The problems with short-term trips

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This is the first in a series of articles on the good, bad, why and how of short-term missions.

Missions has changed.

Years ago lack of technology and resources forced well-known missionaries like William Carey, Amy Carmichael, Jim Elliot, Lottie Moon and Hudson Taylor to commit their entire lives to traveling–usually by boat for great lengths of time–to a foreign location for the rest of their lives. Choosing to be an international missionary was an all-or-nothing devotion.

Today elementary school students can access events occurring across the globe through their mobile phones, and strangers living on different continents can become chat buddies via the Internet. Technology has brought the world to our fingertips.

Therefore how people approach missions has adapted. The willing and able take time off from work, temporarily pause from school or simply break from normal routines and travel thousands of miles to work on week-long projects and help meet needs in less fortunate areas of the world. While many may consider this modern reality a fantastic development in declaring the Gospel to every tribe, nation and tongue, others have made a few observations about short-term trips that leave them wondering if these ventures are doing any good at all.

Barna statistics from October 2008 show 9 percent of Americans and 11 percent of church attendees have participated in a short-term trip, with many doing so more than five years ago. This means “8 million of the 228 million adult residents of the U.S. have been on a short-term mission trip in the last five years.”

Those under the age of 25–termed the Mosaic generation due to its members’ eclectic lifestyles and variety–are more likely than members of the Boomer generation to have participated in a short-term trip.

“Mosaics are globally aware and cause-oriented,” according to David Kinnaman, president of The Barna Group. “They relish risk, stimulation and diverse experiences. And they are more sensitive to issues related to justice and poverty. Their craving to take journeys of service could fuel a resurgence of global engagement.”

Some may consider short-term trips to be an agreeable outlet for the Mosaic generation to seize adventure and aid others in a healthy fashion. Yet some disagree.

They look at the money required to send a few people–let alone a team of 10–to a foreign country for a few days or weeks and wonder if the finances could be used more effectively if sent to that location in place of the visitors and their efforts to help. Perhaps projects on the field could be handled more efficiently by a local who needs the work and income. This would also free up those hoping to go on the expensive international trip to meet needs closer to home, in their own city, state or country.

Further arguments include the opinion that those who participate in short-term trips are often unable to effectively evangelize and serve others because they do not speak the native tongue of their destination or understand the culture around them. These travelers also can be more concerned about their own comfort–going to American-style restaurants or spending down time with other teammates instead of with nationals–than impacting those who they came to reach.

Groups may insist on working according to their own methods when conducting service projects during short-term trips, and consequently ignore the advice or suggestions of a national, who then may feel inadequate, frustrated and unappreciated. If a team then leaves a task unfinished, the indigenous individual has to pick up where the foreigners left off, but lacks the experience of laboring along side them and learning the methods of their work.

Those questioning the value of short-term missions also note such trips require valuable time and energy from each group’s on-the-field host–time that could be spent in effective local ministry.

The general argument of those questioning short-term missions seems to revolve around the idea that these trips benefit the travelers more than those to whom they travel. Participants’ hearts are softened as they (at least temporarily) realize how much their lives might not be so bad, after all, when compared to the less fortunate living in third world locations. Yet consistent long-term results may still be lacking for those who make such trips, begging the question of gain for any party involved.

JoAnn Van Engen, missionary in Honduras and contributing writer to Catapult Magazine’s online publication, writes, “Short-term missions as they stand are not the answer. Third world people do not need more rich Christians coming to paint their churches and make them feel inadequate. They do need more humble people willing to share in their lives and struggles.”

Next: What’s right with short-term missions

Written by Natalie Bunch. Natalie is a freelance writer for The Upstream Collective and lives in North Carolina. She served as a missionary writer based out of Prague, Czech Republic, from 2007-2009, and plans to return to full-time international mission work with her husband in a few years.

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17 Responses to “The problems with short-term trips”

  1. James Bunch August 17, 2010 at 5:21 PM #

    When addressing something that is seemingly a “problem” with short term missions is exactly how are we defining “missions”? Missions has grown to be the all encompassing word for a group of people going overseas and doing something. It doesn’t matter what that something is, if they are Christians they are doing missions.

    This is not a biblical view of missions at all. We need to differentiate between “Service project” and “missions”. They are two very different and distinct ideas and while they can coexist they are not the same.

    Many of our so called mission trips are nothing more than a service project, and yes I would agree that there are many situations where a team will go somewhere and leave the situation worse than before they came. So is the answer to not go and just throw our money at the situation? By no means. How can we follow God’s word and think this? Was the command not to go and spread the gospel? Are there solid believers on the ground in location “X” doing that already that could use the money? Probably. Does that negate God’s command? I would say emphatically NO!

    Next I think that we need to remember that these teams are being lead by humans. Are we training these leaders to be evangelical and missions minded? Are they going over to location “X” with the mindset of helping, serving, joining with the work already going on and most importantly sharing the gospel?

    If we are doing these things I think that the problems with Short-term missions as we see them will drastically change.

  2. likemindead August 17, 2010 at 9:00 PM #

    When Helping Hurts by Fikkert & Corbett is a great book that deals with this topic (and much more). Well said. Thank you.

