The Delusion of Short-Term Mission Trips
And yet it never ceases to amaze me how we as Christians overestimate the positive impact we have on the target community. We are delusional about the benefits we bring. We think we're making a tremendous difference for the kingdom because we spend two weeks building a house for a family whom we can barely communicate with. Darren Carlson does a fantastic job describing some of the problems of short-term missions trips here. He talks about how sometimes Christians are not only not helpful but actually do harm to the target community. Here's my favorite paragraph:
Imagine a team from France calls your church and says they want to visit. They want to put on VBS (which you have done for years), but the material is in French. They have heard about how the U.S. church has struggled and want to help you fix it. They want to send 20 people, half of them youth. Only two of them speak English. They need a place to stay for free, with cheap food and warm showers if possible. During the trip half of the group's energy will be spent on resolving tension between team members. Two people will get sick. They'd like you to arrange some sightseeing for them on their free day. Do you want them to come?Ouch. That is brutal. But man, it hits close to home. I'm looking forward to the next article in the series but here are my thoughts on the goals of short-term mission trips and how to get over over-estimating our impact:
The primary goal of a short-term missions trip (especially for a first-timer) is to transform the missionary not the target community. When I went to Nepal for the first time in 1998, it was called a "vision trip". It was meant to give us an image. It was meant to give the participants a picture of God's heart for the people of Nepal and awaken us to the needs of the church there.
We had many different reasons for going. Some went out of curiosity while others sought adventure. Most of us went because of our friendship with the trip organizer. There's nothing wrong with any of those motivations. But making a lasting, positive impact on the target community means forging a lasting relationship. That only begins with the short-term mission trip. It continues with training of indigenous leadership. It grows with repeated visits and partnership with local churches and ministries. And it is certainly not just about sending money (in fact, money can be the worst thing you can provide - see here).
Bob and Bobbie Clinton, a couple with grown children, were part of our group fourteen years ago. As a result of this "vision trip", they decided to become full-time missionaries to Nepal. They have served there for over a decade - opening four children's homes and a widows' ministry and impacting dozens of lives for Christ. The fruit God has borne through them is real and plentiful. And it all started with a short-term missions trip. But it didn't end there.
This doesn't mean you are permanently tethered to every country you visit on a mission trip. My parents were also part of the original group. They have not returned to Nepal but it doesn't mean their time was wasted. I believe it was a formative part of their experience as believers and helped shape their view of the global expansion of God's kingdom. And it helps my dad today as he coordinates discipleship camps for the worldwide Chinese diaspora. Yet he has no illusion that his two weeks in Nepal spent visiting churches and staying in nice hotels significantly impacted anyone else's life more than his own. And nor should we.