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In recent years, the ability to travel long distances in a (relatively) short amount of time has opened up a new world of opportunity for local churches to participate in cross-cultural missions. More churches are sending teams on short-term mission trips today than ever before.

Yet some mission strategists question the effectiveness of these mission teams. Do short-term mission teams leave behind a legacy that lasts?

Are short-term mission trips worth the trouble?

Should our churches and ministries devote time and money to short-term trips? 

Or should we concentrate our efforts on full-time missionaries and indigenous pastors?

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of short-term missions.

NEGATIVE ASPECTS

1. Expensive

A team of ten missionaries heading overseas might pay between $2000-3000 per person. That adds up to $20,000 or $30,000 for a church to send a team of ten to another country.

2. Drain on Long-Term Missionaries

The logistics of organizing teams that come from the United States can be very difficult. (Trust me, I’ve done it several times!) The stress is enormous. Hosting a short-term team can drain energy from those who need to stay focused on their long-term tasks.

3. Lack of Efficiency

Consider what a team of 10 costs to do work in another country. Roughly $30,000. Now consider what $30,000 could be done if given directly to the missionaries and indigenous pastors already involved in mission work. No wonder people question the efficiency of short-term mission teams! After all, it’s not just money… it’s also ministry. Native pastors and full-time missionaries can do ministry better and more effectively than those who parachute into a country for a week or two.

POSITIVE ASPECTS

1. Money Well Spent

Ask most full-time missionaries how God gave them a heart for missions and they will usually point back to a short-term mission trip. I took five short-term mission trips to Romania before buying my one-way ticket there in 2000.

So yes, the expense of a short-term mission trip may be large. But what would be the cost of never sending out short-term teams? We might save money in the short term, but would probably have less missionaries in the long term.

2. Encouragement and Accountability for Full-Time Missionaries

Yes, preparing for a mission team can be a drain on full-time missionaries. But most full-time missionaries will also say that hosting teams from their own country can give them a needed boost of energy. Interaction with a good mission team can give full-time missionaries a fresh passion and renewed zeal for ministry.

Short-term teams should seek out ways to encourage the full-time missionaries that they work with. Often, short-term teams minister as much (if not more) to the missionary as to the people! Short-termers can also keep missionaries accountable, encouraging them and challenging them in their mission efforts.

3. A Quest for Efficiency

It is true that short-term mission teams might seem inefficient and ineffective. But why do they have to be so? Why not simply recognize the inefficiency and then seek to rectify it in the future? Smaller churches should concentrate on one area of the world. After a learning period of three or four years, short-term missionaries can be incredibly effective. They know the needs, know the people, and have begun to understand the culture. I have witnessed short-term teams that do great work.

4. A Passion for World Missions in the Church

I have yet to find a church passionate about supporting world missions that never sends out short term mission teams. When church members come back from the mission field, they are encouraged to contribute to missions. This passion spreads to their church, leading to increased giving to missions and missionaries.

Overall, the positive aspects of short-term mission trips outweigh the negative aspects. Yes, we should seek to make our mission trips more effective and efficient. And no, short-termers are never as effective as full-time missionaries. But short-term missions can lead to a more comprehensive vision of the kingdom of God and world missions. And we should utilize every means possible to cultivate a holy fire for mission work.

[[On December 1, I was featured on a California radio show (Rich Buhler, Talk from the Heart - KBRT, Los Angeles), discussing this blog post. To download and listen to the interview, right-click here, choose ”Save Target As…” and save to your desktop. The interview is about 24 minutes long.]]

written by Trevin Wax  © 2008 Kingdom People blog

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17 thoughts on “Are Short-Term Mission Trips Worth the Trouble?”

  1. Matthew Svoboda says:

    I think it isnt worth the hassle if it isnt at least 2 weeks long… If not longer.

  2. Bill Blair says:

    I appreciate your insights on this topic because you have been there, done that, and all.

    Do you think the efficiency issues could be improved if churches worked less individually and more collectively or cooperatively (for us in the SBC)?

