Today, I wanted to offer some thoughts on the efficacy of short term mission trips. You may be aware that over the years, the idea of short term mission trips have become somewhat of a controversial topic of contention. The reasons for this are varied, but they generally seem to orbit around the trip-takers doing more harm than good, the projects not really being needed, the reporting not being accurate, and the trips being more about the participants than the recipients.
Let me just say that although I will readily agree that, if leveraged improperly, short term mission trips can produce horrific results. However, if done correctly, they can be extremely valuable. In fact, it’s my belief that every follower of Jesus should have a bible with a lot of markings, and a passport with a lot of stamps.
To properly unpack the idea of how short term mission trips should be done properly, I’ll use “The 7 Standards of Excellence” for short term mission trips (found here) and offer my thoughts on each part. This code for best-practices for short term mission practitioners suggests that every short term endeavor expresses:
It doesn’t go without saying – actually – that the trip must be centered on the glory of God and his goodness to the nations. It’s not about fun, cultural excursions, although every trip I’ve ever been on has been exhilarating and has contained rich cultural learning. Every trip should mimic the stories and efforts we see in the scriptures where other missionaries, like Paul, went to the various cities to fulfill the Great Commission. That doesn’t have to look any one particular way, but it should be the motivation behind the project.
2. Empowering Partnerships.
As a missions leader, I get calls all the time where the person on the other end of the line says something like, “Hey we want to come do [fill in the blank] for you”, to which my first response is usually, “Well, that’s certainly kind of you, but that’s not what we need”. More times than not, the person making the call gets offended. I get it. They are wanting to provide a great experience for their people. I want to join them in that effort, but not at the expense of what God has my people doing. Instead, in-coming groups should always seek to serve, and enter into the project with a spirit of humility, with the hope of fueling what God is already doing in a particular locality.
3. Mutual Design.
As a pastor, I once took a group of adults to Costa Rica, where we were to build a bathroom facility attached to a church building. This was in response to the pastor, whom our church had a long relationship with, and his request that we come. So we went. And we hired a local contractor to be our boss. The reason? We wanted it to look like locals built it. We wanted to bless the family of the contractor by providing work. And we wanted to not tarnish the name of this local church. I remember telling my team, all of whom were older and had more construction experience than I, that we would no doubt be faced with a construction approach or two that we “knew” to be less efficient than how we would do it. I told them that when that happens, they are to keep their mouths shut and just do it the bosses way. That happened more than once, and the bathrooms were still complete when we left – and they looked great! The reason we took this approach was not because of our own wisdom, but because the local people on the ground suggested it, and we were the better partners as a result.
4. Comprehensive Administration.
Two big words to communicate two basic things; that we’re honest in our reporting, and we’re intelligent in our planning. One of the biggest negative stereotypes is a church team that goes to a village every year, and every year there are a couple hundred “professions of faith”. Of course, there are only about 112 people total in the village, but it makes for a great story. We learned it in kindergarten; if it’s not true, we don’t need to say it. To be intelligent in our planning means that we don’t take unnecessary risks and we don’t do more harm than good. It doesn’t help anyone if our team makes such a negative impression that future teams from other places are no longer permitted entry.
5. Qualified Leadership.
Whomever the trip leader, they must have the competence and character necessary to embark on such a responsibility. When I was a young youth pastor, speaking to a group of parents, I didn’t seize an opportunity to speak deep and spiritual things into the hearts and minds of not only my students, but also the parents before we left on a trip. The pastor, my boss, frustrated with me, grabbed the mic and did what I should have done. It left an-immovable impression on me and since that failure, I’ve sought to take hold of every opportunity I can in group settings like that to love and lead like I’m called to do it. On a trip, for instance, to an unreached people group, how much more important is the quality of the leadership than a youth camp across town? The leader can make or break the trip from every perspective.
6. Appropriate Training.
Regardless of the project, location or difficulty, solid preparatory training needs to be provided – or even required – for participants. For this reason, I developed a tool that churches can use when bringing groups to serve in one of our ministry areas, as a way to prepare individuals for maximum benefit, not only to our organization, but the church sending them. The reason I wrote such a tool is because I learned that none of our churches were doing this on their own, and even with the tool many, unfortunately, still decline. Good training will not only ensure an effective trip, which is good for the mission partner and the locals you’ll be serving, but it can have profound benefit to the sending church, and should be seen as equal parts missiology and spiritual formation.
7. Thorough Follow-Through.
Entering into a short term trip from the perspective that it’s a part of a much broader, more holistic process of discipleship and spiritual formation, really, is the only healthy way to do it. If it’s just about the trip, no follow up conversation is needed. But, if it’s a part of a broader strategy (which it should be) then debriefing, follow through and next steps will be just as important as passports.
I’ve taken groups on mission trips (as a pastor), and I’ve hosted groups (as a missions leader). I’ve made some mistakes on both sides of it. If you’re just getting started with short term trips, if you’re questioning their value, or if you’re simply trying to adjust your own approach, there’s help to be had. Be sure to check out www.soe.org, also cited above, or let’s meet for a cup of coffee to talk more. Maybe I can help.
To connect, email me at email@example.com.