Of course they are, and don’t you dare question that!! This is the type of response I often get in so many words. I’m not sure what it is, but when it comes to Short Term trips, we sure love our building projects. And questioning the benefits of such trips can get you in hot water.
But I’m going to go ahead and question some things about these trips. But first, a disclaimer. Everything I say below is not intended to discount all types of building projects (i.e. where a bunch of Americans build a church, orphanage, or whatever). I only want to raise the question—the question that should always be raised when we venture overseas to build a building, teach a class, etc.—“is this short term trip worth the money, and is it contributing to the long-term ministry of the national church and/or the career missionaries in the area.”
So how in the world would a building project NOT help this? Well, consider the following equation.
Are most building projects done in rich or poor countries? Answer: poor.
Are there any construction workers, day laborers, masons, or carpenters in the poor country looking for work? Answer: probably, yes.
So let’s then ask the question: how do you think the poor construction workers, who are desperately looking for work, feel about a bunch of rich, white people showing up with expensive power tools and “taking their work?”
“We’re not taking their work; we’re just building a church or an orphanage,” you may say. Yes, but if you are building, then you are doing for free the jobs that local workers would have done to earn money to put bread on the table. And what about the national church and career missionaries? When you zoom in and zoom out, they are the ones who have to live with the reputation of outsourcing the jobs to a bunch of rich Americans who don’t really need the work. Not the best way to incarnate the gospel; not a very effective way to love your (poor, out of work) neighbor. Of course, this is not our intention, but it’s often the perception of the nationals. And perception is everything.
Jo Ann VenEngen, a sociologist in Honduras, has observed some negative effects of STM building trips, which—according to the perception of the nationals—do the work that could have been done by local workers. On one such Spring-break excursion, an American group “spent their time and money painting and cleaning the orphanage.” But, according to the perception of the nationals, the “money could have paid two Honduran painters who desperately needed the work, with enough left over to hire four new teachers, build a new dormitory, and provide each child with new clothes” (VanEngen, “The Cost of Short-Term Missions,” 21). It is striking that virtually all of the positive reports of STMs come from the self-perception of the American short-termers, not from the national host churches (see Kurt Ver Beek, “Lessons from a Sapling,” 13). The few studies that have been done, in which the nationals themselves are interviewed, have turned up some negative and quite embarrassing truths. While the nationals often appreciate the thought and effort, American building ventures often bring unforeseen long-term harm—felt only by the nationals after the Americans leave (see Kurt Ver Beek, “The Impact of Short-Term Missions: A Case Study of House Construction in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch.”)
One unseen curse has to do with the unintended effects that bringing outside resources (material, labor, etc.) has on the local economy. We do not live in an economic vacuum, and neither do our national hosts. We need to at least ask the question whether our building projects are hindering local business owners, thus presenting a very bad witness for the gospel to the very mission field that our hosts are trying to reach (cf. Corbett and Fikkert, When Helping Hurts, 115).
Now, not all STM building trips are bad. Done strategically and with cultural sensitivity, they can be beneficial. Enlisting nationals to participate in the project is one way to bless the community you’re trying to serve, and it also elicits a sense of ownership of the project, which helps foster a more long term benefit of the STM. (People tend to take care of stuff that they put time and effort in making.)
Once again, I hope that the American church never sends another STM again, without first asking the questions: how is this trip going to help the long-term ministry of the host churches? And are there any unforeseen drawbacks that our STM may have on the national church we are seeking to serve?