Reexamining Missions: Beneficial or Imperialism

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Bethel missions aim to maximize benefits of short-term trips.

Sarah Nelson | The Clarion

Sophomore Annika Halvorsen lived among some of the 400,000 missionaries in the world during her three year stay in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Her father worked for the African Development Foundation, a company dedicated to helping grow businesses in East Africa. Though she and her family were not missionaries, they partnered with missionaries in Madala Village just outside Dar Es Salaam to work within the village. During their time, short term mission groups came in and out of the country. This proved to be frustrating for Annika – her family worked in Tanzania for multiple years at a time.

The scene is familiar. A group of adolescents with matching T-shirts pay a couple thousand dollars to spend a week playing soccer and building houses in impoverished countries, only to come back to America, where a warm bed and plenty of food await. According to the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), 80 percent of its members have participated in a mission trip. Despite the current popularity of short-term missions, the impact of the trips is being questioned and problems of power imbalances and Western imperialism have surfaced, begging the question of whether mission trips are beneficial or just an excuse for a vacation, voluntourism.

Bethel campus pastor Matt Runion and missional ministries professor Erik Leafblad see a different side of short-term missions. They have seen increased awareness toward racial injustice and poverty over the years through mission trips.

Research on both sides exist, according to Runion. He cites authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, who argue that short-term missions are damaging to communities, and that today’s evangelical definition of poverty, ‘the amount of one’s material possessions’, is degrading.

Corbett’s and Fikkert’s book changed Runion’s outlook on how to train students before sending them on mission trips. He wants Bethel missions to radically change the lives of students while teaching what Scripture says about poverty. In order for missions to avoid selfish ambition and roots in white supremacy, Runion tries to focus on finding local leaders in the community to lead his teams. Every Bethel mission trip runs through Runion’s office and includes a leader from the community the group is going to serve.

“They call the shots. They tell a group of talented, energetic, strong American college students [what to do],” Runion said.

Leafblad agrees with Runion, adding that good leadership is essential in combatting personal prejudices.

“Crossing cultures naturally allows questions of global economics and power dynamics,” Leafblad said. “When mission trips allow the privileged culture to interrogate their cultural assumptions, that’s when they see benefits.”

For sociology professor Samuel Zalanga, immediately assuming short-term mission trips are harmful is too much of a generalization. He emphasizes that just because someone is in a position of power does not automatically mean they are an imperialist. However, he does argue that mission trips do not have as much impact as people would like to think.

He recalls a time during his annual trip with Bethel students to Guatemala where they visited a church built by a congregation based in the southern United States. Directly above the pulpit, an American flag was on display in front of the church for all to see. Zalanga said he knew theologically, something was wrong.

“The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ transcends nations, transcends cultures, it transcends the flag of any nation,” Zalanga said.

Zalanga wants American Christians to recognize that mission trips benefit communities by donating to impoverished countries and increasing in commitment to prayer. But an imbalance of power can seep into churches participating in mission trips. Zalanga adds that the problem lies deeper than Westerners vs. non-Westerners. He challenges those in a position with power to fight against injustice and use their platform to bring others up.

“Faith can really inspire people to do great things for others so we shouldn’t ignore that,” Zalanga said.

Halvorsen recalls feeling resentful toward those who visited her village once and never returned, but she soon realized any opportunity for groups to spread the gospel is important.

“I’ve started to become more open to short-term missions because of how I’ve seen God impact lives in small ways,” Halvorsen said. “It is better to spread God’s word and go on mission trips, than never spread God’s word.”

Though she has become more open-minded, Halvorsen still remains somewhat skeptical of mission groups making and quickly breaking relationships with those they’ve encountered after their time abroad. She wishes that those relationships lasted and that mission groups experienced the same type of love and community she feels when working in the village. Ultimately, she wants these trips and the people on them to show the love of Christ.

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