Getting Short-Term Missions Right
Short-term mission trips are now all the rage. Every year over a million Americans travel outside the borders of the United States on some kind of mission trip. The good news is that more believers than ever before have some exposure to cross-cultural missions. The bad news is that some of these trips end up doing more harm than good.
At their best, short-term mission trips enable the national host church in receiving countries to better minister to their members and reach their local communities for Christ. I saw a great example of this a couple of years ago. An elder of a local Ethiopian church shared how a team of short-termers had worked side by side with Ethiopian believers to share the gospel in a number of unreached areas.
The presence of the foreigners had sparked interest in previously disinterested villages. Subsequent follow-up by Ethiopian evangelists led to the planting of over a dozen churches.
At their worst, short-term mission trips may lead to a crippling dependency in the host church that weakens the national believers’ desire to give generously and to work hard to care for their own needs. Glenn Schwartz, in When Charity Destroys Dignity, tells the story of an American short-term mission team that built a church building for a congregation in Central America. A few years later the Central American church sent a letter to the American church requesting that they send another team to do repairs because “the roof of your church is leaking.” Instead of facilitating maturity and outreach, construction of the building had fostered dependency. Short-term missions done badly can also lead some short-term missionaries to feel like they have fulfilled their mission responsibilities and don’t need any more involvement. Instead of prompting greater interest, prayer, and giving, sometimes short-term missions give people the feeling of smug accomplishment, the sense that they’ve “done their bit” for missions.
How do we make sure we’re getting the most out of our short-term mission trips?
First, make sure every short-term trip is tied to meeting long-term strategic goals set by workers who are on site. The workers may be a local church or a mission agency that is working in the country long term. Remember that you go to work with others who are there, not to do it yourself. Listen to their needs and serve them; don’t go to fulfill your agenda. Enable the national church, don’t cripple it!
Second, use short-term missions to build long-term relationships. Instead of going just to complete a work project, make sure each member of the team is going with a learner’s spirit—to learn from the host church—and a desire to build relationships with people in the host country. Make sure that every minute of the trip is not spent on work projects, but that some time is spent just being with host country believers to learn from them. One way to build a long-term relationship with believers is to regularly return to the same location. This will build trust and community between churches and believers and will stimulate ongoing prayer for people and needs in the location visited.
Third, integrate your short-term program with local ministry in your church’s own community. If possible, have a long-term program of building relationships and ministry with the same people-group you are working with outside the U.S., and require that those going on the mission trip spend time ministering among that people-group and learning some of their language and culture.
Fourth, require all participants on short-term teams to engage in thorough preparation and follow-up. Learn about the host country’s language and culture, especially about what God has already done ahead of the trip. Prepare each member to join the ongoing work of God instead of seeing this trip as the climax of God’s work in that country. Prepare to be flexible and to fit into the lifestyle of those who will be hosting you without making extra demands on their resources. During the trip itself, have a daily debrief to assess and guide participants in their learning. After the trip, have a robust follow-up program to nurture spiritual growth begun on the trip.
Engage in the best of short-term missions! It will stimulate global outreach, personal spiritual growth, and missional vision in your church.
Steve Strauss (ThM 80) served as a missionary with SIM (Serving in Mission) for almost twenty-eight years, including nineteen years as teacher and director at the Evangelical Theological College, as teacher at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and eight years as director of SIM USA. He became professor of World Missions and Intercultural Studies at the Seminary in January 2010. Steve is married to Marcia; the Strausses have three adult children.