Short Term Mission Trips: the Good, the Bad, & the Ugly. Solved!

Short-term mission trips are the staple of many church youth groups, denominational church calendars, and long-term missionaries' reception. However, there is also strong opposition to allocating resources for sending a group of semi-trained Christians to far-off countries to stay for a few days completing a variety of, often menial, tasks. Let's look honestly at both sides of the issue and several of the myriad factors in effectiveness.

The Good

If you ask missionaries who have settled on foreign soils many of them will tell you that short term missionaries from the US are the highlight of their ministry. They state several reasons for this:

  • there are important projects that can be completed quickly; basically many hand-make light work; 
  • the indigenous people of the country love to have visitors: the pastors are encouraged and people flock to church services to see the Americans;
  • short-term missions bring resources. Most short-term trips include fees that are used for doing projects which are part of the purpose of the trip. This can be a relatively substantial portion of the resources which flow into that particular mission.

Another substantial positive outcome is the transformative power of these trips. There are countless testimonies of US Christians who have been changed by God through their experiences on a short trip.

The Bad

There are changes, obstacles, and downright bad aspects of short-term missions. We recently heard about an orphanage in India that has stopped receiving short-term missionaries because of the stress the orphans were experiencing after the people left. Here are some problems with short-term missions:

  • building deep relationships is near impossible;
  • bringing a lot of resources can cause people to look at US missionaries as their saviors instead of Jesus;
  • it is expensive to get people to many locations.

Short-term missions can also shift the focus of missions away from the home-front. There are non-Christians in your workplace, school, neighborhood and probably even your family. The question is also asked, "Why should we be going so far away when there are so many opportunities to reach people right here?"

The Ugly

The issues surrounding short-term missions can be messy. Here are some of the messiest:

You'll almost always hear someone say something similar to this when debating the subject, "Instead of spending thousands of dollars on travel and expenses, why don't we just collect that money and send it to the missionaries to help with their work." This may sound reasonable, but have you ever tried this? "Hey friend, there's a trip that would cost $2000 for you to take and minister alongside a missionary in Bangladesh for a week. How about you just give me $2,000 and I'll send it to them to use in ministry?" That $2,000 never seems to make it to the field.

In my opinion, this is the worst of the ugly: we had a friend leading a trip of high schoolers; the group was in a children's home painting a room and our friend was talking to the director, who revealed it was the fifth time that room had been painted this year!!! What?! This is the tragedy of the evolution of short-term missions. Many groups do menial tasks which contribute little to accomplishing the mission of the trip, much the less the Great Commission of Christ. If this is abhorrent to you, you have permission to immediately skip to the bottom of the blog and read "The Solution."

Short-term mission trips most often focus on the easiest, safest, and cheapest places to take a group. This sounds reasonable, but the problem is simple: the places where the vast majority of the non-Christians in the world live are not easy to reach, cheap or perceived as safe. If short-term missions are going to be effective, the bar must be raised to accomplishing God's mission and not base missions on what is perceived as the best for us.

A large number of short-term mission trips are taken by teenagers. Most often the possible activities of such a trip is narrowed to painting, digging, playing with kids or, best-case, being part of a Vacation Bible School type event. This misses the mark of one of the greatest opportunities to transfer Biblical training to Christians around the world...see "The Solution." 

The Solution

To know the solution, we have to know the mission. The goal of the Body of Christ is not one we have to devise; it's a given. It was given by Jesus to His disciples and has been passed along to His current disciples, us: Matthew 28:18-20. The method may vary, but the goal is the Gospel. As a rule, we have gotten way off base on the majority of short-term mission trips. Most are focused on "keeping the kids busy", getting fences and walls painted, giving the American kids a "good experience", etc. To be right, good, and effective the primary, secondary and tertiary goal of all mission trips must be what Jesus gave: Make Disciples. 

Sound impossible? Is your response, "You don't know my kids, they are ___________." I don't care what is in that blank, here is the truth:

  • most American Christians have been educated beyond their level of obedience. 
  • the untapped (and mostly unrealized) amount of Biblical knowledge is vast, compared to most of the world. Many pastors around the world are illiterate and almost completely untrained. A teenager retelling Bible stories through an interpreter to an Ethiopian pastor is more attainable and useful for making disciples who are making disciples than most of us can fathom.

Money is not the issue. Yes, it is expensive, but it is absolutely a matter of priorities. Here's one of our favorite ridiculous stats: Americans spend more on Halloween costumes for their pets every year than we send to the field where 97% of non-Christians live. The western church accumulates $700 billion annually, therefore spending thousands to send Americans to the mission field would not be a financial burden if it were a financial priority. If this is your issue, here is my challenge to you: take the money you would spend on a family vacation this year and send it to a missionary in the 10-40 window. Contact us for the method to send the money. 

In response to the issue of needing to reach our home-front first I think David Platt has the best response: "I know the guy at your workplace isn't unreached, because you work with him. He has access to the Gospel; it's you." [my paraphrase]

The arguments on both sides of the issue have merit, but the worst possible outcome is paralysis. Here is the solution: Pray. Give. Go.  Pick one, two or all three.