Are Short-Term Mission Projects Effective? Part 1

February 26, 2013 — 6 Comments


At 2:52am, Sunday morning, I arrived back in Fort Dodge, after traveling for seventeen hours from a compound near Xenocoj, Guatemala.

Water Volcano is on the left and the double-peaked Fire Volcano is on the right. Fire was smoking throughout the week.

Water Volcano is on the left and the double-peaked Fire Volcano is on the right. Fire was smoking throughout the week.

For one week, I worked alongside twelve other friends in various capacities. We built a kitchen for a family, built 1.5 houses for workers in the Hope Haven Wheelchair Factory in Antigua, refurbished wheelchairs for the elderly in a underfunded hospital, and spent a considerable amount of time getting to know people from multiple walks of life.

I’ve heard it said by some that short-term mission projects aren’t an effective tool for spreading the Gospel or for helping people in need. Critics usually site some of the following reasons.

1. Short-term mission projects aren’t a good value. Our trip cost roughly $1200 per person for a week of work. Most of that cost was airfare. We paid $800 just to get to Guatemala. Thus, the work we provide during that week better be pretty unique work that the locals can’t do. There has to be a significant reason to justify spending that much money just to get us to Guatemala.

Rather than spend close to ten thousand dollars in airfare for the group, we could have purchased five more homes and let local Hope Haven workers construct them. American money can often go much further in developing countries, so the money to travel could be better used if it were just donated to ministries that are already doing great work in the local area.

2. There’s no opportunity to establish lasting relationships. Too often, groups come to an area, build something, and leave. The group works hard, finishes the project, snaps a few pictures, maybe prays with a family, and says goodbye. And that’s it. It’s a drive-by act of service.

There’s nothing wrong with this, per se, but people are mainly impacted by ongoing relationships. And when there’s no opportunity for relationship, lives aren’t really changed.

3. Short-term mission projects can rob people of their dignity.  People gain a sense of self-worth when they face their challenges and prevail. When a mysterious group of people comes in, takes care of somebody’s problems and leaves, often the person feels embarrassed or like a failure.

I’ve heard stories from mission agencies who’ve observed that men are often not present when the groups bring food, or do other work for a family. This is something I’ve seen personally when we’ve brought food and presents to families during holiday seasons, and this was also the case at one of the homes we worked on while in Guatemala.

A speaker at Catalyst in 2011 who described this phenomenon. He said that the reason men are often absent from these times when groups bring charity is that they feel like they are failing their family when they can’t provide for them and have to receive the help of others. However, mothers are often willing to endure that embarrassment for the sake of their children so they will graciously accept help from various groups.

4. Short-term missions often maintain an inward focus. Even though the whole point of a mission trip is to teach people to live for others, they still focus on ourselves. We go with a sense of expectation, that God is going to do something great in our lives. And we look for those God moments in our interactions throughout the day. We don’t see our interactions with others at face value. Instead, we see others as the objects of our good works, as a means to our seeing God at work in us, not as people with the same amount of dignity as ourselves.

5. The impact doesn’t last. This is probably the most unfortunate aspect of short-term missions. We often have an amazing experience, vow to change our lives, and find that a month later, our lives are the same as before.


These factors and more lead some people to believe that short-term mission trips aren’t as effective as we’ve been led to believe. In part two of this post (releasing on Friday), I’ll let you know what I think about short-term mission trips. I’ll base the post on my recent experience in Guatemala and other past experiences.

In the meantime, what do you think about these five reasons? Do you agree? Are short-term mission projects ineffective? Sound off below.



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I'm a pastor, writer, speaker, husband, father, and follower of Christ, to name a few titles. You can find my contact information in my About page.
  • The forklift (kevin)

    Short term mission trips, I believe, have their role in this world. Many people may not be able to commit their lives to a long term commitment, but can make a difference on a short term basis. Hopefully people will have a better appreciation of the blessings they have experienced in their own lives. When they see how some people live, it might help those who are blessed to have a better perspective on their priorities. When we worked on our house, the man of the house and the older sons who lived there, were encouraged to take an active role in the construction of their home, which they did. Yes generosity helped to make it happen and it was charity to them. But they received it with grace and humility and assisted as they were able.
    Perhaps not a perfect analogy but Matthew 25:35 comes to mind. ‘I was hungry and you gave me food…..’ It doesn’t mean they were fed them forever. A need was met. In providing for the need, we served (hopefully) as the hands of the living Christ, which we are called to do.
    Looking forward to your next installment.

  • I think a lot of it comes down to motives and good, pure, God-facing motives take care of a lot of the issues raised in your post. If we’re going to third-world countries and other impoverished areas just to come away with some kind of feeling, a story to tell our friends, or to remind ourselves how blessed we are then we really are exploiting the people in those areas for our own gain.

    However, if we truly are giving out of the abundance that God has given us and because of our gratitude for our salvation, then I think you’re on the right track.

    You’re post reminded me of another article I read a few months ago:

    • Thanks for the suggested link! I’ll check it out.

      You are so
      right. Motives are huge. It’s crazy to think that we can even twist
      selfless acts of services into opportunities to serve ourselves.

      I also think that sometimes, even with the best of intentions we can
      sometimes mess things up for people. Which is why it’s important to have
      these sorts of conversations. That way we can make sure that don’t have
      any blinders that prevent us from seeing the impact of our actions.

  • Please come along for our next short term mission trrip, and u will personally be able to answer these questions. Does it make a difference…. YES

  • Pingback: Are Short-Term Mission Projects Effective? Part 2 | A Light Up Ahead()

  • scrhill

    While you bring up valid critiques, I am still on the side of short-term missions trips being rewarding and fulfilling experiences.