The Joke of Modern American Missions—too harsh?

by | 30 Jun, 2017 | 7 comments

Mission trip season is upon us. The American church presently dispatches tens of thousands of church attenders around the globe to build homes, clean up garbage, hand out water bottles, maybe play with some little black kids, and possibly tell a few folks about Jesus. The American mission trip has become quite the cottage industry. Don’t forget your motivational t-shirt. You’ll need it at church next weekend as evidence of your commitment. Regrettably, Jesus would have no idea what we were doing.

I find no biblical mandate for the modern American ‘mission’ trip. If you’ve been in church more than a day, you know what I’m talking about. Assemble a team of well-meaning church members, often youth, dispatch them to somewhere, the more down-trodden the better, perform acts of service, sprinkle in some Jesus, and return with a story.           

I’ll caveat that missions for a specific purpose possess merit. Dr. David Sills runs the Reaching and Teaching International Ministry that dispatches teachers to foreign countries to train local pastors and teachers in the ministry of the word. Often, the first believer in an area is designated the pastor though he may possess less biblical knowledge than your typical VBS student. Dr. Sills’ organization executes these missions very effectively. There are others.

I think of my own church’s relationship with Heart of Christ Ministries in Caja de Agua, Lima, Peru. Our church sponsors many of their children and sent numerous teams to teach and interact with the children they sponsor. We have an enduring relationship with the man on the ground, TJ Lindsey. Two years ago, our folks funded a new roof for his church building. Every day, hundreds Peruvian children get taught the life-changing truth of Jesus Christ beneath this roof. I wonder if the roof might be more valuable than all our trips combined.

Not that these trips are bad, they just aren’t best. They are not the biblical model though they accomplish good and do no harm…perhaps. My fear is that modern western ‘missions’ reinforce two dangerous assertions, particularly with our youth, that do damage to the actual mission:

1. Missions is a part-time activity.

“Now entering the mission field”—this is the sign that greets departing attenders at my parent’s church. Spot on. The Methodists get some things correct!

If I am “on mission”, the unfortunate implication is that I can somehow be “off mission” and we see exactly this. We’ll marshal a few motivated or coerced teenagers, dispatch them to another location for a few days of moderate labor under the guise of a well-intentioned youth worker, and return full of fire and passion. Two days later and the teenagers are right back smoking weed with their hands upon one another. Why not, they’re off mission.

It’s not as if God saves for no reason. Paul tells us that we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand.” (Ephesians 2:10) God calls every believer to a mission, to good works that He ordained from before the foundations of the Universe. Peter affirms the priesthood of the believer, that all believers are part of the “holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:5) The priesthood of every believer is a core Christian doctrine.

Our primary place of mission is wherever we happen to be. We are to use the gifts God granted us (1 Peter 4:10) right where we are. (1 Corinthians 7:20) This is our mission.

Why do I need to leave the state to tell someone about Jesus? Have I taught my children?

Why do I need to go to a foreign country? Have I ministered to my neighbors?

Modern western ‘missions’ reinforce the notion that missions is something we do, rather than a life we live. As such, an American believer will spend thousands of dollars to travel to a distant land for a few short days when next door, maybe in his own home, live those who are desperate and infinitely more available to hear about Christ, to see faith lived.

2. Grace is cheap.

Christ calls the believer to “deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me [Christ].” (Luke 9:23) I’ve heard this preached many ways. Your cross is your mother-in-law, or your job, or your something, whatever it is in your life that makes you unhappy. In the 1st century context, there is no question as to what Jesus was referring. He literally meant, take up your cross, as in, be prepared for crucifixion: death, martyrdom, suffering. Indeed, this was the fate of a countless multitude as the rapidly expanding church was watered well by the blood of the martyrs.

Jesus calls us to sacrifice, to give of ourselves willingly up to and including our lives if necessary. Jesus calls the believer to hold nothing back, to find all that he needs in Him, forsaking all things of the world.

