In a typical year at DOOR we host about 3,200 youth, young adults and adults. The vast majority, 3,100, of these people come through our week-long Discover program. The remaining folks participate in our longer term Discern (three months) and Dwell (one year) programs. One of the more interesting internal debates at DOOR centers on the potential dangers, both real and imagined, of short-term mission experiences. There are those who argue that our Discover program is the most dangerous. Bringing youth into the city for a week to do mission has all kinds of potential to hurt neighborhoods and ministries. In my mind this is an interesting theory that can seem to be true. It has two fatal flaws; first, it completely underestimates the strength of urban communities and second, it vastly over estimates the power of incoming groups. After almost two decades of living and working in urban communities I can testify to the strength of urban people. At the same time I have given witness to the false assumptions visiting groups, mostly people of power and privilege, have of themselves.
In 1992 I lead a group of high schoolers to South Central Los Angeles about a month after the riots. The theme for our trip was “Impact 92.” In my naiveté I believed that we were going to have a positive impact on South Central. Impact 92 did happen, but it was us who traveled to Los Angeles who were impacted.
The real danger in short-term missions is with those who come for a year. They stay just long enough to build relationships. Leaving not only severs their relationships but is a reminder that people of power and privilege always have the option to move on.
I believe that there is a place for short-term mission in the faith community. Introducing people to each other who would not otherwise take the time to know each other is a kingdom building work. Like any ministry, those of us in leadership positions must know what the dangers are. It is our responsibility to create contexts where mission, ministry and relationship are mutually empowering and eye opening.