Thursday, February 14, 2013

Short-Term Mission Trips, Good or Bad?

What are your thoughts on short-term mission trips? Are they good or bad? The arguments can go on and on. First, lets take a look at some of the cons of short-term mission trips...

They are not cost effective. Let me use an example of personal experience. I have been on 2 mission trips to central America where the focus of the trip was on building houses. It was an amazing trip, and I had an awesome time. We worked our butts off and worked sun up to sun down every day. We built a lot of houses and people that desperately needed better housing got it. It was a successful trip. But what about the cost? By the time my team and I paid for flights and living expenses, our team of around 10 people probably spent around $10,000 by the time it was over. What would have happened if we just had raised that money and sent it over to the place and had local people build the houses? They very easily would have been able to build way more houses than what we did. Obviously short-term mission trips cost a lot of money that could be spread a lot farther if we just gave it to the local people.

Often times, short term missions undermine the abilities and giftings that God has given to the people of the country that you are ministering in. Allow me to use an example from the same mission trip mentioned above. While my friends and I were building these houses, young healthy local men would often times be sitting down on the ground just watching us work. They were not lazy. There was just nothing to do, because we were doing all of it. They could drive a nail just as good as I could. (probably better.) It was going to be their house, but yet I was the one building it and they were watching. Another thing to consider is that often times in the third world countries that we minister in are characterized by high unemployment rates. If we just sent money to them instead of going, these people could be hired to build these houses for themselves.

The underlying message that we are sending. What happens when we just give handouts to people? I'm not talking about emergency situations for relief efforts. I am talking about people and places that this is just their typical way of life. What message are we sending to them when we just give them handouts? We are saying that they need us. They can not provide for themselves. They just have to rely on our generous giving. We teach them that they don't have the skills or resources to improve their situation. All they can do is sit by and watch us build their house for them. This type of mission work can make people feel useless and unable to help themselves. It makes them feel unworthy and "less than" us.

Finally, what are the long term affects of what we are doing? Lets pretend that I start a feeding program for starving people in Ethiopia. I feed 500 people every day. I'm a pretty awesome missionary in my fantasy right? lol. I quickly become very famous, and get a lot of financial support from American Churches. Things are great. But something happens. Lets also pretend that the diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and America turn South. Lets pretend that I get an unexpected illness and have to return home. Lets pretend that a huge economic recession hits America and I lose all my funding. What will these 500 people do then? Automatically, they will be just in bad a situation, if not worse, than they were before they met me. Often times we go on short term mission trips and feed a lot of hungry people and it's all good. But once we leave, the very next week people are just as hungry as they were before they met you. I'm not asking whether or not it is good to feed these people. Obviously, it is good to help people and feed starving people. But is there a better way?

Okay, so we have talked about some of the cons of short-term mission trips. Please know that I am not at all against short term mission trips. Just up to this point I have wanted to talk about some of the problems that often come from them. But now, I want to talk about some of the pros of short-term mission trips.

The change that they make within us. Allow me to tell you another personal experience. When I was 18 years old, I took a month long mission trip to Kenya, Africa and I had the time of my life. This trip had an amazing impact and confirmed a desire in my heart that I wanted to be an African Missionary. Today, I am proud to tell you that I am a missionary in Kenya, Africa. I am a full-time missionary in the same country that I came to 5 years earlier. This trip obviously had a huge impact on me. A lot of people have a similar story. They go on a short-term trip and come back completely changed. They are more conscious about what God is doing in the world. They have formed new relationships. They have had their eyes opened to how the majority of the world lives. They become more giving and thankful people all because of this short trip. The trip also teaches us how to serve people. The point is, that these short-term mission trips often make a great change within us.

People are trying to help out people that need help. Think about it. The people that give money to these trip obviously have a heart to help out people that could really use some help. They are giving their own hard earned money to try and help people that are less fortunate. They are trying to be obedient to God. They are trying to carry out God's commands to care for the "poor" of the world. Honestly, it is truly beautiful to me, that people are willing to give their own money so that other people can benefit without them receiving anything in return.