  3. Trevin Wax says:

    Possibly, but not necessarily. Some of the efficiency issues could be resolved if the churches would rely on those with cultural expertise in the places they want to focus on.

    Say someone is planning a trip to Brazil. Instead of flying by the seat of their pants, it would be good to bring in a cultural advisor, perhaps a former missionary or current missionary, whatever. Let them advise the team as to how to make the best use of their time and money.

  4. Mica says:

    Trevin – what are your thoughts about any negative effects on the nationals by short term missionaries? Some people seem to think that sending Amercians overseas reinforces negative stereotypes (Americans are loud and rude, etc) and that the “souls” they win are not followed up with and discipled…

  5. Trevin Wax says:

    Mica,

    There can be negative effects from short-term missionaries, no doubt. But those effects can be minimized if the team is well-trained.

    I recently took a team of six to Moldova. Three of them were world-travelers; one already knew Russian (one of the main languages in Moldova); I knew Romanian (the official language); and the other two had been on an international trip to Ecuador. There were only a couple of times when I thought – “Wow we stand out as Americans” – and those times were early on in our trip. Overall, I think the team did a terrific job.

    Regarding evangelism, it is true that some Americans who bring over American-styled evangelistic techniques can wind up doing more harm than good. I’ve seen some evangelistic strategies that work well in the U.S. (on the surface, but even that’s debatable!) be quite ineffective and even counterproductive in other parts of the world.

    But you’ve got to give some credit to the indigenous and full-time missionaries already on the ground. Usually a short-term team’s lasting impact is relatively brief (both good and bad). So it cuts both ways. The good from the team might be short-lived, but also the bad from the team is short-lived.

    It’s the indigenous and full-time missionaries who are responsible for strengthening and carrying on the good work the team did. They also have the responsibility of cleaning up any messes left by the team.

  6. Steve says:

    Another perspective for Mica – I was in “East Asia” last year after going on a short-term trip the year before (6 weeks long, and of the 22 on the short term trip, more than half have gone back long term, all were certainly changed).
    The city we were in had 1-2 million with maybe 150 foreigners (nearly all undercover missionaries) – we certainly stand out.

    Although I’m sure some perceived us as “rude Americans” at different times, the overall effect was quite the opposite – the large short-term trips showed a larger American interest in the Asians’ culture and lives, excited the school where we went to study, and was pretty impressive for our Asian friends who thought it was great to meet so many Americans.

  7. Vito says:

    Our church partners with an organization that is established in various countries working alongside the poor in Christ-Centered community development. When i bring a team, we work along side the missionaries (usually nationals) in what ever project they are currently working on. However, the primary objective for our church behind our short-term mission experiences is not the people we serve, but the people we take. our mission statement states Our short-term mission teams participate in projects around the world and are designed as a training ground for discipleship. Each experience is intended to introduce and engage each participant to the social-economic poverty that exists in the world, and learn, through the daily study of scripture, God’s heart for the poor.
    The idea is that they invest as individuals in what is happening in the world, and through the practice of community development, are able to apply the same principles in our own community and surrounding area.
    Only a fraction of people will be called to foreign missions. The practical application of the experience only has value if what they gained can be applied in their own homeland.

  8. I have been to India and the Philippines for short stays. I go alone most of the time for the financial reason cited. The money for travel and stay goes a long way in these countries. However, I think it is important to connect with our brothers and sisters around the world. In the world today, politics, business even family gatherings can be done via telephone, email or even video conferencing, but to see your supporter or family member face-to-face adds another dimension to the relationship. I am richer for the people I have met around the world and based on the correspondences I have received they are truly thrilled to meet an American brother who is truly concerned about them. When God told us to go into all the world, He did not just mean our country. The lives of the Apostles were constantly on the go. Why should we limit ourselves in spreading the Gospel if we have the resouces.

