Short Term Missions: Book Review

Howell, Brian (2012) Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience. Downers Groves, Illinois: IVP Academic Press.

By: Joshua Brahinsky (University of California, Santa Cruz)

While anthropology and religion have a checkered and ambivalent dynamic, relations between anthropology and missiology – Christian mission theory – are far more enmeshed and, perhaps, grating. This animates a sharp division between the two.  Anthropologists can imagine religion as out there, a behavior to study, more or less connected to transcendent reality. By contrast, missions, as many have noted, cut much closer to the bone (Priest 2001). Not only was the core anthropological notion of culture likely first articulated among missionaries, but also, by most accounts, missionaries surpass even the most assiduous anthropologist when it comes to their defining practice: ethnography (Herbert 1991). Even an exceptionally long three-year anthropological field stay cannot touch the decades common to missions.  This makes discussions of missions uncomfortable for anthropologists.  Further, simply noticing mission’s effects ties awkward knots within anthropological tales of the noble savage or those that valorize postcolonial agency, especially when that agency involves appropriating previously Western religions (Sanneh 2003). Finally, Short Term Missions (STM), are especially ephemeral phenomena, and as such, easily escape the anthropological eye.  In other words, aside from the significance of a project that involves 1.6 million US youth traveling the world each year, simply talking STM and anthropology together makes Brian Howell’s study of Short Term Missions worthwhile.

Yet, because of this genealogy, the anthropology of missions that does exist is sharply divided between anthropologists and missiologists. In spite of calls for self-reflexive anthropology, one can still study religion and stay ambiguously situated – the anthropology of Christianity is a blossoming project – not exactly secular, not exactly religious, perhaps rejecting these categories altogether.  Missiology, however, generally includes explicit theological positioning, and thus even its most ardently anthropological thinkers are ignored by non-religious anthropology. (Why evangelism and theology are more disconcerting than faith more generally, I do not know.) Some academics do cross over from growing Evangelical institutions to more secular worlds.  But for the most part, the idea of missions as a project that can be explored for its internal debates and external effects is missed by the secular academy. Howell’s project, however, is a crossover, queered by a foot in each world.  An anthropology professor at Wheaton College, Brian Howell’s commitments, to Evangelicalism and anthropology together, are in no way unusual – try and name a social scientist without ethical pretensions. Yet, in his effort to write for both audiences, his project walks a line, or hops back and forth across it, in ways both intriguing and disconcerting.

STM: The Narrative

Howell meticulously details the struggle to legitimize STM as genuine missions and to structure STM discourse. From a marginal practice in the 1970s, to the dominant method within Evangelicalism, he strings a line of debate and narrative formation. Through close readings of mission archives, one can follow the emergence of STM and its increasing acceptance.  On the surface then, STM wins out.  Yet, at the same time, Howell quietly – with few conclusive epiphanies – provides the grounds to challenge the sense that STM, as currently practiced, meets evangelistic or service goals. As such, in exposing this denouement early, my review can’t help but taint Howell’s project. However, I do hope to convey some of the subtlety.

The most compelling section of the book is a lengthy and lucid ethnography of his short term missions trip to the Dominican Republic accompanying a group of high school students.  Here, Howell elaborates the institutional structures that validate service and spiritual giving against personal growth and learning, the contradictory struggle to both quash and manifest touristic impulses, and the powerful sense of connection that participants grasped at in their brief encounters with DR children.   With nine months of preparation, team formation, raising money, and dealing with logistics followed by a two-week journey and a lifetime of (re)narration, his notion of narrative helps carry the reader through both empathy and critique.

While Howell’s overriding tale offers growing legitimation for STM, a critique is present, although unconsolidated. For instance, an important STM founder chooses short-term missions after experiencing culture shock during more lengthy missionary efforts. Would critics question his commitment? Howell doesn’t. Or, perhaps short-term missions primarily affect the missionary?  One leader says, “I finally understood that the purpose of the trip was not to do the work; the purpose of the trip was to change the people who went, because that’s what happened to me when I went to the Philippines.” (108) This becomes a central marketing principle as this evangelist promises refunds, “if it didn’t change their lives.”(109) Yet, even here, as the center of missionary narratives of service begins to crack, Howell steps back and continues the story of STM’s increasing acceptance.

Narrative Theory

Short Term Missions (STM) invert many long accepted Evangelical mission practices – extended stay, evangelism over service – and thus scramble to identify as “real” mission.  This may explain Howell’s Geertzian focus on narrative.   For instance, if STM is more easily narrated as kin to tourism or pilgrimage than missions, it takes work to bring the story in line.  Howell’s attentive portrayal of that narrative project and its internal contradictions compels.

