How to Avoid the ‘Messiah Complex’ in Short-Term Missions
Religion & Liberty Online

How to Avoid the ‘Messiah Complex’ in Short-Term Missions


As many are beginning to realize, and as the new documentary, Poverty, Inc., details at length, the foreign aid movement has largely failed the global poor, promoting top-down solutions at the expense of bottom-up enterprises and institutions.

This is partly due to errors in economic thinking, but it also comes from a lack of understanding and appreciation for the intangible assets in individual communities, particularly as it relates to the social and the spiritual.

“There has got to be more than just a change in a wallet for significant change to happen,” says Peter Greer in an excerpt from the PovertyCure series. “And I think that is where certainly the church and the faith community has something materially different to offer than just another loan, just another job. When you have the opportunity to touch hearts, to touch meaning, to touch purpose, to touch identity, alongside helping an individual get out of physical poverty, that’s where you see incredible transformation.”

Unfortunately, in our efforts to assist with this sort of ground-level, whole-life transformation, Christians often give way to the same mistakes of detached economic planners. Such risks are detailed at length in PovertyCure, as well as in books such as Toxic Charity, When Helping Hurts, and The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good, each illuminating the temptations and dangers of misaligned charity and activism.

This often comes to a head with short-term missions, the “low-hanging fruit” of missions work for many churches and schools. Though such trips can result in tremendous good, they are also ripe for the same problems we see in the fast-and-easy, quick-fix sector of foreign aid.

“There is a widening disconnect between what churches and teams think are necessary or helpful, and what actually provides long term sustainable impact for missionaries and nations,” writes former missionary Sarah Hartz, in a fascinating tip sheet on the topic. “…I have tons of personal experience, stories of well meaning groups coming over in packs and descending upon my town like a busload of Asian tourists, complete with cameras and face masks. They forgot their blast shields.”

The Gospel must be preached, and Christians are right to prioritize that goal. Bringing the hope of Jesus to neighborhoods and nations is, after all, a primary aspect of what we do. But risks and temptations persist, so how might we approach short-term missions healthily and effectively?

Hartz gives 10 colorful tips for avoiding the common pitfalls, offering practical advice on everything from avoiding paternalistic patterns to absorbing cultural context to retaining and maintaining the right attitude and spiritual discernment. Much of this applies more to efforts of material charity and poverty alleviation than it does to preaching and evangelism, but getting the first right (or wrong) is bound to influence the second.

For example, Hartz warns against assuming the “messiah complex” that modern culture peddles and nurtures at every turn. Instead, “be a learner and disciple,” she writes, avoiding the types of charity that can hamper relationships among those who will be there long after you leave.

When you roll in and hand out a bunch of soccer balls and candy to kids, it undermines the bridges of trust built through partnering and instead sends the message of easy “Aid” and spreads dependency. It makes it much harder on them when you leave when they wonder why this friend who has been staying with them over years never “gives them stuff.” If you have gifts, only bring what they’ve asked and let them hand them out at a time they deem appropriate…

You’re not going to save the world in the 4.5 days you have on the ground, nor should you try. You’re probably not going to come up with some genius solution to an incredibly complex problem like poverty. You don’t have the same information or context as the missionaries on the ground, so don’t assume you know how to do it better than them.

…Don’t go in with HUGE expectations. Be humble and see how you can partner with what God’s spirit is already doing in that place, through the people already there.

That last part is crucial: going into these situations with spiritual discernment and readiness that precedes and overrides whatever materialistic expectations or prejudices may cloud the way.

In the end, it is always the spiritual needs that matter most, and even where there is material deprivation, our knowledge is limited. Thus, in aligning our hands to transform the physical and material, we have to remain obedient to the Holy Spirit, first and foremost.

The sacrifice comes next:

Be compassionate and kind, but don’t be led by needs. Be led by the Holy Spirit. It is not your responsibility or the missionary’s responsibility to meet all the needs of every single person.

Jesus didn’t do it, and we shouldn’t try either. You also shouldn’t expect the organization you are visiting to be able to fulfill every need of their beneficiaries. Focus on one’s vision is the most difficult, but most essential thing to maintain on the mission field when there are so many needs surrounding you. But effective ministries have clear focus and they stick to it.

Your emotions will be stirred up, but during your time, try to decipher between your heart strings and God’s actual voice and be obedient. When in doubt, check with your team leader to see what is appropriate.

I encourage you to read the rest.

In our efforts to save the lost and heal the broken, we must remember that his ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts. As we seek to bring Gospel restoration and reconciliation to those outside our comfort zones, let’s not to get so caught up in the importance of our message that we neglect to consider the impact of our methods.

Image Credit: Who Wants to Be a Volunteer?

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.