This past summer, as I waited for my plane in Tegucigalpa, I browsed one of the airport’s many gift shops looking for something for my 14-year-old son and found, among the soccer jerseys and dried toads, a bright orange T-shirt emblazoned with a colorful bus and black lettering: “I Survived a Short Term Mission Trip to Honduras!”
With most schools back in session, we’re coming to the end of short-term mission (STM) season. Waves of missionaries will head out again during Christmas and spring break.
Combining adventure tourism with Christian charity, STMs have exploded in popularity in the past 20 years. Conservative estimates put the number of U.S. participants at 1.6 million per year.
These trips of service and evangelism range from domestic stints that may only last a few days to international voyages that last weeks or months.
They provide members of every denomination significant encounters with new contexts, unfamiliar cultures and poverty.
As an anthropologist and a Christian, I have a conflicted relationship with STMs. I find them both fascinating and a bit repulsive.
These trips often take relatively naive U.S. Americans into vulnerable communities around the world. While the neo-colonial dynamics are inescapable, the host communities are savvy and the encounter is complex.
I have studied these trips and it is clear that STM groups have served as links to powerful communities (creating “bridging capital”) and provided important resources to under-resourced places.
STM travelers attest that the trips are “life changing.”
The changes may not always be expected (or desired) changes, but there’s no doubt that these encounters cause some visitors to redirect their lives toward service and social justice.
A larger question is: “What does the popularity of these trips suggest about U.S. Christianity generally?”
Is there something greater to the importance of these travels in the lives of 21st century Christians?
Scholars of tourism have long argued that tourism is a kind of secular ritual where alienated moderns create liminal spaces in which to experience authenticity and “communitas.”
Structuring tourist spaces as “sights,” and tourist performance as “not home,” vacationers use tourism to escape temporarily the anomie of contemporary life by indulging in hedonism and rituals of renewal.
STM-ers are well aware of the overlap with tourism, and, in many cases, work very hard to distance themselves from the identity of “tourist.”
The most withering critique of these trips is that they’re “just Christian tourism.”
Yet STM travelers employ much of the same language of seeking something “authentic” and of being renewed by their travels, which scholars of tourism note as central to tourist narratives.
The difference is that STM travelers seek authentic spiritual experiences, rather than “the real Costa Rica” or “authentic Italy.”
The STM-er finds “true faith” and people who “really know how to rely on God” among the poor.
Contemporary life, cluttered with technology, squeezed by competing demands and oppressed by pressures to succeed, appears virtually un-Christian when compared with the (seeming) simplicity of the life of the poor.
Like retreats, camps and neo-monastic practices, STMs offer the fragmented Christian self a chance to re-imagine a more authentic and purer faith.
This is not to say that STM visitors exclusively or explicitly romanticize poverty.
But even when they hear stories of suffering and exploitation and they express compassion and righteous anger, participants in STM teams often fail to connect the poverty they witness to colonial history, the globalizing economy and institutional problems.
Too often, the takeaway is that we, who enjoy relative wealth, have an obligation to help, but that there isn’t really much we can do. The poor serve as a kind of shrine and the trip as a pilgrimage.
The solutions, if there are any, are internal to the country. The only difference we can make, as concerned outsiders, is to sign up for more trips and to build more houses.
Of course, there are models of STM that explicitly address the causes of poverty and the ways rich countries are both implicated and responsible.
Christians themselves are some of the toughest faultfinders of STM, and they have in some cases sought to address these cultural dynamics in creative and effective ways.
At the same time, there is no doubt that the symbolic nature of the encounter in STM is fraught with overlapping meanings often unexamined by those planning and participating in these trips, some of which work against the intended goals.
As Christians everywhere gear up for the next STM season in December, we would do well to consider how we might make these travels an opportunity to thrive for all who participate on both sides of the trip, and not simply an encounter to survive.
Brian Howell is professor of anthropology at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. A version of this article first appeared on Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and is used with permission.