    Pastor Sylvester Williams

  9. C. Holland says:

    As a missionary, I think the biggest determinant as to whether a short-term mission trip is justified or not is the attitude of the group who is going. If they are there to fill a real need (i.e. helping to build shelter) as identified by the long-term missionary, plus they are willing to learn and adapt their actions so they do not cause offense in the mission field, I still think it’s a good idea. The opposite of what I just listed does not then warrant a short-term visit.

    I just blogged on this earlier this month: http://www.missionaryconfidential.com/how-effective-are-short-term-mission-trips/

  10. Biff says:

    I do not know, as I have never been on a mission trip, but from the very limited experience I have personally had with individuals from groups that go on these trips for a limited duration, with very few actual objectives, that they would be better described as tourists that are using the infrastructure of the missionaries and church. If the intended purpose of these trips is to really make a difference, leave the tourists who seek personal justification at home. Being a missionary demands life altering commitment (as it should). Spend their airfare wisely on local teachers & books or other basic necessities of life. To me, this is another example of how we Americans just do not “get it”. If the objective is to develop future missionaries, then that may work out okay, but I would doubt a very high percentage of success.

  11. Trevin Wax says:

    I agree, Biff. The tourists need to stay at home. Wise churches will make sure that those who want to go on a mission trip are doing so out of the correct motivations. I do not believe that “anyone who wants to go” should be able to go. These trips are too important to take the wrong people. Leaders need wisdom in deciding who is best suited for the task at hand.

  12. I guess you have to ask yourself is it a short term mission or a short term trip. I work with pastors around the world, which means I am often invited to speak to Pastor’s conferences around the world. This takes me into mud villages, refugee camps, slums, etc. Most of the time, I travel alone. I’ve never been a “tourist”, but always worked 20 hours a day. While my “trips” were short, the mission is long! Working with pastors around the world has given me a better appreciation for the work that is being done, in turn, I bring this attitude of gratitude back into my own home and work. In all areas of ministry, we need to be responsible stewards– would it be better if churches focused more on their buildings and less on the sending out? I think it is good for churches to send out short-term, well-trained teams, as it creates a more mission-minded church. People are too accustomed at throwing “money” at an issue, when we need to be investing ourselves. I’m leading a short-term mission team to Kenya in September. We are building a church/school for a Maasai tribe, renovating a children’s center in the world’s second/third largest slums, hosting a Mission to Kenya’s Kids for orphans and street kids and leading a pastors’ and women’s conference. You can read more about it at http://www.lydiaministry.com We are recruiting a handful of great volunteers for this shorst-term mission trip, training them and then empowering them to be effective in the field.

  13. Carrie says:

    Being a long term missionary and having many teams of short term missionaries come through, I am going to speak from another perspective. I felt ike many of those that commented after going on short term trips. However, when I was the missionary in the field, I started to see things with new eyes.

    I do agree with some of the pros mentioned here to doing STMs and I think STMs are fine to do but we do need to be honest with ourselves about them. Short term mission trips are about YOU. The purpose behind them is to expand your understanding of other cultures, build in you God’s heart for the poor, soul search about a possible future in missions, give you an opportunity to evangelize, ect. It really irritates me to hear STM talk about how they “made a difference” in 2 weeks! You didn’t- at least not a difference that someone local could not have done for much, much cheaper and could have done far more good with the money you spent to come make that “difference.” And really, isn’t that, even those with the BEST intentions, want from the trip- to feel like they did something good- they helped those less fortunate. This is not a selfless act that we are trying to portray it to be. I am not saying that I agree with the extreme portrayal as “vacationism” – I don’t think are motives are puposefully selfish or self-centered but when we are not transparent, people can feel it and start to question.

    I just took a course on ethics and it talks about weighing the good against the harm. STMs don’t see the harm they create- because they don’t understand the language or culture so they really don’t understand what the locals think/feel (When I read the Poisonwood Bible, I cringed at how accurate it can still be today), they leave and never see the long term effects, etc. I think leaders have an ETHICAL OBLIGATION to talk to the missionaries in the field and really examine what the pros and cons are not just for those going, but also being a good stewards of our gifts, and what my heart really bleeds for is for the locals we are going to help. You are not there to “serve” them, they are serving you- helping your faith walk, showing you grace with your culture blunders, hosting you in their country. If you walk away feeling you gave more than you took, I would seriously suggest examining yourself and the experience much closer.

