I want to address a phenomenon in church circles knows as the “Short-Term Missions Trip.” There’s an article which I’ve seen floating around social media also talking about the short-term trip and its uselessness. The article made some very good points, many of which I have aligned with for a while now (I do recommend you read it as well); but it also came across to me as extreme and a bit cynical. As I am still in my first-year as a “Full-Term” missionary to Haiti, perhaps I haven’t been around long enough to acquire the appropriate cynicism for the matter, and I offer that as a disclaimer. I have been wanting to write about this for a while now, so this is not meant to be a direct critique of that article, but I do want to offer some balance on the issue.
So, in case you haven’t heard, those 7+ missions trips you took in high school or college did not really mean much… at least not for the country you were visiting. I’m sorry to break it to you, but it’s true.
I know that you set out to change the world during your ten days abroad, but I can almost guarantee you didn’t even come close, and possibly you even made the country you visited worse off. Ouch! I know that sounds harsh, doesn’t it? But don’t worry, I don’t believe that it’s completely your fault—you just got caught in the middle of a faulty system that has been around for a while now.
In my mind, the short-term missions trip model has these 6 fatal flaws:
- The compulsion to do. Americans are notoriously hardwired to get things done. This certainly has its place, but it will get you nowhere in any sort of cross-cultural work. The reason is that you are a foreigner who understands little-to-nothing about how the culture works. You understand very little about the actual needs of the country. Many people and organizations make wrong judgements based on their First-World lenses without taking the time to ask questions and seek understanding (time which you don’t have on a short trip). Does that community in Africa really need you to donate a John Deere tractor for plowing their fields? What often happens in these circumstances is the community will gladly accept your gift because why not, it’s free; but after you’ve left, it sits unused because the community has been plowing the same way for hundreds of years and sees no reason to change now. All the while, the short-termers return home reporting how happy the community was to receive their new tractor… which leads me to my next point.
- Stroking our own ego. Are you really in it to help the people, or do you just get a high off of being the do-gooder? There’s nothing wrong with feeling satisfaction from truly helping people—I believe God made it to work that way—but often short-termers are content in believing that their one week in India was impactful as long as they have the Facebook pictures to prove it.
- Encourages a savior complex. Just as Jesus came down from heaven to save us, so now we Westerners are coming down to South America to save those poor, primitive heathens. Hopefully nobody has actually said this, but this is the exact mindset many short-termers have. For one thing, many people in Third-World countries already love Jesus even more than you do—perhaps, instead, you have something to learn from them. In addition, just because a country lacks certain comfort or technology that you are used to, does not mean they are worse off for it. The times I have visited Peru and encountered the primitive, hut-dwelling Shipebo people, I’ve witnessed some of the happiest people in the world, and they own very few possessions. It is never our job as Christ-followers to Americanize other cultures.
- All the smoke and mirrors. After a week-long missions trip, it’s easy to come away thinking you have the country figured out despite the controlled environment of a set schedule, a safe compound to sleep in, and celebrity treatment from the locals towards the rich Americans. Such factors can contribute towards a false perception of the county and its needs. Similarly, spending a few days with a particular ministry in-country (a church, an orphanage, a school, etc.) can leave the impression of an honest, thriving ministry. That may well be true, but then again it may not be. You just can’t know what’s really going on from such a short trip. Think about it, any such indigenous ministry has incentive enough to put on a good show for the Americans in those few days. This is very common and can be harmless, but it can also be quite the opposite. There are plenty of “orphanages” out there kidnapping children to solicit foreign donations. There are plenty of corrupt pastors and so-called ministries. Hopefully, if you go with an organization, they will not partner with such ministries, but sometimes even they don’t know what is going on. On a short-term trip, everything may not be as it seems.
- Little-to-no true impact. There could be so many reasons for this depending on the context. Instead of going into detail of the how, it’s better that you understand why you are not making an impact. True impact and heart-change comes through relationship. You don’t have time on a short-term missions trip to develop a meaningful friendship with anyone. Perhaps you can over several visits, but often there are still the hurdles of culture and language that make even this difficult. Relationships take time and a lot of it. The short-term trip is the quick and easy way: meet a few nice people, complete a task, then go home. Without doing the harder work, you will not see results.
