Upwardly Dependent » walking the delicate balance of absolute truth and overwhelming grace.

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Come with Questions: An Answer to the Argument against Short-Term Development Efforts

The first time I felt it, I was riding in an open-bed truck down the streets of Port-au-Prince. There was no shortage of humanitarian workers in Haiti, and I was just another white dot in a sea of dark-colored poverty.

Hello, American! I will take anything you have!

The guy passing me looked back and pointed to my sunglasses. It just felt odd. Not right. Kind of uneasy. I wanted to stand up and yell out, I didn’t come here to give you stuff!

But hadn’t I? Our team of 20ish people had all packed an extra suitcase full of medical supplies to set up day clinics all around the city. We had come with our stuff {expired pills and all} and planned to save the day for so many locals who were desperate for whatever healthcare we could offer.

I felt it again in Kenya once. We packed Land Cruisers full of used clothes, and rode out into the bush to pass out our stuff to whoever we found, assuming they would be thrilled with our oversized t-shirts and undersized shoes.

I watched as the mzungus took pictures with their charities. Some even brought signs that read, Thank you, Katie, as they held up a soccer ball donated from a friend back home.

Snap, snap. Look, everybody, at that great thing I did.

In the West, our lives are bubbling over with fancy degrees, important jobs, and such a wealth of information we don’t know what to do with it all. We feel guilty for having so much stuff that we want to share it with others.

So we give away shoes. We donate our used clothes. We even raise billions of dollars to fly to foreign places to give these things away ($2.4 billion in 2005, to be exact).

Some of the most well-intentioned people travel overseas for short-term trips. I believe that they have good hearts. I believe that they want to love and serve and hug lots of kids.

But when they all return home after Spring Break and change their Facebook profile pictures to themselves and poor Hispanic kids, my gut still kind of flops.


The big debate has been going on for a while: Are short-term mission trips really effective? Do they do more harm than good?

I must admit, I have fallen on the cynical side of the debate for many years. I have rolled my eyes at trucks full of college kids driving through the developing world. I have had a hard time finding the good in middle-aged men being swallowed by their fanny packs, pointing Canon Rebels at the faces of their charities.

But I must also admit, I am a product of a short-term trip. TO THE CARIBBEAN for crying out loud. And I know that I would never be living long-term in this tropical sauna of SE Asia had it not been for my first trip to Aruba.

Still—as much as I believe in the power of short-term trips to plant a seed of international living, the large majority of people never make that indefinite commitment. The majority of church support is now going to what many have termed Vacationaries, or those who take an average of eight days to serve overseas.

Religious tourism has become the modern mode of global outreach, and it has failed miserably to produce sustainable solutions for a world of broken souls.

So what is the answer? How do we continue exposing this young generation of eager millennials to an overwhelming number of the world’s impoverished?

Is it possible for the Have’s to spend eight days in a new culture and ethically serve the Have Not’s of that society?

This must be the most complex clash of values I can imagine.

The Chaco-wearers with the barefoot. The relationally stable with the broken families. The Starbucks-drinkers with the hungry. The religiously grounded with the oral traditions of spirits.

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Please, PLEASE, tell me where we got the idea that a week of this mass chaos could solve anyone’s problems. In many instances, it can only make more problems. Yet we keep loading airplanes with groups wearing matching shirts in foreign languages promoting God and Giver of Life.


I love this quote by Donald Smith in Make Haste Slowly:

Our fundamental purpose is to create understanding of the particular Message we bring, and with understanding, to see people changed…That all seems impossibly naïve! Other people not only act and speak differently, but also perceive and think differently.

Where do we begin? With a visit? A program? Or a new organization? None of these actions are an answer.

You must begin with the people themselves, in a way that’s costly beyond expectation. You must give up your life. (p. 51)

At this point in my understanding, I don’t see how any short-term trip can be effective without one key element: Come with questions, not with solutions.

When we enter a different culture, it’s the people we are there to serve. But they are the ones who hold the solutions to the problems we feel the need to fix.

If we are really going to serve people and not ourselves, we’ve got to give up our personal agendas, our beautifully constructed plans, and even our ideas on what tasks should be accomplished.

If we are really going to serve people and not ourselves, we will stop worrying about how many wells we dig and how many patients we treat and how many houses we build. We will start with the people themselves – and ask THEM what they want in the first place.

If we are really going to serve people and not ourselves, we will abandon our arrogant and prideful ways. We will search for the gatekeepers of the communities where we work. We will drink their chai tea and sit in their smoky huts. We will depend on their hospitality to sustain our livelihood.

We will see faces and families and relationships, statuses and giftedness and character.

It’s the PEOPLE we’re going to serve – Not Ourselves.


