Short-term Mission Trips

DSC_0371Short-term mission trips are almost always more beneficial to the participants than the beneficiaries. I say this knowing it’s controversial. I say this as a participant of countless short-term mission trips. I say this as an employee of a short-term missions organization. Believe me, it’s as hard to say as it is to hear.

Think of your community. What could a group of 20 outsiders do in just a few weeks that could really make any difference? Remember these people have never been to your country, they don’t speak your language, and they probably don’t want your help. That’s not all true, there’s almost always one person in the group that’s “practically a local” because they went on this same trip a year ago; they know all the cool places to eat, shop, and evangelize.

There are plenty of horror stories about short-term mission trips, I’ll only tell one:

A family living in the barrios of Mexico, woke up to the sound of people outside of their home one Saturday morning. They walk outside to see 4 Americans near their home about to begin what looks like a painting project. This family is obviously surprised to see Americans outside of their home but the language barrier makes it hard for anyone to truly communicate. No bother, the Americans say to themselves, love is the international language; this family will feel Jesus’ presence through our being here. So the Americans go about their business while trying to ignore the family because it’s a little awkward. They pull out their paint supplies (that they brought with them from America), and start painting the outside of this family’s home. A few hours pass and the project is over; their home is no longer a boring cement gray color. Finally this family will have some hope! The Americans take a bunch of pictures of the family and then pile in a van worth more than the house they just “served” to go back to the hotel for the afternoon.

This family just became a victim of short-term missions, and they aren’t alone. If they wanted their house painted, they probably didn’t want it painted whatever color the Home Depot in America had on special the day before. If they wanted their house painted, they probably didn’t want it painted by inexperienced Americans. If they wanted their house painted, they probably wanted some say in it.

The worst thing about all of this is when the Americans sit around the campfire and talk about how much joy they saw in the family’s faces when they arrived. These Americans end up taking credit for the joy this family has in their lives despite their circumstances. This family worked hard to have that joy and we take credit for it after just a few hours of doing something that no one wanted us to do. Are most Americans joyful despite their circumstances? We might be able to learn something from this “hopeless” family but we’re too arrogant to think beyond our own perspective.

I think most short-term missionaries go with pure intentions. I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad. I’ve been on more short-term mission trips than I can count. I’m the worst of sinners. We have to start thinking beyond ourselves. Mission trips are fun and you always come back feeling better, BUT we have to start asking ourselves who is really benefiting?

How do you know if a mission trip is helping or hurting?

If you are doing something for a community that it can do for itself, you are doing harm. Think of that the next time you’re digging a well, building a church, or doing a VBS.

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5 thoughts on “Short-term Mission Trips

  1. This is a good review. What do you recommend doing about it? I live overseas as the grounded person. I know the culture, so I don’t have culture shock. I speak the language. But I think most of all, I just just know the culture. So the short term teams come to us. On one trip, we were staying in a hut outdoors in January, and it was 97 degrees outside. In the country we were in, there is malaria, so we sleep under the nets. The house is built on stilts with no walls, like a tree house, so the people pulled down the blinds (that act as walls). I didn’t say a word when it made the room just all the more hot. I waited until they split, and then said, “you know, the reason we sleep under mosquitoes nets is so we don’t get bitten. We don’t need walls.

    And when we came in contact with hundreds of lice at the orphanage, my friend and I told everyone we would scrub their hair outside by the well, and not to go inside before we did so. Everyone just freaked out.

    But it helps me to understand that they are just going through culture shock. Its hard. When you step in a world of poverty, its hard. And its comfortable to interact.

    and when you do VBS in your language, the kids don’t care. They would rather have the local.

    So yes, I agree with you. But then I also know short term trips can be life-changing. You can’t see and not be changed.

  2. I definitely think sometimes there is valid culture shock – I also think that some short-term trip participants see themselves as saviors and when they are treated as anything less then a savior, things start to go awry.

    What can be done about it? I think most of the responsibility falls on the side of the organization. The organization has to make sure that the short-term participants have a necessary role, that they know their role, and that they aren’t allowed to practice “salad bar” mission trips (where the group decides what they do). There is significant responsibility on the participant too though. He/She has to make sure that they are going with an organization that is partnering with the local community, not doing things for in the name of love. This will probably be a separate post someday soon because it’s something that comes up regularly.

    Thanks for reading Lana!

  3. Dustin, why do you think so many churches and STM organizations still do “salad bar” mission trips? I’m always amazed that I hear more horror stories as you have described versus the healthy partnership with the local community. Is it just a matter of awareness? Or something else?

  4. I think it’s mostly a matter of convenience. You can’t blame a church (or any organized group) for going with an organization that makes their trip as easy as possible. Usually, those organizations are primarily geared toward STMs, after all it’s their business. Most organizations who truly believe in long-term development don’t focus too heavily on STMs.

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