The Delusion of Short-Term Mission Trips

I love short-term mission trips. Its exciting to go to another country or region and experience a world radically different from what I'm used to. The team bonding is tremendous and I grow so much as a result.

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 Clintona 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.


  1. I agree in many ways. However, it's pretty crazy how sometimes a STM can make an impact in an unexpected way. When I was in Taiwan during the beginning of this year, I attended a church in Taipei near a university. Randomly on Sunday, a guy from the nearby university showed up -- he said he had gotten a flyer about the church from some people who had come to that church on an STM a few months before (they evangelized at the university). He's been going to the church ever since and was saved earlier in June!!

    I guess whether your there for a short time or long's all God who does the real work anyways. :)

  2. I agree with Jennifer :) I like what you're getting at with the idea that we Americans think we are going to help out the poor people in third world countries, with our superior religion and superior materials. And I think it's good to recognize that attitude as being ethnocentric rather than biblical. But I think the heart of the matter is a delusion, common to both short-term and long-term missions trips, that we in and of ourselves have any ability to do something good that changes lives.

    I definitely think it's important for us to recognize our own limitations. But after reading the description of the request from the French church, I was thinking, wouldn't it be all the more amazing if they come and have so little to "offer," but God still uses them to impact the lives of whoever they're coming to serve?

    It's good for short-term teams and long-term missionaries alike to say "I am weak, but God's power is made perfect in my weakness."

    1. I agree with both of you - at the core, no matter the duration of the trip, spiritual pride is a huge temptation. However, there is something about short-term trips that naturally lend themselves to spiritual pride because they 1) are far more accessible to most people 2) cater to our consumerist "been there, done that" desire 3) occur in large groups where introspection and self-awareness are challenging 4) do not give exposure over the long run of how difficult and challenging it is to impact people's lives - most long-term missionaries I know have this quiet humility because they know how difficult their calling is

      It would be amazing if the French team was used by God to impact lives but it would be more amazing if they realized that God's work happened in spite of their qualifications and efforts rather than because of them. Its the recognition of weakness not strength that is spirit-empowered.

    2. Fo-shizzles. I also think one of the biggest applications of understanding this type of humility is realizing how much the church, families, and hosts at the mission destination are actually serving the STMers in providing a church/setting/shelter/program for them to come and do missions for that period of time! The people who are in their home courts are really doing just as much serving at the same time :)


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