Howell describes missionary narratives as both building and containing missions. Narrative theory emerges as Howell helpfully takes us on his personal STM path from confusion and “spiritual dislocation” to a “narrative of service, personal growth and Christian virtue.” (18) The language reassures.  Yet, institutional forces now frame the STM discourse, providing contemporary STM a “metanarrative” that Howell lacked in his earlier journeys. (21)  As such, narrative, for Howell, like Foucault’s discourse, expands beyond language to include social life, practice, and participants “embodying” the narrative. (117)  In his analysis, the initial interviews for STM participants, and the refusal to accept personal funds become “acts of endorsing,” a “structuring structure” (Bourdieu 1990) by which missionary narratives of service and travel contest stories of adventure, education, and encounter. As he writes, “from the beginning, our missionary narrative pushed those aspects of experience to the margins.” (129) However, it is in a footnote, late in the book, that this argument solidifies.  Here, a missions narrator yields all agency as, “would be expected, given the guiding narrative.” Narrative finally becomes Howell’s metonym for discipline. (207) In addition, Howell has mission narratives universalizing encounter and eliding culture. To “‘share the gospel,’ ‘reach the lost,’ ‘serve the missionaries’ and be transformed by the experience in the power of God” (147) leaves open the question of cultural or power differentials.

I find myself questioning Howell’s reliance on the linguistic turn, in part for its lack of viscera and broad context.  Thus, while his reliance on narrative envisions slow accretion, it offers little explanation. How do terms “rise to the top?” (111) What makes the 1970s the turning point?  Why do missions make this move under neoliberalism?  Howell’s project could use some of the political economy he requests from STM training. On the other hand, this Evangelical world, especially the Fundamentalist branch, very explicitly cultivates testimony and narrative as tools of evangelism and subject and community formation.  (Harding 2000) As such, Howell’s choice makes sense, although he could more explicitly recognize narrative as an especially situated analytic. (Brahinsky 2012)

Eventually, it becomes clear that STM might not, in Howell’s estimation, accomplish its narrated goals – either of service or of evangelism. In response, Howell steps lightly, offering multiple possible answers: pilgrimage as a metaphor apart from tourism? Perhaps long-term missions receive support from STM? Even the inefficiency, the ineffective effort at material change, might signal spiritual purity? In the end, we know STM changes the travelers, but are unsure if it affects its ostensive targets. Perhaps Howell could ask them.  He doesn’t, and a central question is left unopened.  (In the interview Brian describes this as his next project)

Gentle Critique

Howell does ultimately argue to refigure the missionary narrative, but his critique seeps slowly.  As he argues, the personalistic missionary narrative of service to the poor might obscure power relationships. “The guiding narratives… made it more difficult,” to recognize economic inequality, cultural difference, racial dynamics, gender discrimination, globalization and social injustice. (24,28) Yet, as a project dedicated to reforming and supporting STM, critique is gentled.

Thus, in spite of calls for economic analysis, Howell evades several opportunities to editorialize. In the context of the “neocolonialism, patronage and even exploitation potentially involved in the short term missions” the sight of Haitian children running for candy was “a bit disturbing,” he avers. (37)  Yet, economic critique immediately yields to cultural dynamics of “indulgence,” “insensitivity,” and a lack of “respect” (37)  In another instance, questions emerge around the relationship between work and poverty.  As one participant muses, “These kids just really have nothing, and they just really wanted to work… He just had such a work ethic; he really came to work.” Coming from the US, a story of poor, but hard working clearly seems significant, perhaps surprising.  It is certainly not a complexity lost to Howell, but one he bypasses. (158) Later, he explores confusion over dynamics between material and spiritual wealth but again, it is critique in early formation.  Noting for instance, that participants see the children they meet as desperate for a hug, Howell pushes back. “It seems unlikely that dozens, if not hundreds, of children running to greet North American visitors to a poor, urban neighborhood coming primarily for hugs and to receive needed affection.” (164) I want him to ask more: why do they reach for the hug?

Missiology and Anthropology

Howell brings together an explicitly supportive anthropological narrative with a highly critical missiology, and at first, the connections between them lack clarity. His anthropology, for all its subtle critique, is clearly validating STM as a whole.  Further, its concern with narrative seems distant from the power analysis of his missiology. Yet, at the very end, all falls in place: Howell cites Palomino, “the mission narrative works against mutuality.” (215) How?  When mission is narrated against the learning and encounter of tourism or education it demands a frenzied activity that engenders blinders instead of communion and community. His response: recognize that we “are too powerful to be good partners” (231) and move from a narrative of service and sacrifice to one of humility and fellowship.  As such, Howell challenges the progenitors of “contextualization” to reorganize power and provides a head on challenge to the center of contemporary missiology. (214)

At first I found myself confused – the missiological finale didn’t seem prefigured in the anthropology, there appeared a disjunct between a supportive tale and its conclusion.  But, upon closer meditation, I suspect a strategic temperance deployed to bring the reader in and through the process of critique.  The conclusions, for the most part, have been made before, as Howell makes clear. Yet, in the Evangelical world that this text negotiates, taking a step beyond contextualization is courageous. Approaching it through a rich anthropological anti-polemic gives this book a valence and power that will be worth observing.


Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990 The Logic of Practice. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Brahinsky, Joshua. 2012 Body Logics: Cultivating a Modern Sensorium.  Cultural Anthropology 27(2), 215-238.

Harding, Susan Friend. 2000 The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics. NJ: Princeton University Press.

Herbert, Christopher. 1991 Culture and Anomie: Ethnographic Imagination in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Priest, Robert J. 2001 Missionary Positions: Christian, Modernist, Postmodernist. Current Anthropology, 42(1), 29-68.

Sanneh, Lamin. 2003 Whose Religion Is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub.

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