-Term Mission, An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience,by Brian M. Howell (Downer Grove: IVP Academic: 2012) 256 pp. paper, $12.00
Short-term missions (STM) is all the rage in Christian, and even secular, environments. The author suggests that over two million Americans per year, many of those teens, take a STM trip, with over 50 percent of Christian college and seminary students having gone on such trips (p. 27). While STM trips can be longer most are “designed to fit into the windows of time North Americans (particularly U.S. Americans) have for vacation travel…typically…a maximum of two weeks” (p. 47). Such trips involve construction projects, medical aid, temporary relief of poverty, work in orphanages, evangelism and discipleship, or a combination of these elements (p. 38). Given the popularity of STM there has been relatively little research and analysis on its effectiveness and value (p. 9). Howell seeks to address this void with this volume.
Howell writes from the perspective of a trained anthropologist (he is a professor of anthropology at Wheaton College), not as a theologian. As such there is little biblical analysis in Short-Term Mission. That is, the author makes little attempt to present a biblical defense of STM. His interest is in more practical matters such as the impact of STM on the participants and how STM is received and what is accomplished. If STM is to be such an important part of modern church life then these issues need to be addressed. Obscuring such evaluations, the author repeatedly contends, is that the narrative shapes the experience (pp. 9. 19, 22, 31, 40, 49, 64, 124, 130, 191, 207). That is, having been prepared in advance to expect certain reactions and to have their lives changed by the experience, the participants predictably echo these narratives when they return home. Howell asks, “Were students responding to the reality of their encounters, or were the narratives shaping their memories toward a common version of STM” (p. 19)? The author will “argue that this sort of self-reporting would be expected, given the guiding narrative surrounding these trips” (p. 207). In light of this theory objective research is needed, thus Howell not only devotes several years to STM study but also participates in a STM trip associated with an evangelical church in Wheaton, Illinois.
His conclusions are relatively positive toward STM, but all is not sanguine. First, STM is a recent phenomenon but it has already changed the definition and face of missions (pp. 41, 61-63, 74-76, 85, 87, 91, 113). Short-term evangelistic/discipling trips are not new, but sending young average, immature, untrained, and/or unskilled lay people on short one/two week mission trips is. In terms of traditional understandings of missions (p. 74), STM does not match up. While STM might include some aspects of true missionary work, it also has elements of tourism and pilgrimage (pp. 54-57). When the dust has settled the strongest argument for STM is not relief of poverty and human suffering, nor even evangelism, but personal growth (pp. 99, 107-109, 171, 180, 187). For this reason Howell sees STM at its best as learning opportunities that might aid in individual maturity and spiritual growth (p. 212). Thus, STM could rightly combine aspects of mission, tourism, education and pilgrimage into short-term opportunities that are beneficial (pp. 211-214, 221, 230).
At the same time Howell recognizes that all is not well with STM. Some examples:
· They can be counterproductive, given the fact that “rich Americans have come to a community of unemployed people who would rather be hired to do the work than watch unskilled teens or adults take their opportunities. This can fuel anti-American and anti-Christian sentiments (pp. 223, 228).
· Not all STM participants are changed for the better. Some come home arrogant and critical of the very people who financially made it possible for them to take the adventure.
· STM tends to frame these trips as distinct and superior to everyday Christian living. Is prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit more essential on a STM trip than in the routine of everyday life? STM would lead one to think so (p. 138).
· STM has roots in liberal theology and the social gospel agenda, (pp. 89-90) so it is not surprising to find that “sharing the gospel” has come to mean addressing poverty (pp. 159-166). Even so, it is questionable that STM makes the best investment of funds in light of their minimal impact on poverty and ineffective evangelistic outreach (pp. 184-188).
· Despite the expectations, STM has not produced an increase in long term missionary commitments (pp. 201-205, 210, 214-216).
· Permanently changed lives resulting from STM has not been demonstrated (p. 205).
· STM can increase the dependency of poorer nations and people in Western countries (p. 210) and contribute to concepts of inadequacy. One scholar asks, “Would US American and European churches accept ‘short-term Latin American missionaries’ coming to help them with ministry” (p. 215)?
Short-Term Missions includes a valuable history of STM (pp. 69-117), and concludes with several suggestions on how to rethink, reframe and enhance STM (pp. 225-234). Howell is not overwhelmingly negative of STM, even as they exist now (p. 225), but it is time to examine them more thoroughly, so that STM trips reach their potential. One great need is to develop a theology of STM (pp. 229-231). With this I agree. It was not Howell’s purpose to develop such a theology and his short effort is weak and potentially dangerous as he advocates shifting STM from Matthew 28:19-20 (making disciples) to Micah 6:8—(doing good). This needs to be thought through far more carefully.
Short-Term Missions is a helpful work that would benefit anyone involved in STM. It is a primer for additional dialogue and biblical evaluation into this recent phenomenon.
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel, Springfield, IL