    The local people benefit in only 3 ways: 1) If you go back and become an ambassador for those you worked with by talking to others and raising funds 2) bring supplies to the mission or encouragement/spiritual support to the missionaries. 3)bring some kind of skill/service that is not available (I caution that I have seen even good things like Operation smile that does surgical repairs of cleft lip and palate be a harmful thing because the doctors leave and there is no follow care so the repairs open up again and parents don’t have the means to get proper medical care for their child.)

    Here is my advice for what it is worth:
    1) Short term mission trips are NOTHING like full time missionary work and can give a very skewed perspective if you are using that experience as the basis for going into full time ministry. If God is truely calling you to the mission field, he can do that with or without short term missions. You know that the number of career missionaries has gone down despite the large increase in the number of STM. I wouldn’t spend 3,000 to decide if I wanted a future career as a nurse, so why would I do that about missions? I went to a conference on missions during college and this had a far greater impact on my decision to do LTM than my college STM trip. Read biographies of missionaries, email/call and talk to those in the field, and only if seriously interested, visit- and visit for no less than 3 months to get a real feel.
    2) Why allow the same church members to return year after year on short term missions? You go once and give someone else a turn. If you really “have a heart for missions” and want to go every year (and some people twice a year), then maybe you should “count the cost” and go into the field full time.
    3) Make those that go accountable when they return. Follow up and see if they are being ambassadors for those that are still there- are they financially giving to the missionaries/organization, raising awareness or funds for the organization, being a leader for the next group that goes, ect. I think you all would be surprised by the number of people that serve at our orphanage on STMs that DO NOT become child sponsors after they return home. (30/month – a cup of coffee a day- and they can’t sacrafice that for the kids they have personally seen and held and “made a difference in their lives”)
    4) Leaders of the STMs- You and the whole team need to understand the potential harm you could do to the locals and the missionaries work. Your ONLY agenda should be the one that the local missionary gives you. I have seen many, many STM teams come through and each member has an assignment to give away a Bible (or 3) and share the gospel with a local so they can go home with a story to tell and a number of how many they converted on thier trip to validate them going. Meanwhile, we have newly converted “Christians” walking around proclaiming themselves as Christians but have no discipleship or clear understanding of it and that can negatively impact the work of spreading the gospel- although the intentions were good.
    5) If you provide a service/skill that is not available – TEACH that skill to the locals so they can be self sufficient and their is follow up after you leave. If you can’t teach that skill in 2 weeks sufficiently, then consider the harm that can occur if questions/problems arise after you leave.
    6) Not everyone is called to missions. Like Paul talked about the body as an analogy for the church, we all have different roles. However, I think we are all called to support missions. I listened to a speaker at a mission conference once who was a lawyer. He said God did not call him to the mission field but what God did call him to do was make 150,000/year and financially support long term missionaries. I want to tell you I think people like him are the real saints- they write that check every month without the acknowledgment that LTMs get and without the great experience to tell everyone about or the tangible result to think “I made a difference” about that STMs get. They do however get the good feeling of knowing they are being faithful servants and affording the opportunity for God’s children to be cared for and the Gospel to be spread.

    Lastly, I want to pose a question that I am not even sure what I think the answer is but are these short term trips actually preventing Christians from taking the leap into a more full time committment? Are they taking away from those that are in the field? For example, the thinking “I support missions- I go on a 2 week trip with my church every year.”

    I think one thing that really struck me, and gave me pause to feel somewhat ashamed, was how many Morman missionaries I came in contact with that have given not just 2 weeks- but 2 years of their lives- for short term missions. Think about it- 2 years with the locals to build relationships, spread their “gospel,” and disciple believers. They are willing to give 2 years of their lives for something that isn’t even the Truth.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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