  3. John N. Routh August 18, 2010 at 7:32 AM #

    Good job Natlee. I understand the argument against short-term trips but don’t agree of course. Yes the one who goes does in fact benefit perhaps greater than the nationals (speaking from 4 short-term experiences)however, these benefits do in fact spill over into their lives! While my efforts may or may not have greatly changed those lives I touched in Africa, France, Virgina, or Eastern Kentucky, my life was in fact forever altered (in a marvelous way) because of those trips!

  4. Natalie August 18, 2010 at 7:58 AM #

    James and John, thank you for sharing your opinions based on your experiences with short-term missions.

    Likeminded, thank you for the book reference. It looks like an interesting resource on the topic of effectively aiding the poor/impoverished.

    The topic of short-term missions is highly debated and can bring many opinions to light. Be sure to check back next week as we continue this series!

  5. Caleb August 18, 2010 at 12:02 PM #

    Many (most?) missionaries on the field have had some experience hosting short-term teams of volunteers. I imagine that many (again, most?) have had a negative experience in doing so.

    The know-it-all groups, the tourists, the ugly Americans, they all come through with different motivations and various expectations.

    I blame the system. Most short-term trips these days are the result of a church leader shopping around for the “best experience,” “most bang for their buck,” or where they can “make the greatest impact” (come home to report the greatest number of resulting salvations).

    Until the church gets a vision for healthy direct involvement, we only perpetuate the consumeristic approaches to “mission trips.” The end result is a huge number Christians who say they’ve been on mission trips, but have no understanding of how they fit into God’s global mission.

    • Joe Bradford July 3, 2013 at 4:37 PM #

      Very good, Caleb. Well said.

  6. Christi August 19, 2010 at 7:32 PM #

    I can agree with some of the criticisms of short-term missions, but sometimes they can be wonderful. Our church partners with a congregation in Sudan in many different ways. We’ve had full-time missionaries there, but we also send groups from here in the US with resources and encouragement. Usually these teams include some of our elders or pastors, along with other believers. They go to provide workshops, lessons and services for the local church leadership. My sister, along with three other women, just got back from southern Sudan where they taught new women believers. In turn, these women go back to their villages all in the hills of Sudan to share what they have learned.

    I agree with J. Bunch that the point of missions must be the gospel. What is more, all attempts at sharing the gospel must be led by the Holy Spirit, and I bet He can work through both long and short trips.

  7. Kris August 27, 2010 at 6:56 AM #

    My wife and I would probably credit short-term cross-cultural trips as being the greatest influence on us becoming career missionaries this past Spring and joining a mission agency. However, looking back upon the actual work we did I would venture to say that no serious dent was made in the Great Commission and we left Unreached Peoples completely untouched.

    I think that when Christians approach this topic, we need to think about intent and follow that up with desired outcomes.

    The intent of short-term mission should be to help accelerate long-term mission work to help fulfill the Great Commission. This might include apostolic teams doing research among UPG’s, or making sure that STM teams are being directed to think about UPG’s through intentional Bible study’s, book readings and curriculum during their trip.

    If the good intentions of the Church are not followed by serious planning and God-honoring strategy then we are ‘throwing money at a problem’. Money, time, and people while the world still waits.

  8. Scott September 1, 2010 at 9:49 AM #

    Absolutely right – there have been so far too many short-term trips done atrociously – they ahve wasted precious time and resources and done more harm than good. Because of that, people from many mission agencies and Christian colleges have worked together for more than a decade to establish Best Practices an accreditation process. Organizations, churches, and schools with quality short-term programs have become members of Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Mission http://www.stmstandards.org.

  9. Steven September 15, 2010 at 6:57 AM #

    Great post and wonderful comments. I see both sides of this issue all the time and agree with aspects of both. Of course, all efforts in this arena could use some critical analysis and adjustment, that’s just healthy.

    For me, it’s the fundamental intent that matters most. I have full faith that if we approach these missions with a lot of prayer that the Spirit will guide us in the right direction. I am comforted in the knowledge that I’ll never, in this lifetime, understand His ultimate plan. I do know that there’s a very real possibility that my work and prayer could result in just one person being saved who in turn, leads untold numbers of others along that path to salvation.

    I have faith in God and believe that when we submit to Him, He works through us……sometimes those actions might look weird out of eternal context :-)

  10. Erin December 2, 2011 at 5:15 PM #

    What is considered to be a “long” mission trip?

    • Natalie December 3, 2011 at 11:46 AM #

      @Erin, great question. I think in the case of this article, a “long” or long-term mission trip would be what some call “career” missions or relocating to a place to walk with the people there for the “long-term.” Perhaps this can be defined as the opposite of a missionary tourist (see: http://theupstreamcollective.org/2011/11/22/missionary-tourist/); someone who commits to living and planting themselves in a location for more than 15 years for the sake of the Gospel.

      • Kelly June 24, 2013 at 1:25 AM #

        I also think its important to remember that Paul certainly was a short-term missionary to many places…for instance, Lystra and Iconium. However, if he even wrote letters to them at a later time, they are at least not canon and not extant. So, he didn’t always necessarily “walk with them” for the long term. I agree short term trips can be done badly. However, I also think it can be done effectively. Further. I want to make the greatest I pact, but I don’t think that always means numbers. It’s about being obedient to where God leads a group. One will make his/her greatest impact where He is calling them.

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