The world has shrunk remarkably in the space of a few decades, creating new opportunities to engage with the body of Christ and see the work that God is doing through his people. The apostle Paul spent his life sailing around the Mediterranean world visiting churches, sometimes arriving shipwrecked or snake-bitten. Now we can hop on an Airbus and arrive halfway across the world 10 hours later, rarely experiencing anything worse than a bit of turbulence and jetlag. Early believers, or even the missionaries of 150 years ago, could never have dreamt of such an opportunity.
This is a gift. And what we do with it matters.
The rise of short-term missions (STMs) has left church leaders, missionaries, and organizations on both the sending and receiving side of the STM equation asking important questions about trips to low-income communities: how well are we stewarding the billions of dollars invested in STMs each year? What are the potential positive and negative effects of STMs? How can we shepherd participants in meaningful transformation and learning through these trips? How can we ensure our STMs are not harming the materially poor?
When we asked some of these questions in When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself (Moody, 2012), we did not anticipate the response. Many church and ministry leaders approached us asking for further resources on doing STMs in low-income communities. We absolutely believe that short-term trips to materially poor contexts can be done in a way that blesses the communities we visit, avoids doing unintended harm, and leads to lasting change in team members’ actions and attitudes. But we believe that doing so involves reframing the purpose of our trips, shifting away from an emphasis on directly engaging in poverty alleviation. STMs, as often practiced, need to be reformed—but not destroyed.
Poverty alleviation is typically a long-term process, not something that can be broken down into 10-day pieces and projects. Poverty is rooted in systems, choices, and relationships that reach much deeper than a shortage of material things like food, housing, or clothing. As a result, in the vast majority of cases, short-term trips are not appropriate or effective vehicles for engaging in poverty alleviation.
However, some STMs still focus on doing or fixing, providing material things for low-income people outside of the context of an immediate crisis. These types of trips can unintentionally harm the very people they are trying to help. Handing out shoes, constructing a house, or digging a well can actually exacerbate the materially poor’s sense of inferiority, undermine the local economy, and create systems of dependency over time. We are all familiar with these common critiques of short-term trips, and our purpose is not to revisit all of them here. The point is simply this: we need a different definition of what “success” looks like for short-term trips to materially poor communities.
Different Sort of Trip
There is good news. Short-term trips can bless those who are doing long-term missions and poverty alleviation within a community. Rather than focusing on the trip itself as the determinative element of “success,” we need to deliberately situate short-term visits as one piece of a larger undertaking. When properly designed, short-term trips are an opportunity to learn from, encourage, and fellowship with believers around the world in the context of long-term engagement with God’s work, focusing on understanding his body and our role in it more fully.
When trips are embedded in a process of long-term learning and engagement, they can create deeper understanding of missions and effective poverty alleviation approaches. They can foster appreciation for diversity and differences in culture. They can instill deep respect for the body of Christ across miles and languages. They can support the long-term work of missions and poverty alleviation in communities. And they can develop humility in comparably affluent churches and individuals as we recognize the way all of us depend on the healing work of Jesus Christ.
What would it look like to move away from viewing short-term trips as opportunities for doing or fixing, and instead move toward an approach that prioritizes supporting local believers and leads to lasting change in participants’ lives? Consider the following video clip, which illustrates what an effective trip might look like:
As you reflect on what reforming short-term trips might mean in your context, consider the following principles:
Submit to Local Leadership: Visits must be rooted in humility and respect for local workers, believers, and organizations. This reality should shape everything about our trips, beginning with whether or not we even take them. A truly healthy trip can only happen when local believers, workers, or organizations initiate it. Further, we cannot learn from and appropriately value our brothers and sisters if we are dictating the terms of the relationship, making decisions about the content and schedule of the trip without their initiation, buy-in, and participation.
Recalibrate Expectations: Team members typically sign up for a STM with preconceived notions of the trip’s purpose and content, such as bringing material goods and handouts, running VBS, or contributing to construction projects. In everything we do, whether the pictures we use on brochures, the way we announce trips, or the way we talk about the trip schedule, we need to emphasize that the trip is about learning from our brothers and sisters, encouraging them, and supporting their work over the long haul. It makes for a less glamorous pitch. But it fosters a different set of expectations—expectations that can actually be met and that can lead to lasting change in participants and communities over time.
Be Intentional with Training: The Holy Spirit is the ultimate author of change, and he has used short-term trips to change many participants’ lives. That is a beautiful thing. But we should be intentional about supporting the change process through our approaches, laying the basis for more and more people to take long-term action. Pre-trip training and post-field debriefing are an essential part of that process. Training can guide participants as they craft healthy expectations for their trip, learn how to effectively bless the people they visit, and consider their role in God’s work in the world. Further, robust training communicates that the trip itself is not the defining piece of what makes a visit effective.
Prioritize Time for Learning, Fellowship, and Encouragement: We should live ordinary life alongside our brothers and sisters while on trips, learning from their experiences, worshiping with them, and spending time with local leaders. Instead of just focusing on projects or tasks, we should humbly work with our hosts to arrange opportunities for teams to learn about the history and context of the community, exploring how God is working and how the church is engaged in loving its neighbors.
Engage for the Long Haul: What happens after participants return home is typically the single biggest factor in whether a trip was “worth it.” Debrief meetings provide crucial time to reflect on the trip and set concrete, realistic goals for how participants can convert the experience into lasting change. We need to communicate to participants that they have a responsibility to steward the visit well, particularly in light of the financial resources invested in the trip. They have an opportunity to support the believers and community they visited through their long-term prayers, monetary support, advocacy, and encouragement. And they have an opportunity to translate the things they have seen into faithful involvement in poverty alleviation in their own communities.
When done well, a short-term trip itself is just one piece of the broader, long-term journey of learning and engagement with God’s work in the world. Through this type of transformation, churches can better share the gospel. There is no greater success than the local body of Christ—on both sides of the short-term trip equation—declaring and demonstrating the hope of Jesus Christ’s reconciling work.
We have been given an enormous gift. So what will we do with it?