- Hurting instead of helping. I cannot help but think of the classic example of sending the construction team to build a school, a church, or whatever. Have all the local construction workers gone on strike that you have to bring a bunch of (often unskilled) westerners to get the job done? This is stealing jobs away from people who really need them. Wouldn’t the costs of the trip be better put to use to simply hire local workers? Often, without knowing, our work in Third-World countries is also creating dependency on us westerners—this has been the case in Haiti, and it will take decades to recover from the harm it has caused. There are also too many examples of hurting and not helping to count, and, again, it stems from a compulsion to do.*
So, maybe you think I sound cynical now, but I will be the first to admit I have been guilty of just about all of these things myself.
The truth is I’m not ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater for the short-term trip. Before I ever moved overseas, I had been on many short-term trips, and I feel like God used them in my life. I ended up gaining a broader, more accurate view of the world I live in and realizing I have a lot to be grateful for. I discovered there are those out there with incredible need and it is my responsibility to do something about it. Ultimately, he used it to call me to move overseas for ministry.
Interestingly enough, all of the things I just mentioned are things which I received, not things which I gave. If I think about it, I did not make much of an impact on those trips. Perhaps, that is a more realistic expectation for a short-term trip… so why not embrace it? We need to begin to change out mindset towards short-term trips to accept the things they do accomplish, as well as the things they can’t.
Here are 10 ways in which we need to change our perspective to make the short-term trip positive and meaningful:
- Go mostly just to be. As opposed to doing, just take it in and experience the newness of a new culture: the food, the smells, the language, the people, everything. Sure, you may visit an orphanage, teach an English lesson, put on a kids program, etc. I think some of these activities are ok and help embrace this concept of being; but I would highly advise against choosing a trip that is more task-driven.
- If possible, add value. If you are going to do anything, do something that will add value to an existing ministry and not hurt it.
- Come as a learner. Ask a lot of questions, and assume that your First-World mindset will not be adequate to interpret what you experience each day. Defer to your in-country host and listen to any specific instructions they give. Remember that they understand the cultural dynamics better than you, and they can help you not be any sort of hinderance to their ministry.
- Be a tourist, and spend your money. I know it does not sound very spiritual in a support letter, but you need to go to the beach, visit some tourist attractions, and buy souvenirs. Tourism can be a huge boost to the economy in a Third-World country. I used to grumble on some missions trip when I thought we were spending too much time at the beach, but this can actually be one of the more impactful things you do.**
- Encourage your host. Did you know missionaries are people too? Yes, they get lonely, discouraged, and spiritually depleted just like you—and then throw in the frustrations of a foreign culture. If all your trip consisted of was going for a week to chill with a missionary family at the beach, I would consider that a successful trip! (Hint-hint!)
- Expect to come back different. Let’s face it, in the end, this trip is more about you than the country you are visiting since your impact on it is minimal. Honestly, that’s completely ok, and you should embrace that. Expect to return home feeling more grateful for what you have. Expect to have a better view of your world. Expect to have a newfound purpose.
- Expect for the native people to “give you more than what you could ever give them.” I always hear people say this after a trip. To return home believing the opposite would be an unsuccessful trip at best. Don’t go with the superiority complex we Americans are so prone to have. Instead, be expectant of what the native people have to offer you. Their different way of life might inspire you. Expect to receive their love and welcome.**
- Expect God to stir in your heart to invest. In terms of a business deal, this trip is not the business itself, but an opportunity being presented to you to invest. This is your chance to see firsthand the need and the opportunity you have to invest in it financially, through prayer, through advocating, or by actually going to serve long-term. In the missions world, we call this a “Vision Trip” because you are giving God the permission to place vision in your heart for that country. If you are not open to at least the possibility of investing in that country long-term, then you should do yourself and that country a favor and stay home.
- Focus on building relationships. I know I said that you cannot build meaningful relationships on a short-term trip, and I still hold to that; but relationships always have to start somewhere, and if you come with the mindset to invest in that country, then these new friendships you form have potential to grow. This also part of being rather than doing. True ministry cannot happen without relationships, so this is vitally important.
- Work towards empowering. There are always exceptions to rules; the task orientated trips that do end up being effective have to do with offering a specialized skill not readily available in that country like medicine, teaching seminary-level classes, etc. (probably not construction). In these cases, you should focus on ways you can teach and empower the locals to continue the work after you have left. If all you do is keep coming back again and again to do the work yourself, you are creating dependency.
So, perhaps there is hope for the short-term trip. Let me know what you think in the comments below!
* For more on this, I recommend the book When Helping Hurts
** Thank you Upstream International for your guidance on these points