Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative Experience by Brian Howell

This is not a ‘normal’ kind of book. This is a presentation of research which Brian Howell has done on the topic of Short Term Mission trips. At the center of his research is a mission trip which he went on to the Dominican Republic, and his observations, interviews with the team and the process of of what happens AFTER such a mission. Howell’s  goal is to examine the role, experiences and effects  of ‘STM’s’. One of the fascinating insights and areas which Howell examines is how regularized the language used to describe the experiences of people on STM’s. Were students responding to what they encountered or were the ‘narratives’ shaping their memories?

I read this with great interest. I have done MANY STM’s, both as a participant and as a leader. Over the years through my own experience I have come to regard STM’s as something far less than mission. Often the impact of a team is very minimal to an area. In fact, in my own reading and research of the effects of such mission trips, the impact can be negative upon the community being visited. One example was a team sent to build a house. The job was done so badly that when the team left the community had to re-build the entire house!

STM’s largely serve as an experience for those who go ON them rather than those who on the receiving end. This is because, as Howell rightly observes, STM’s tend to be a hybrid of mission, tourism and pilgrimage. It’s a ‘kill three birds with one stone’ or a ‘vacation with some meaning’.

What is evident is that they have become a phenomenon in their own right, with millions of people spending their own money and time to go on a STM.

Howell is not in any way attacking Short term missions, but he is asking the question of how they should be used to better serve and engage with both the team members and those whom the team serves, so that they achieve what they are able to achieve, and not to pretend to be more than they are.

I think this is a very important book for pastors and church leaders to wrestle with if they are planning or indeed, actively involved with STM’s. Howell’s suggestions towards restricting STM’s narrative towards the end of the book is a must read if you have such trips in your church!

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