July 20, 2005: Headlines: Alternatives: Washington Examiner: Some say Short-term mercy work may lack effectiveness

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Some say Short-term mercy work may lack effectiveness

Some say Short-term mercy work may lack effectiveness

Kurt Ver Beek studied several short-term mission groups from Canada and the U.S. that went to Honduras in 1998 to help build houses in a community left homeless by Hurricane Mitch. When Ver Beek interviewed Hondurans whose homes were constructed by the North American mission teams, he found that, while they were grateful for their homes and happy to meet the volunteers, most said that, on balance, they would rather see the missionaries send money to hire local people to do the job.

Some say Short-term mercy work may lack effectiveness

Mission in question
Short-term mercy work may lack effectiveness
By Andrea Useem
Special to The Examiner
Published: Wednesday, July 20, 2005 11:30 PM EDT

[Excerpt]

It's the newest and biggest trend in mission work: short-term missions, in which a group of Christians travel to poor countries, or poor U.S. communities, to help local people and share their faith - all within the window of a two-week vacation.

"If you wanted to be a missionary 50 years ago, the slow boat to China was the only option," said Roger Petersen, founder and director of Short Term Evangelical Missions, an agency that sends out more than 30 teams of volunteers, both domestically and overseas, each year.

Quick and affordable air travel now puts missionary work within reach of the average Christian, said Petersen, adding that the government-run Peace Corps, in which volunteers worked overseas for two years, provided an important precedent for short-term work.

Interest in short-term missions has "absolutely skyrocketed" in recent years, said Dana Bromley, vice president of communications for STEM, which is based in Minneapolis.

"People want to do something bigger than themselves," she said. "They don't want church as usual - they want church in action."

In his 2003 book, "Maximum Impact Short Term Mission: The God-Commanded Repetitive Deployment of Swift, Temporary, Non-Professional Missionaries," Petersen reported that in 1989 an estimated 125,000 people went on short-term missions. Last year, he said, that figure reached 1 million, while others say it may be as high as 4 million.

Proponents of short-term missions say the trips are an obvious benefit to poor communities, and that when volunteers return, they are likely to pray more, donate more money to missions work and volunteer more time to help those in need.

But a new study released this month has challenged those ideas, asserting that in some cases, short-term missions don't help anyone at all.

Kurt Ver Beek, a sociologist at Calvin College in Michigan, studied several short-term mission groups from Canada and the U.S. that went to Honduras in 1998 to help build houses in a community left homeless by Hurricane Mitch.

When Ver Beek interviewed Hondurans whose homes were constructed by the North American mission teams, he found that, while they were grateful for their homes and happy to meet the volunteers, most said that, on balance, they would rather see the missionaries send money to hire local people to do the job.

Meanwhile, Ver Beek followed up with the volunteers several months after the trip and found that their lives had changed in few concrete ways.

While 60 percent of volunteers said their charitable donations had increased somewhat or significantly to the Christian agency that organized the trip, only half that number actually made a contribution in the three years after the trip, according to the study, which was the first to compare self-reports of donations with actual financial records.

When it came to other measures of "life change," such as increased prayer and charity, only 16 percent reported a significant positive impact, according to the study.

Given this dismal data, should Christians quit doing short-term missions? Ver Beek says no.

Establishing structure key

"Short-term missions are like the rest of life. We go to a retreat and leave excited to pray every day. But when we get home, our newfound motivation tapers off," Ver Beek wrote in an e-mail from Tegaucigalpa, Honduras, where he coordinates a Calvin College semester-abroad program.

"The key to long-lasting change is having structures in place to help us stay motivated and excited about our goals," he wrote to Christianity Today earlier this month.

Ver Beek recommends that short-term mission groups continue to meet after they return, to provide "accountability and encouragement" to volunteers who want to translate their two-week trip into "life-lasting changes in prayer, giving and lifestyle."

And when it comes to choosing a short-term mission, Ver Beek advises volunteers to seek a program that integrates short-term missionaries into longer-term project goals, so that when the team leaves after two weeks, the main work continues.

Fairfax Community Church organized one such trip in February, when seven church members traveled to Zambia for two weeks to help expand an orphanage for AIDS orphans.

The group stayed on a 10,000-acre farm run by a Damascus, Md.-based organization called Sons of Thunder, where four full-time missionaries run an elementary school and an orphanage, and offer courses in Bible study and improved farming techniques.

Short-term mission teams, like the one from Fairfax, complement the work of the long-term missionaries, said Jerry Beall, executive director of Sons of Thunder. One or two such teams visit each month in all but the hottest seasons, he said.

Beall recalled that when he began the work in Zambia, some long-term missionaries said it would be better for volunteers to just stay home and send money instead.

"But I thought: You can get their money, but not that much. If [the volunteers] go, you'll get their money, their hearts and their interest," said Beall.

Gathering Sunday morning at the church's brand-new, ultramodern sanctuary on Braddock Road, the seven volunteers agreed with that point of view.

"Just writing a check is not how we want to participate," said Bob Custard, a church member who led the trip to Zambia, noting that Fairfax Community Church donated $30,000 to cover the cost of constructing the new orphanage building, while each volunteer paid about $3,000 to cover airfare and other expenses.

"Money does not transform people," Custard said. "People transform people."





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Story Source: Washington Examiner

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