“Mission Trip” Syllabus

Over the past month or so I’ve received several requests (or invitations) to support various upcoming “Mission Trips” (or voluntourism trips).  Some are weeklong trips over spring break and some are a couple weeks scheduled sometime in the summer months.

Without going on for too long about my opinion of Mission Trips I would like to affirm the clear motivation of all involved to do something to help those in need around the world. This feeling (or calling) to do something good for others is special; do not let anyone diminish it (including me). 

There has been tremendous work done by those trying to understand the impacts of short-term mission trips. Unfortunately there is a problem, very few people who make up the multi-million dollar short-term missions industry have access to (or are even aware of) these resources.

While the overall effect of Mission Trips remains ambiguous, it is clear that those who do the “going” are often the ones who receive the most salient positive benefit. So in an effort to amplify the learning of the “goers”, I present my Mission Trip Syllabus, which focuses on the benefit (or lack there of) to the “receivers”.

[A short disclaimer (and full disclosure) regarding my credentials: I have a bachelor’s degree in economics with a focus on international development from Calvin College. While in college I participated in and (twice) led three Service-Learning trips to Southern Louisiana. I also made two (once as a leader) microfinance and business-consulting trips to Panama. I have traveled to Mexico, South Korea, and spent a semester studying in Ghana. I am currently both a student and a research assistant at the Africa Theological Seminary in Kenya, where I am taking a course on missions and am researching the impacts of a church-based business development program. I also have plans to pursue a graduate degree in economics and development starting the fall of 2014.]

– Lesson 1: Paternalism –

Read two of the following:

When Helping Hurts” by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

Toxic Charity” by Robert Lupton

To Hell with Good Intentions” by Ivan Illich


Listen to “Act One” of the following This American Life episode.

(End of high school level requirements)

– Lesson 2: Theological Foundations –

Read/watch two of the following:

Chapter 1 of “Walking with the Poor” by Bryant Myers

What is Justice” by Nicholas Wolterstorff 

Are Short Term Missions Good Stewardship?” A conversation between Kurt Ver Beek and Robert Priest in Christianity Today 

(End of college level requirements)

– Lesson 3: Poverty Alleviation and Development-

Read one of the following:

More Than Good Intentions” by Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel

Poor Economics” by Abhijit Banergee and Ester Duflo


Watch this TED Talk video by Ester Duflo on “Social Experiments to Fight Poverty“.

– Lesson 4: Human Behavior –

Read two of the following: 

Nudge” by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kanneman

Scarcity: Why having Too Little Means so Much” by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

A Behavioral Economics View of Poverty” by Marianne Bertrand, Sendhil Mullainathan, and Eldar Shafir 

(End of trip leader requirements)

– Lesson 5: Perspectives (Extra Credit) –

Read one of the following: 

The rest of “Walking with the Poor” by Bryant Myers

Development as Freedom” by Amartya Sen

The White Man’s Burden” by Bill Easterly

The End of Poverty” by Jeff Sachs

The Great Escape” by Angus Deaton

The Bottom Billion” by Paul Collier

The Mystery of Capital” by Hernado De Soto

Dead Aid” by Dambisa Moyo

Portfolios of the Poor” by Collins, Morduch, Rutherford, Ruthven

Why Nations Fail” by Daron Acemonglu and James Robinson

Collapse” by Jarrod Diamond

Read Kurt Ver Beek’s essay “The Impact of Short Term Missions”. Integrating themes from Ver Beek write an essay on a topical area of interest (microfinance, education, orphanages, violence and sexual abuse, health, aid, NGOs, access to water, democracy, evangelism, inequality, etc.) and explain the influence or role mission teams have in this area.

I write this totally understanding the reality of the situation. No many (if any) will actually take up the assignments listed here. I can already hear the excuses and I (sort of) understand. “I just don’t have time” or “Well, this isn’t my full time job” or “How much more do you expect from me, I’m already volunteering to go on this trip”.

I’m wondering though if some of you will prove me wrong and actually read through some of the books and articles listed above. I am willing to act as your instructor, so email me your thoughts, questions, and challenges (bloem.jeff@gmail.com). I hope this enhances your mission trip experience. Perhaps it will be the most fun thing you’ll never do again.

I’ll end with a hypothetical a former professor liked to tell.

You are sitting in your house, surrounded by people who care for you and even love you. Suddenly you are stricken with splintering pain in your side. It becomes clear that you are in desperate need of an emergency appendectomy. A family member (who is not a medical doctor by any means) offers to perform the surgery right here right now on the dinning room table; giving the reasoning, “because, as family, we care about you more than anyone else on the planet”. Why do you dial 911 and take an ambulance to the hospital instead?

2 responses to ““Mission Trip” Syllabus”

  1. […] I’ve previously posted a “Mission Trip” Syllabus intended to aid in the learning for those going on short-term, mission, or voluntourism trips in […]

  2. […] “Mission Trip” Syllabus (Still waiting for someone to take me up on the […]

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