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Rise of sunshine Samaritans: on a mission or holiday?

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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."

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