My church has a very substantial short-term missions program which consists of ongoing partnerships with several churches around the world who share the same vision. I know that several of you have been on short-term mission trips over the years; some of you have even led short-term trips. If this is you then I REALLY REALLY REALLY want to hear from you on this one.
The question: Are short-term mission trips a good thing?
This issue has generated a quite spirited discussion over the past week on some of my favorite blogs. I am well aware of the benefits of short-term mission trips: They increase awareness of what God is doing in other parts of the world. I frequently hear that people go on these trips expecting to minister, but they are the ones who are ministered to. I frequently hear of people whose eyes are opened to what God is doing elsewhere in the world as a result of going on a short-term mission trip; for them this is a life-changing experience and they are moved to step up their level of engagement with the cause of Christ.
But there has been some pushback to the idea of short-term mission trips. The primary objection seems to be that short-term mission trips are not good stewardship. In A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church, Warren Cole Smith cites Robert Priest, professor of mission and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School:
The number of lay people in the United States involved in short-term missions grew from an estimated 540 in 1965 to 22,000 in 1979. By 1989 it had grown to an estimated 120,000. three years later the figure had doubled to 250,000. It is now estimated that there were at least on million short-termers in 2003.
Source: “Short-term Mission Trip, or Donor-Paid Vacation?”
by Brittany Smith (Evangelical Press News Service, 10/19/06)
Today, estimates of people going on short-term mission trips every year range from 1 million to 4 million. The cost of these trips easily surpasses the yearly amount given to all long-term missionaries. Priest refers to this as “the first mission movement in church history that is based largely on the needs of the missionary.”
Another pushback: Short-term mission trips, as they are done in many parts of evangelicalism, can create and promote a culture of dependence. If short-term mission trips are a regular occurrence, people and church leaders in the host country are conditioned to sit back and wait for the missionaries to return rather than stepping out and doing anything on their own in the way of building ministries, business, and/or programs. At the same time, mission trip leaders become glorified tour guides while the work of discipleship and church planting–the reason for doing mission trips in the first place–gets pushed to the back burner.
And with that, I now throw the floor open for discussion. Those of you who have been on or have led a short-term mission trip: I REALLY REALLY REALLY WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU!!!!!! DON’T BE SHY!!!!!! How has going on a short-term mission trip affected you? What was your experience like? What specific changes have you made in your life as a result of your experience? If you have led a short-term trip, how has that experience affected you? What were some of the challenges you faced?
And if you are on staff with the missions department at my church, then I want to hear from you about possibly doing a guest blog in which we discuss this topic in greater depth. The format would be thus: I send you five questions, you send me your responses, then I post the questions and your responses here on this blog. The questions would be something along these lines: Can short-term missions be done in such a way as to enhance and support the work of long-term missionaries and indigenous church leaders rather than draw resources away from it? Is there a trade-off between the benefits of engaging people with the world Christian movement through short-term mission trips and the costs of money devoted to supporting short-term efforts which could have been used to support long-term missions or indigenous church leaders? If you are interested in this, please do not hesitate to contact me. You know my email address; if not, then you probably know someone who does. If you are on Facebook, then you know how to contact me that way.
Here is some more food for thought concerning the issue of short-term mission trips:
The Church of What’s Happenin’ Now: Michael Spencer gives his thoughts on the world Christian movement and how short-term mission trips intersect with this.
Are Short-Term Missions Good Stewardship? This exchange is the start of a four-part series on short-term missions over at Christianity Today. This series questions the conventional wisdom that short-term mission trips produce lasting life change in the people who participate in them.