How many in the western church truly sacrifice on behalf of the name? American ‘missions’ affords the believer the opportunity to dabble in Kingdom work while still maintaining an appropriate lifestyle. America possesses the resources to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The reason we don’t…is that we don’t.

That would involve sacrifice. Few Americans willingly sacrifice, and I’m talking about true sacrifice, for the mission. For the sake of transparency, I have no less than five flat-screen televisions in my home and we by no means live a lavish lifestyle.

We have trained a generation of American church attenders that they can straddle the fence. They can have it both ways. I don’t have to adjust my lifestyle and for a small fee, easily affordable if we’re honest, I can get in the game for a few plays. Never mind that it’s garbage time of a meaningless regular season match-up. I never had to pay the price that so many pay to get into the real game.

The Call

God bless the men and women who say, “Here am I, send me,” (Isaiah 6) and then respond in obedience when issued the call to a faraway land. Certainly God has dispatched many to carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth. I just don’t think they say, “Here am I, send me…for no more than a week.”

If God is calling you to a sort-term mission trip, by all means go. I pray that the Lord would use you in a mighty way, but ask some questions. Is there a long term strategy? What does this accomplish? Would we be better served in sending instead money to the man on the ground? What missionary or local pastor or local worker couldn’t use an extra $10k, instead of using it to fly in a group of well-wishers only to have them disappear just as quickly as they arrived?

I’ve been there. Ami and I led teams of youth to the mountains of West Virginia and the plains of Kansas, to do some work and proclaim Christ and Him crucified, some. Yet, I always wondered, “to what end?” Did any resident of Greensburg notice the ten teenagers moving a little debris and sweeping a bit. Amid the destruction of their very existence, did it even matter? I’ve reassured myself that the teenagers were affected, seeds were planted, but which seeds? The little bit of dirt on the student’s hands washed right off.

The Bible presents a more sobering take on missions:

  1. Disciple your children, maybe adopt, filling your quiver for the battle. (Psalm 127)
  2. Plant churches and send/support church planters. (Acts 13-28)
  3. Send money. (Acts 11:29-30)

Throngs of Millennials flee the Church and perhaps it is due to the pervasive frivolity. ‘Missions’ relegates the Church to little more than a competing social activity. It imposes no demands nor does it satiate the deepest cravings of the regenerate heart. True believers, indwelled of the Holy Spirit, desire to be useful but find no vindication in shallow overtures to a broken world.

Meanwhile, the Enemy plays for blood while the western church plays tiddlywinks.

Philosophically, this strategy guarantees an uncommitted force and in the face of increasing persecution, a dwindling force. My prayer is that the Church would come to terms with the stakes and quit making a game of the faith. Lives hang in the balance.



  1. Amy

    This is worth a read. I didn’t feel an indication to quit serving, but to rethink that service. I tend to spew a lot about how we need to “divorce” our American culture, and that’s not just for everyday living, but also for the church. Gimmicks can easily sweep us away because they won’t demand sacrifices. I absolutely feel we leave our children to the appeal of social engagements, which don’t require a desperate need for Christ. I suppose I could ramble on, but thank you for your post. I am thinking of a group of teens I know that are currently “on mission field,” but I know their hearts and the disappointing expectations their parents have on them to “plant seeds” and just “live Jesus.”

