By the millions, Americans are jumping at the chance to become missionaries - with one key stipulation of the 21st century: They expect to get their comfortable lives back a few days later.
Evangelicals often build homes or visit orphanages, then explain the roots of their faith to new friends. Mainline Christians tend to focus on providing relief from poverty. This year, tens of thousands of short-term missionaries plan to storm the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast in visible witness to their savior's love for humankind.
They'll do so with the help of dozens of trip coordinators, promising such perks as adventure, fun, and vacations infused with meaning. High season for short-term missions begins this weekend.
As these missions flourish, however, the faithful are debating the wisdom of tailoring outreach programs to suit the needs and wants of missionaries in search of a peak, transformational experience.
Critics say impoverished people, especially overseas, often end up pandering to cash-wielding, untrained missionaries who leave a bad impression and don't make meaningful lifestyle changes upon return.
"We justify our efforts by saying [youth] will come back and make a difference in their own communities, but the research has demonstrated it's not happening," says David Livermore, an evangelical scholar at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and author of a new book, "Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence." "Kids are going down and 'loving on' Mexican kids for a week and then coming home and being the same racist white kids they were toward their Latino classmates before they went on the trip."
Others are more hopeful. "We don't really know yet whether it's simply do-good tourism or a profound, life-changing experience for people who do these trips," says Dana Robert, codirector of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at Boston University. "The jury is still out."
She sees potential for many a reformed worldview in the fact that nearly 1 in 3 American youth now take part in a cross-cultural service projects before finishing high school.
Short-term trips, lasting two weeks or less, drew about 1.6 million Americans to foreign mission fields last year, according to a survey by Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist of religion at Princeton University. Others who study Christian missions, such as Todd Johnson of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, say brief domestic mission trips draw even more participants than international ones.
For hundreds of thousands of students and others on summer vacation, the trip marks the culmination of months of learning to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Agencies make no apologies for designing trips with missionary-as-beneficiary in mind.
"That's how Jesus intended it to be when he sent people out to minister in his name," says Seth Barnes, who heads Adventures in Missions in Gainesville, Ga. "We view these mission trips as discipling experiences [for paying participants]. We're looking for whatever will optimize their spiritual growth.... It would probably be paternalistic to say we could do that for [indigenous] people in the field."
Short-term mission trips date back to the 1960s when air travel first became accessible to religiously passionate pockets of the middle class, according to Dr. Johnson. But only since the mid-1990s, with the rise of Internet-savvy megachurches, have local congregations attained the tools necessary to bypass denominations and forge their own ties on the ground as far away as Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
"This area of short-term missions has been absolutely transformed over the last 10 years by the rise of independent churches," Johnson says. He finds adventure-seeking, untrained missionaries now run a heightened risk: "The danger is that they make [foreigners] into Americans without even realizing it" by failing to let Christianity take root in indigenous forms.
Risks aside, some veterans of short-term mission trips say the experiences have shaped their outlooks for the better. At age 18, Zoe Sandvig's Indianapolis church sent her to St. Louis on a trip that she says, "inspired me [to see] there are beacons of hope in the inner city," such as a woman whose faith didn't flinch even amid flood damage and persistent poverty. Three mission trips later, including one to Peru, she took up a career last year of writing for a prison ministry newsletter.
Sam Massie of Somerville, Mass., raised $2,000 two years ago for a mission trip to Honduras with 35 other youth from the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. Each day, Honduran tradesmen directed the group in dirt-hauling and bricklaying as an armed guard kept watch. After a week of accommodations with neither electricity nor hot water, the group moved to one of Tegucigalpa's finest hotels and did three days of sightseeing.
In hindsight, the whole trip "sort of felt like tourism," says Mr. Massie, who this month finished his freshman year at Yale University. "There was a sort of novelty to [working alongside poor people]. The focus of the trip was not enough on bringing benefits to the local place."
Despite some reconsideration, short-term missions show no signs of slowing down. Adventures in Missions has about 60 trips planned for June, a fourfold increase from its May lineup.