Some years ago an important book was published called Toxic Charity. Robert Lupton, a long time worker in America’s inner cities, took time to reflect on Christian charity to the poor, including the fashion for American Evangelical Christians to descend en masse on developing countries to help them on summer mission trips.

Lupton’s critique was devastating. He described ill-conceived mission trips that were little more than expensive vacations for affluent teens. The short version is that the thousands spent giving American youngsters a poverty tourism outing would be much better spent in direct development efforts for the poor. The visits undermined the local economy, flooding the labor market with free workers. It burdened the hosts in the poor country who had to provide accommodation, meals and transportation, and the educational benefits for the American teens was minimal.

As a high school chaplain I guided a few mission trips of my own to El Salvador and although there were definite benefits to the trips, I couldn’t help but agree with Lupton’s final diagnosis: mission trips were probably more trouble than they were worth. The investment was not worth the return.

I was therefore interested to meet Dominic Paolucci, the director of mission trips for the Catholic college campus ministry FOCUS. For those who are unfamiliar, FOCUS is a Catholic collegiate outreach whose mission is to share the hope and joy of the gospel with college and university students. Through Bible studies, outreach events, mission trips and one-on-one discipleship, missionaries inspire and build up students in the faith, sending them out to spread the gospel. Founded by Curtis Martin in 1998, FOCUS is now on 137 campuses in the United States, Austria, England and Ireland.

Paolucci explained that over 7000 college kids have gone out on over 400 missions to 50 countries around the world, and this year alone FOCUS will send out more than 2000 college aged missionaries. 

Despite his enthusiasm, I challenged Paolucci about the idea of toxic charity, and he made an important distinction. Many of the mission trips were not about mission at all, but simply about giving material aid. I asked, “What about the idea that the money might just as well be spent on direct aid to the poor?” Dominic said, “I agree. That is, IF we are only serving their material needs. A true and effective ‘mission trip’ must serve not only the physical needs of the poor, but also their spiritual needs. Sharing the Gospel is a second and equal part of mission.”

Material needs of the poor can be met by anyone, and it make sense that the money spent shipping inexperienced American teens overseas would be better spent sending some professionals out to assist or to fund the nationals to do the work themselves. However, if there is a spiritual dimension to the work, the mission trip becomes much more personal and real. It is not just about houses and schools and hospitals and water wells, but about real relationships with people.

Dominic also had a good answer for the charge that the mission trips are a short, sharp shock and the poor return very quickly to their previous conditions and the American teens quickly revert to their self-absorbed lives. Paolucci replied, “Short-term missions alone are typically not the best way to carry out either of these aspect, which is why we always partner with long-term organizations who embrace serving in charity and truth. We can be a powerful extension of their of their work, and when we leave, people are not left on their own. Also, for our volunteers the mission trips are part of a long-term relationship of formation and Christian growth in discipleship.”

Mission work is part of the bigger picture of the Catholic Church in the world, and in the past Catholic missionaries were among the best in sharing the gospel and building the Church. However almost all Catholic work overseas is now reduced to peace, justice, health and education work. What did Dominic Paolucci think had happened to the great missionary movements in the Catholic Church?

I agreed with his response that the secular worldview has swamped us. Because of indifferentism and universalism too many Catholics have come to accept that all religions are equal pathways to God and that everyone, in the end, will be saved. Consequently we are now shy about sharing the exclusive claims of the Christian gospel. 

So FOCUS missionaries are not simply going on mission trips to build houses, work in schools and do youth work. Evangelization and catechesis is also an important part of the work. This helps to counter the aggressive evangelism conducted by the Evangelical churches in the developing world.

Paolucci ended by outlining the many benefits for our own college young people. He explained that the overseas visit helps wake kids up from the affluent doziness, and with an authentic faith experience they start to get the right priorities in their lives. Instead of being distracted by the temptations of porn, drugs or drink a mission trip helps them see beyond shallow entertainment to a greater mission in life. This in turn leads them to spend more time in building their prayer life and building positive relationships with other Catholic young people.

With these conditions in place it’s clear that there is a positive and powerful place for mission trips in our work with young people. While mission trips can be “toxic” and counterproductive, when well thought out and planned properly they can be a great investment not only in the Church in the developing world, but also in the lives of our own young people here at home.