Okay, I guess now I am finally going to answer the question. I believe that short-term mission trips are good, and at the same time I also believe that we need to change the way that we do these short-term mission trips. If you are not to tired of reading this post yet.... I want to talk about my personal opinion of how we can do short-term missions in a better way.

1. Most importantly, work alongside with the locals and the missionaries we are helping. Lets make sure that we ask the local people what we can do to help. I hope this is obvious to you. PLEASE do not go into another country and just assume that you have the answers to fix all their problems. It is arrogant and really undermines the local people. If you have read any of my previous posts, you know how strongly I feel about this. We are in no way "better" than the people in these countries we are ministering in. We are going there to be servants. We are not going there to be "gods." We don't have all the answers. Also, the locals will have the best insight on the best way to minister in their respective area. We don't need to just go in and take over.

2. Lets primarily make the trips a learning experience. Often times, we focus on the most productive, efficient way to spend our time and money in these foreign countries. This is not a bad thing. Time is money right? But that's now how most third world countries think. But I mean, we can't go back to our home country and have nothing to show for it? We need pictures, facebook statuses, and twitter updates to show all the progress we are making? I mean, we want our financial supporters to know that they didn't waste their money right?... I think we would be better off if we focused on making these trips "learning" oriented, as opposed to "service" oriented. I'm not saying that we should not be serving on mission trips. Obviously, we should be. But I believe that we should be more focused on learning on these trips than on "doing our good deed for the day." When we take a step back, and allow the local people to take control, we show honor to what God is doing through them. We also show them that we are not "above" them. Most importantly, we gain a firsthand local perspective on the best way to minister to the people in the country that we are in.

3. Finally, our goals should be to help out the best way we can in a bigger picture of a self-sustaining ministry. I think that this is very important. When we go on these short trips, our goal should be to assist in the bigger picture of what God is already doing in the area. We should work within the bigger picture of missionaries' goals and that should be to create a sustainable, reproducing ministry. Obviously, this is hard to do in just two weeks. But I think if we take this approach, it will benefit the people more in the long-term than whatever "physical labor" we are doing in the typical "2 week trip." Yes we have the money and resources to go into a third world country and dazzle them and amaze them with our technology and expensive materials that they have never experienced before. But again, my question is what happens after you leave and these people no longer have the technology and expensive materials? They need something reproducible and sustainable that does not rely on western, American handouts.

What are some of your thoughts on short-term mission trips? I would love to hear your comments. Again, I'm not trying to step on anybody's toes with this post. My goal is to just have a honest conversation about the best way to do short-term missions.

Be blessed!


  1. AH! Another big Amen! :)Such a great post. This is full of truth. I wish we could all sit across the table from each other and chat. lol Anyways, I went to Africa and was blessed to be on a short term trip that followed the rules of working to help the on-site missionaries and new church planters. We worked on mixed teams(Africans and Americans) and were told to follow the Africans lead as they knew what was best. (Hello!) And it was definitely not a comfy trip. We were in tents in 30 degree weather. Lastly, what occurred with my teens, myself and the other leader is that we became massive advocates for the people there. We have since put on multiple fundraisers and begun educating and speaking out to the needs for people in developing countries. Thank you for sharing the pros and cons. I am grateful we went on the trip. It left us completely changed.(Wrecked for the ordinary) A chunk of my heart is still in Africa. Keep sharing! Praying for you both.

    1. Also we did not build anything. There is another group I love that makes this point about not doing the building for these countries where there are able bodied people who need the work. Ok, ok...I could go on and on, and you know all this. I need to get back to work, but keep it up. :)

    2. Thanks. It sounds like you went on a great trip. I wish I would have known some of this 5 years ago. Looking back now I often was more of burden to a missionary than I was a help. I also often times really under minded the people of the country that I was serving in. Have you ever read "When helping hurts?" It was a great book that really changed the way I look at missions.

      The last thing I wanted to do with the blog was be critical of people's efforts to serve God. I also don't like it when people start criticizing missions but have never been on one, or are not doing things themselves.

      I really liked what you were saying about working with mixed teams. (Africans and Americans). I think any visitors we have in the future that try to do outreach, I will try and use that approach. Thanks!