Every year, about 1.5 million Americans participate in short-term mission trips. They spend $1 billion in the process! Before Hurricane Katrina, about 1/3 of short-term mission trippers (STMers) would go to Mexico. The latest figure I've seen is 350,000 go to Mexico each year, but it's possible that the number has dwindled even more because of the rising drug violence and safety concerns.
Of all the 200 countries in the world, why is Mexico the destination of such a huge chunk of short-term mission trips(STMs)? Here's why: It borders the US, the largest and wealthiest Christian nation in the world. For millions of Christians in the American Southwest it's within a day's drive. It is a poor country. In a lot of churches in the American Southwest, there's gonna be somebody who speaks Spanish, so he/she can be a person to translate and make connections. There's an established tradition of doing STMs to Mexico. In terms of poor, non-evangelical countries, there are no other options for a short, inexpensive trip. With this evidence, I can only conclude that the real reason so many STMers go to Mexico is because of CONVENIENCE. Perhaps the New American Message translation of the Bible says, "go and make disciples of a nation that's close to you" and "you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and Tijuana."
Is Mexico a worthwhile destination for missions? Is it fulfilling the Great Commission mandate that Jesus Christ gave us? Is it making disciples of all nations and being His witnesses to the ends of the earth?
Mexico is 95% Christian, but only 8% evangelical. In the last 50 years it has grown from only 2% evangelical to over 8%. 8% might sound small, but there are about 120 countries that are less evangelical than that. Most of the increase in evangelical faith seems to be a result from native evangelists within the country. Joshua Project lists Mexico as having 2 unreached people groups, while IMB claims they have 32 unreached people groups. A big discrepancy, but the majority of those people groups are small with only thousands or tens of thousands of people. Small groups, but definitely worth reaching out to. However, they're almost all in southern Mexico, instead of the border regions where STMers tend to go. According to World Christian Trends, only .2% of Mexico's population is unevangelized. Compare that to 70% of Afghanistan's population that is unevangelized.
In light of these numbers and in regards to the Great Commission, I would say that Mexico is not the worst country to focus on, but it's definitely not the best. With the brief research I've done on Mexico, I would say mission efforts in Mexico should be 3-fold: continued translation work, evangelical media increase, and raising up national missionaries. In my opinion, short-term mission trips to Mexico borderlands should be almost avoided altogether.
In regards to STMs to Mexico, so many things have gone wrong and continue to go wrong. Mexico tends to be a pet project for the American church, just so they can have some type of mission activity. Often, the Americans won't be briefed properly on the needs of the lands or what should and shouldn't be done. They often come in with the idea of doing construction projects that they think will be needed. I've heard examples of one group wanting to build houses with wood, but others will criticize it and say that practically speaking, mud brick works better for the environment. I heard another example of a church that made it their goal to install blinds for a missionary couples' windows. However, they didn't really want blinds, because drapes simply worked better. I've heard of another building project that has been under construction for 5 years and counting. The construction is going so slow, because teams from the US are doing the construction, many for the first time, and it is a stop and go process. If local workers (who just might be unemployed by the way) were hired to do the job, they could have it finished in months, and for 50 times less the cost. I got some of these examples from Mike Brown a pastor of Soma Church in LA and former missionary to Tijuana. He said that he initially thought he was going to Mexico as a missionary to help the people, but after a while he found that his major role was simply to reduce the negative impact that American mission teams were having in Tijuana.
Another problem created in Mexico is dependency. Some Mexican pastors will tell you that many of the locals will get lazy in acquiring the things they need, because they know that the Americans will bring those items anyways, so why should they go out out buy what they need? If you need clothes, school supplies, food, even a house, don't worry about it, the Americans can take care of it since they're so nice.
Sadly, this dependency can even carry over into the realm of ministry. If you are involved in a partnership with a ministry in Mexico, how confident are you that the man in charge of that ministry is using the assets he receives in the wisest manner? Your first thought might be, "Our guy would never misuse funds!" In all honesty though, it happens too often. In poor lands, there are many who will lie or stretch the truth in order to gain favor with the wealthy foreigners. It's very likely that there are many 'pastors' or 'missionaries' in Mexico who play the part while the Americans are around, but in reality they are just trying to establish a relationship, so they can benefit from the American dollars that are lavished on them. I personally know people that have been tricked into thinking they were supporting a missionary in another country. Later, they realized they were fed lies and he wasn't all he claimed to be. Orphanages are easy to fake too. On the day you know the Americans are going to be in town, all you have to do is rent a building for the day and pay every kid in the neighborhood one dollar to come over and play with the Americans. Boom, instant decoy orphanage. It works as long is there is a language barrier and lack of oversight. Some crusade preachers will have 2 or 3 big crusades per year. At these crusades, they will take wonderful pictures and videos to report to the wealthy Westerners. The cash will come rolling in and they can sit on their butt for half a year until the next crusade comes around. These examples that I've heard of come from Asia, but I guarantee you, some of this is happening in Mexico too. If you support ministries in Mexico, make sure you are working with a group that has a board that handles money. Make sure there is transparency with how funds are used. Make sure that individuals are not being paid more than an average salary for the location. Make sure you communicate multiple times a year and visit the field unannounced sometimes.
Another issue to consider with STMs to Mexico is how well it fits into the Great Commission. This has been touched upon earlier, but more needs to be said. It seems that the goal of most of these STMs is some kind of project rather than spreading the Gospel. While there are still 3 billion people unreached with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, should we really focus our mission efforts on building houses in Mexico? Also, missions shouldn't be done for the spiritual growth of the ones going. It shouldn't be done so the American can draw closer to God and find their calling. That is such a selfish reiteration of an activity that should be done with an outward focus. We call them mission trips, yet the focus too often seems to be on one's own spiritual growth, while the activity is some type of social justice project. How this relates back to Matthew 28:19 is beyond me. It's things like this which water down the term 'missions' and leave many Americans confused on the definition of 'missions'. On the profession side of things, if you are not engaged in evangelism and church planting in an unreached area, you shouldn't be called a missionary. Call yourself an actionary, a foreign educator, a social justice advocate, or anything but a missionary. Just because you travel to another country as a Christian, it doesn't make you a missionary. Please don't contribute to the confusion any further.
If you read the 6 page section on Mexico in Operation World (a missions prayer and reference book), it doesn't mention anything about STMs of Americans visiting Mexico. Interesting isn't it? Hundreds of thousands of Americans go to Mexico and believe they are doing their part to fulfill the Great Commission, yet this objective reference book, concerned with reaching the nations, doesn't even mention their impact. I would take that alone as a sign to question whether or not we should be doing STMs to Mexico.
If you are still considering taking part in STMs, I highly recommend getting ahold of a DVD documentary called, "Missio Docs: Mexico" from APU Mexico Outreach. I got a copy of this at a conference in San Diego recently. It's a very good documentary that was created by students and staff. They ask the tough questions. You'll learn a lot about STMs to border lands in Mexico.
Finally, Paco the Tijuana Zebra would like to say thank you for reading!!!