  2. Sophia Rowe

    I see how some parts of your argument make sense: it truly is better to give money to the missionaries who are staying there long term… The mission at home must be a priority and our children need to focus on their daily commitment to the Lord… but… I came from a country in Central Asia and the only reason that I became a Christian was because I was invited to Bible studies AND was introduced to those groups of “Happy Visiting Tourists” on the mission. Just a couple of people will have a hard time to convince people of a completely different culture and world views (and not very kind views, BTW), to reconsider their thoughts and behavior and refocus their beliefs (or change them completely). The folks in those run down places are skeptical and won’t just trust a couple of folks from some other lands. So, those teenagers bring in a glimps of what it is like to live in a culture that does not support bringing people down and finds (in majority) that subjugation of people based on their gender, color or social status very wrong. It shows that it is OK to smile. It gives a glimps of hope that maybe, just maybe, we deserve to be that happy and silly and free, if our values are not based on money or societal standing given from birth, for examle, as it is at least in the country I came from. So, I made it to the US at the age of 20, served in the US Army, got my college degree and have had a family. It is an American dream that is not going to happen for many and that is OK. Because most folks back where I came from did not want to leave. They did not want to start all over with their families. They wanted to see that there was another way to look at their existence, their neighbors and their own children. They got to see a little bit of Jesus in those silly tourists, and for many it changed their lives.

    • Amy

      Excellent perspective to remember, Sophia.

  3. Jon

    I am on the fence with this idea. Growing up in the church, I had also experienced this “need” to “go on a mission trip” as it was talked about by all my peers, but I did see how expensive it was to actually follow through with – this made me think a lot more on the bigger picture in what the takeaway would be for me as a teenager. So I never really thought about it any further. However, it wasn’t until sometime within the last couple of years (I am now 29) that this notion of mission trips being inefficient, we’ll say, has surfaced. I do believe that Christ uses everything for His Glory, but I struggle to agree with how spending large amounts of money like churches do to fly overseas somewhere for a week or 2 could be more impactful than taking that $50,000 (figuring $2,000/person with a group of 25 people, not to mention other fees associated with travel of this caliber) to help the locals afford the construction of a church/school/water supply/etc can’t be more impactful. I will agree that sometimes it is unrealistic to just send money and hope that it is being used for the intended cause, but it all just seems a bit too disproportionate with respect to numbers alone.

  4. michelle schaffner

    I know that there are many problems with short term missions, but I do think for some Americans, like myself, it is the first exposure I had to real poverty. This changed my life. The first step was that we started sponsoring a compassion child. We then started reading the Bible with a different lense. My husband and I had missed the love of Jesus for the poor. Our entire set of priorities began to shift… leading to two more short term trips taking our children and meeting our compassion child. The last trip confirmed God’s call on our lives to adopt, and our four sons from Haiti joined our seven biological children in December. We also support full time missionaries and did connect with pretablished organizations for our trips. I think we truly need to trust in God’s mercy and Grace and ultimately His sovereignty even in our blunders and attempts to follow Him.

  5. Jennifer Slattery

    I can see positives and negatives, and I understand what your saying. But on the other side, I have seen long term change and action that was birthed from mission trips–churches with a steady increasing number of those pursuing adoption after visiting orphanages (the church we attended in Kansas City), church members sponsoring 200+ compassion children, because members went on short term mission trips and saw poverty firsthand. I’ve seen a culture of generosity develop in churches that have regular trips to the same area and where their congregants experience poverty first hand. My daughter went on two, and because of both, is now pursuing a biosysystems engineering degree so she can bring clean water to developing countries and refugies. I think, we have to trust God to work in the varied ways He does, trust our brothers and sisters are following His leading (even if that looks different than how He leads us), and serve and give as we feel convicted to. I don’t think these situations or questions ever have easy, black and white answers, and I believe God does and can work in all things.

  6. Mike McBride

    Some shirt term trips make sense. I’ve been invited to teach English camps in Ukraine next summer. It is short term because summer is when the camps occur.

    I have a friend in Peru. Mike uses short term missionaries when he can get them. It is a terrific way for a young person to see what serving on foreign soil is like.

    As for why go to another country? You can hardly swing a dead cat by the tail in the US without smacking a church. But I could take you to communities in India wherein there is no functioning church, and tens of thousands of souls.

    Been there.
    Done that.
    But I never got a T-shirt. I got gyped!


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Bradford Smith

Bradford Smith

Author - Founder

Soldier, Pastor, Author – Bradford stays busy, with his wife Ami, raising their 9 children, serving the nation, pastoring, preaching, and writing books (#3 is due out October ’17).


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