Once I was working with a school in Masai Mara. There was a lady who had started her own NGO specifically to raise money to transform this school. She was so proud that even Eli Manning was a sponsor, and she was able to buy new books, desks, and uniforms for all the kids. And backpacks and shoes, and she even had a brand new kitchen built, complete with stainless steel appliances and a deep-fryer for french fries.

I was lucky enough to be working the day she came for her annual visit. The woman walked up the road with a caravan of Land Cruisers, a film crew, and a slew of volunteers. The Masai children sang worship songs, replacing God’s name with hers. She had a cow shipped in to be slaughtered for a special lunch, and the woman even had her own roses ordered to be spread on the reception table.

I’d never seen anything like it in my life.

I collected my jaw from the dusty floor after witnessing the hoopla. With as much humility and respect as I could muster, I spoke to the woman’s husband and said, It’s so nice what you have done for this community. The school looks so beautiful now!

He responded with, You really should have seen it before! It’s terrible how these kids live. I’m so proud of the sustainable work we have going on here.

I know my eyes flashed with shock. There was nothing sustainable about that place. But instead, I asked, Speaking of sustainable, have you ever considered teaching the kids to use this beautiful kitchen to bake bread and sell it at the Monday Market?

His response threw me another curveball. Ha! Well, THESE PEOPLE might not care about their children’s safety, but we do. That would be much too dangerous.

And with that, I bowed out. I was fuming on the inside, and my heart was breaking for that community.

Unfortunately, these are the attitudes we have taken with us in our well-intentioned development projects. We have gone into communities with our ideas, our money, our resources, and fixed it all up in a few short days.

Except those few short days forever change the communities we enter. And we return home, with our Chacos and Starbucks and show pictures at our church services of all the things we’ve done. Meanwhile there’s a village sitting staring at a brand new water pump wondering how to fix the broken lever. There’s a pile of shoes dumped on the side of a dirt road that no one seems to want.

What if we kept going, but we went without our stuff? What if we found ways to develop the resources that already existed?

A typical short-term trip looks like this:
Here are the things we brought you from America.
Here are the skills we have planned to teach you.
Here are the resources we brought along with us.
Here is some extra money, since you don’t have any.
Here’s what I can do for you today.

What if we asked questions like:
How would you like to see your community grow in the next five years?
What types of skills would you like to learn?
What resources do you have in this community?
How can you use the wealth you already have to make more wealth?
How can YOU help YOUR neighbor?

I dream of a world where we approach international service as an opportunity to learn and grow rather than an opportunity to teach and develop.

When we enter a community with questions rather than answers, we are giving the local people a gift of OWNERSHIP. If they come up with solutions to their problems, it’s their responsibility to carry it out.

What I’m not saying: You should ask a beggar how he can help himself instead of giving him money.
What I am saying: You should not take wads of cash to hand out to every beggar you see on the streets.

Short-term trips are such a great way to give people a taste of a world outside their own. I’m no longer opposed to them, and I don’t feel the need to speak against them.

But I DO want to find a solution for how to maneuver them with respect to the local culture and people. I DO want to get rid of the arrogance we have approached such trips with, and encourage trip leaders to move humbly and slowly when planning modes of service.

We aren’t going to save the world in a week, and we may just do more harm than good. So the next time we jump on an airplane for a week of international mission, let’s fall needy into the hands of those we come to serve.

Let’s recognize the fact that through their dirty feet, sick bellies, and tattered clothes, THEY are the ones with the relevant solutions to the problems in their community.




Lowell Anthony WhiteMay 1, 2014 - 3:16 pm

This is a well thought out and well written article on the struggle we have of justifying short-term mission trips. It does a good job of encouraging us to consider what we are trying to accomplish and how we should do so. Thanks for writing it Lauren. Thanks to Jade for bringing it to my attention.
(BTW – I’m a fellow Freedy)

Krista HolleyMay 1, 2014 - 8:15 pm

Yes Yes and YES! I am not sure if you have heard of it, but a great good is “When Helping Hurts.” The same idea of building relationships with the communities and allowing them to find the solutions through a partnership. So insightful Lauren!

Melissa HortonMay 1, 2014 - 11:57 pm

Lauren, I saw where you mentioned that you had ideas for sustainable change to email to someone -would you also send those to me ? Ten65westpacesferry@yahoo.com Thanks, Melissa

Amanda McDougald ScottMay 2, 2014 - 9:56 am

Great piece, Lauren. Keep it up!

JillianMay 2, 2014 - 3:58 pm

THANK YOU for being brave enough to write this. It’s a hard topic, but something I strongly believe the North American church needs to start discussing. After years of leading short term missions and then hosting them, God has opened my eyes to A LOT. In other words, I have made tons of mistakes and prompted people to do the same, and I am just so thankful I am now learning from them. We just have to be so careful and so intentional in every action and in every thought.

Julie McGlassonMay 3, 2014 - 1:05 pm

This is why I prefer to do trips where there are long term missionaries serving so that we are able to assist them in ongoing work.