How Mission Trips Challenge Us

Do mission trips really do any good, or are they simply “faith-based tourism” masquerading as meaningful engagement? In point of fact, such trips can help Americans challenge long-held cultural assumptions.

Short-term mission is hugely popular among American congregations. Sociologist Robert Wuthnow estimates that 32% of American congregations sponsor short-term overseas volunteer trips every year.[1]

It’s difficult to generalize about such a widespread phenomenon. Wuthnow estimates that about a quarter of the U.S. population has taken part in a short-term mission experience at some point in their lifetime.

The upshot: Immersion in another culture, especially in a less developed country, can have the effect of “cracking open” the cultural assumptions of the volunteers. Granted, most people join mission trips in order to “help people in need” or “learn about problems in other parts of the world.” Yet when they return home, the big takeaway is surprising: Many develop a self-critique of American culture. They begin to question such tried-and-true values as consumerism, careerism, and American exceptionalism.

That’s what Lauri Occhipinti discovered. She is a cultural anthropologist who studied the attitudes of volunteers from New Wilmington Presbyterian Church in western Pennsylvania. The church sent a group of volunteers to spend a week at a mission project in the city of Sabaneta, Dominican Republic.

Like most volunteers, this group was motivated by a desire to help others and to learn about “problems” in other part of the world. Yet they returned with surprising insights about their own American problems, and aspiring to be more like their Dominican hosts.

Cultural exchanges often work that way. It’s as if a fish, always accustomed to immersion in water, suddenly became aware of its surroundings. American culture can be invisible until we leave it. Here were some lessons these American missioners took away from their experience:

  1. Americans Are Spoiled By Their Material Wealth.  One health care provider described what it was like to return to the U.S.: “All last week, I felt depressed. It was hard to readjust. People are so spoiled in our health care system. People kept coming in and complaining about little things. I compare that to what we saw in [poor neighborhoods around Sabaneta].
  2. Life Doesn’t Always Have To Be Fast-Paced. Members of the Sabaneta team commented on how people in the Dominican Republic spent time on the street and on their front porches, talking with neighbors.
  3. Americans Tend To Value Possessions More Than Relationships. One minister, who had been on many mission trips, said, “It is easy for American to be distracted by a whole lot of – junk. . .In other places, there’s not as much junk—I don’t know how to say what I am getting at. It helps me to see what is extraneous in my life, and what is central. In the Dominican, we see people’s relationships with one another. That is what they focus on. A lot of the things that we do are not so relationship based.”
  4. Americans Expect People to Conform to Them. One volunteer said, “It’s like we’re the sun and we expect people to rotate around us. It’s good to put people in a situation where that isn’t likely to happen.” [2]

[1] Laurie Occhipinti, Making a Difference In A Globalized World: Short-term Missions That Work (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014), 13-14.

[2] Occhipinti, 34-38

Photo:  Kcblanchett.  Morguefile license.

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