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Calvin Grad Speaks on Short Term Missions
March 9, 2007

Short-term missions trips, generally trips of 10 days to two weeks, are surging in popularity.

According to Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow some 1.6 million U.S. Christians, many of them young people, annually leave the continent for a variety of exotic foreign locales where they hope to learn a little about themselves, while making an impact on another culture.

But David Livermore, a 1989 Calvin College graduate who teaches at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and directs their Global Learning Center, says such trips often present problems.

"Today's typical American missionary," he quipped, "is 15 years old and serves for two weeks. Short term missions not done well can be really dangerous."

Livermore spoke at Calvin on Thursday, March 8 in a talk sponsored by Calvin's new Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity.

The title of his talk was "Looking In Before Reaching Out: Using Cultural Intelligence to Improve the Effectiveness of Short Term Missions and Service Learning."

All of which was a long way to describe simple, succinct but strategic advice to short term missions participants: think before you go, think while you're there and continue to think upon your return.

Livermore, author of Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence, cited surveys of short term missions participants that spoke of the life-changing impact of short term missions trips.

"People say these trips make a huge difference in their lives," he said. "But when we ask what's different or how they changed we get answers like 'I'll pray more' or "I read my Bible more now.'"


Yet Livermore noted that research in this area, particularly research by Calvin College sociologist Kurt Ver Beek, shows that the impact of such trips often lasts only a short time. Indeed often within six months of the completion of a trip the changes the trip inspired have evaporated.

Livermore said studying short term missions is something few people are doing, but that the subject is in dire need of more attention. He noted that one in three high school students will do some sort of short term missions projects by the time they graduate.

But unlike the traditional missionaries of yore, who often served for decades in one location, today's teen missionaries are not steeped in the culture of the place they visit for long enough to understand it, or understand themselves in relation to it.

In a May 25, 2006 story by G. Jeffrey MacDonald for the Christian Science Monitor, Livermore said: "We justify our efforts by saying [youth] will come back and make a difference in their own communities, but the research has demonstrated it's not happening. Kids are going down and 'loving on' Mexican kids for a week and then coming home and being the same racist white kids they were toward their Latino classmates before they went on the trip."

Still, he says, such trips are not likely to disappear anytime soon. Nor is he sure they should.

"I think they can be done better though," he said. "What we're finding out now is that one thing that really makes a difference in these trips are the leaders. So that's one area where we can work to ensure some good outcomes for short term trips. We have to take this work we're doing and bring it to the short term participants. We have to translate research into resources for every day people."

One change that Livermore's own church has made to its short term trips is to have all participants commit to the project for 12 months, including six months of prep prior to the trip and six months of thought, reflection and follow-up after the trip.

The post-trip commitment is a significant one, but necessary he believes.

"It's something more than the picture party to come back to," he said.

Livermore also does not discount the impact short term trips might make that are, in fact, not measurable. He told a moving anecdote about his dad dying unexpectedly on the same day his daughter was born.

"Did that change me," he asked rhetorically. "Not in ways that I could measure, or quantify. But did it change me? Absolutely it did. Maybe some of these short term trips have a similar impact."

Joel Carpenter, director of the Nagel Institute, says Livermore had an impact on his Calvin audience.

"One of Nagel's major aims is to provoke a new outlook among thoughtful Christians in the global North," he says. " We assume that Christianity in the global south has a world of need, and that we are well-supplied to meet those needs. The truth is that Christians and churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America are quite resilient and resourceful. They often have been strengthened by God's help through tough times, so they have much to offer us to meet our spiritual needs."

The connection between short term missions and service learning trips, such as the kind often sponsored by Calvin, including spring break trips, is of interest to Jeff Bouman, director of the service-learning center at the college.

He thought Livermore's talk provided good food for thought in that area as well.

"David Livermore's important research is helpful to churches and Christian colleges as they attempt to respond to students' increasing interest in experiencing the larger world and being exposed to its wonderful diversity and great human and environmental needs," he says. "Our efforts at Calvin have consistently been to broaden students' vision of service to include learning and partnership, both locally in Grand Rapids, domestically on spring break trips, and abroad during summer mission trips and semesters of international study.

"I think the real value of the work of researchers like Livermore, and our own Kurt Ver Beek is that they don't end with their strong critiques. Both speak into the reality that churches and student groups will continue to send out groups in short-term capacities, and offer best-practices as guides, along with hope for the improvement of a well-intentioned activity with great potential for learning and cross-cultural engagement."

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