Do short-term mission trips do anyone any good?
Each year, American Christians spend more than a billion dollars on short-term mission trips. Some go to impoverished areas of North America. Some go to more exotic places — irreligious nations, Christian nations, or places where only a few citizens have heard the gospel. Some stay for a few months, but some of the trips are only a few days long.
As with most anything else that churches do, some of this activity is a waste of time and money. Some of it does more harm than good, and some of it is very helpful. Let’s look at the value a short-term trip can have.
Value in unexpected ways
Mission trips are supposed to help people in other places. Often, they do. But just as often, the greatest benefit comes to the people who go. In a mission trip, you can make a huge difference in at least one person’s life—your own.
Melinda has experienced eight mission trips. She writes: "Mission trips are great to show you what you’re good at, what you’re passionate about, and what you love, but they can also show you what you struggle with and what you can’t stand. You learn so much about yourself through mission trips, meet new people, travel, and have unique experiences. You’re also helping people, physically or spiritually, and that’s the best part."
Deanna, another veteran, says: "Going on short-term missions has definitely changed me. I see my whole life as a mission field. I see my school as a mission field in which I have the opportunity to make the kingdom visible to my friends and classmates. We all have opportunities like this. The question is, do we dare to take them? Short-term missions are like a training ground to live the gospel everywhere in our lives."
One of the things I will never forget about the Bahamas is bonding with the Haitian girls in my group. When I first met them, they were all so quiet. Then as the week went on, they started opening up to me. There was one 15-year-old who could barely speak any English. During lunch we would all sit together and she would teach me Haitian Creole. She enjoyed doing it so much that she would teach me so fast that I couldn’t keep up.
Hearing about the hardships these children have to face every day was heartbreaking. But when I got to hear them laugh and see them smile it gave me hope to know that Jesus is a good and loving God who is taking care of them even when the world seems like it’s crashing down all around them.
The last day of the camp was difficult for me because as this girl was leaving, she was crying and saying to me, "Mm re mo" which means, "I love you." Being in the Bahamas was definitely no vacation, but it was an experience I would never want to trade for anything else.
After her first trip, Megan said: "Surprisingly, I think what I liked most about the mission trip was that many times I was pushed out of my comfort zone and had to do things that I wouldn’t normally enjoy or be comfortable doing. This brought me closer to God because I had to rely on him to give me the courage and strength to do those things."
The wrong kind of trip
No one is successful all the time, no matter whether we are trying to do a favor for a neighbor, explain the gospel to a friend who asks, or even when we put on our shoes. So it is no surprise that some mission trips are better than others. When we go away from home and out of our culture, there are many opportunities for things to go wrong. When we try to do something useful in another culture, there are even more ways for our efforts to go wrong.
Mission trips can go wrong in a couple of ways. At one extreme is the vacation: Wealthy Americans take an air-conditioned bus trip through a slum and tell each other how blessed they are. They go to a fancy restaurant, decide to send money to help paint a church building, and congratulate themselves for doing something great for God.
Then there is the mission trip based on the book of Acts: the people get lynched, shipwrecked, thrown in jail, and come down with malaria, not necessarily in that order. As the apostle Paul could tell you, there are a few things that can go wrong. And if you are a full-time missionary, you may accept the risks. But if you are a short-term missionary, you can do a lot to avoid the problems.
Here are some things to look for:
Does the trip look like tourism, or work? Where is the focus?
Is the trip advertised with hype, as if two dozen strangers can change an entire city in two weeks?
Are the travelers doing most of the work, or are they watching others do the work? (It’s not wrong to watch, as long as you are aware that you are a spectator.)
Do your homework: What are the political, safety, and health risks involved in that nation? Consult http://travel.state.gov/travel/travel_1744.html and http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/list.aspx (There is no "." after www).
Are the organizers aware of, and doing something about, the risks involved in travel to that nation?
Are the mission activities done in cooperation with local churches? Native ministries are needed to locate meaningful ministry situations, to guide the work so that it is most appropriate for that culture, and to follow up after the travelers go home.
Is there adequate supervision, especially if minors are involved?
The right trip
With careful planning and spiritually sensitive participation, a mission trip can be a highlight in the life of a disadvantaged community, and in the lives of those who go. Challenge yourself! Be adventurous! Be willing to learn new skills, meet new people, and learn from them that life is not measured by the amount of souvenirs we collect, but by what we give to others.
Melinda advises: "To choose a trip, think of the kinds of things you enjoy, or are good at. Who do you enjoy working with: children, teenagers, orphans, adults, students, men, women, elderly, etc.? What do you like doing: building relationships, construction, sharing the gospel, drama, music, playing with kids, prayer, teaching in classrooms, VBS, medical help, etc.?
"Where do you want to go, or feel more of a calling to? Do you want to go to a place where you speak the language? Do you want to go to a place where Christianity is already fairly common, or where most people have never heard the name of Jesus? Also think about things like price and difficulty level."
Holli says, "Short-term mission trips change your life because they change how you look at people. In theory, it’s easy to learn about a group of people who have never heard of Jesus, or people who are really poor, and to an extent you can really care about them. But when you actually go and experience what their life is like, see where they live, meet them, hear them, see them face to face, it makes it not only understandable to your mind, but your heart really becomes attached. It becomes real. I’ve seen what it’s like to live in a different culture, and it’s really given me a heart for people that I couldn’t have had without the experience."
Janet Morrison has organized six mission trips and is now the director of Great Commission Trips, a ministry affiliated with Grace Communion International. She is organizing a trip to work with Haitian refugee children in the Bahamas this summer and a trip to Zambia next year. For more information see www.greatcommissiontrips.org. She gives special thanks to the GCI churches in the Philippines, the Bahamas and Zambia for their support and help. For work in Mexico, see www.cbmission.org.