Are Short-Term Mission Trips Good?
Here is a simple answer to a weirdly controversial question:
Are short-term mission trips a good thing for churches to do?
The good ones are.
So what makes a short-term mission trip a good thing for churches to take part in? Here are a few of my thoughts that come from serving as a missions pastor as well as working constantly with career missionaries:
1. Avoid having a "savior" complex
My first mission trip was a stateside trip to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Before our group got into the van for the drive from North Carolina to Louisiana, our leader stopped us and told us he had to tell us something important.
"Jesus has been there long before we get there. He is going to preserve the Gospel from us messing it up while we're there- and he is going to be there long after we leave."
It was an important message for many college students who could have easily drifted into thinking we were more important than we were. Too many Western Christians get on planes and in vans with a sense of pride and ego that misses the point of "short-term trips"- the investment we are making into the place we are going is a very limited one and therefore the impact we hope to have should be seen from a more humble perspective than many American Christians have.
Most short-term trips are not going to Unengaged Unreached People Groups where the Gospel is not known. Many of these teams are going places where there is already a mission strategy that has been enacted over many years, and even generations of missionaries and national Christians who know far better how to minister in these contexts. So we should actively avoid having a prideful spirit in how we plan our mission trips and seek to support partnerships with trustworthy missionaries and national partners who will stay in those places long after our one-week trip is over.
2. Serve and Care for Career Missionaries
Many of my friends who serve full-time overseas tell me that in their summers they feel as if they become tour guides. They spend weeks carting around short-term teams to construction projects and tourist destinations, and while these teams can often be a financial blessing, they often find themselves more exhausted from these teams than they do from the actual work of the ministry they were called there to do.
So what if we built our short-term endeavors to be a breath of fresh air to career missionaries? Often these people have no community with people from their home countries and cultures, and they are unfortunately a group of people prone to overworking themselves. So what if we set aside intentional time to give them rest? To go into their daily ministry lives and encourage them in what they are doing. Instead of insisting that our short-term trips make us look like heroes, what if we make them feel like those who should be admired and encouraged? Some of my friends have told me that along with snacks from home and childcare, they sometimes just sit and cry when they can speak their native language for extended periods with short-term teams. Short-term trips are amazing opportunities to extend the lifespan of career missionaries who should not be expected to transition into tour guides and travel agents.
3. Develop a Global View of the Church
I remember the first time I had to sit on the floor in a South Asian Church. Not only was it difficult for me to do this without my legs falling asleep, I desperately missed my comfortable seats at my home church. But as I looked around that day, and the many other days I have spent in churches around the world, I observed that the Church looks different everywhere I go. Short-term trips can be amazing opportunities for American Christians to learn that the Church is bigger than we thought. Even more, the image of God seems to be reflected in all of the cultures of the world. My life has been drastically changed by the hospitality I have had extended to me in South Asia, and it has made me a more hospitable Christian at home. My witness for Christ has been emboldened by watching brothers and sisters live out their faith in the Middle East, and it has made me bold in my witness at home.
We have a lot to learn from our brothers and sisters in Christ overseas, and these trips can be amazing opportunities to observe what it means to be Christian in contexts that are so different than ours.
4. Be Sharpened and Trained for Ministry at Home
Short-term trips should have evangelistic aspects to them, but these should usually be done in concert with longstanding mission partners who can ensure we are working effectively. Where we often miss the mark is to forget that the United States is far less reached than we think, so these trips should sharpen us to come home and be missional here. Yet the Church in the United States is one of the few (or possibly only?) globally that spend most of our time and money in missions outside of our home context. This is due to the misconception that there is no more Gospel work to be done here. This will prove to be a deadly mistake. We have to be about engaging the darkest and least reached places in our home cities and regions, and if we are spending vast amounts of time and money to go to other places it should be for experiences that are going to further enable us to be about the Father's mission at home as well.
So should the church continue promoting short-term trips? ABSOLUTELY!
But they should be good ones.
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