Are Short-Term Mission Projects Effective? Part 2

March 1, 2013 — 3 Comments


Earlier this week, I wrote a post outlining some of the criticisms often leveled at short-term mission projects. Click here to check out that post if you haven’t already.

Some of the friends we made from Hope Haven.

Some of the friends we made from Hope Haven.

While in Guatemala last week, I had an incredible time. There were a number of factors that made the trip worthwhile, in spite of the arguments I outlined earlier. I’d like to share some of the highlights of the week, and offer some responses to what I said in part 1 of this series.

1. The trip was intergenerational and cross-cultural. For one week, I saw a slice of what heaven will be like. People from all over the world joined together to serve God and others. Young worked alongside old. Poor worked with rich. Male and female. Spanish speaking and English speaking. These distinctions didn’t mean as much when we all were on the ground, getting dirty together, serving others.

Just in the group from our church we had four pairs of parents with their children present. Parents of all ages worked alongside their adult children. It was powerful to see the unity displayed through service.

2. The connections we made go beyond the week we spent in Guatemala. Throughout the week, I was privileged to spend time with a senior in high school named Walter. It was a perfect pairing. He wanted to improve his English and I wanted to improve my Spanish. So we frequently spent our time in the evenings together talking about anything and everything.

It didn’t take very long for us to discover that we both have Facebook accounts. After friend-ing each other at the end of the week, we’ve continued our conversations online. This is a wonderful tool that has only been available in recent years. It has dramatically benefited the type of impact we can have in mission work.

Throughout the week, many of the people we worked with remembered us from our time in Guatemala the year before, and they were already asking us when we planned to return. Two of the people who work with Hope Haven, Ilse and Mickey, have spoken in our church in the past. It was great to connect with them again, and see them in their element, serving others. Their continuity in the local community ensured that we weren’t duplicating the work of other groups or working in places that didn’t need our help.

Connections like these give significance to our work on a whole new level.

3. Because of these connections, we were able to work alongside people, not just for them. One of my favorite experiences of the trip was working with a gentleman named Eddie. He and I spent probably an hour together, driving back and forth in Antigua, talking about our families and our future plans, as we collected wheelchair parts for our team and Hope Haven’s team.

Our team spent a morning working alongside the Hope Haven factory workers in an Antigua hospital, refurbishing wheelchairs for the elderly. Eddie and I replaced the wheels, bearings, and breaks on a woman’s wheelchair. We had grown up in different parts of the world, spoke different languages, and because of our common love of Jesus, we worked together to serve an elderly woman we didn’t know.

Working with Eddie, learning from his expertise, humbled me and empowered him.

4. Although short-term international trips are expensive, the gain is worth the cost. Yes, it would be easier to send local organizations a large check and move on with our lives.  And yes, those organizations could purchase more homes and hire local help with the money we spent to fly down to Guatemala.

However, something amazing happens when we respond to God’s calling to serve others and be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. Our perspective shifts. We realize that God cares about more in life than just what we experience in our own bubble. We meet real people and hear real stories. Poverty becomes more than an issue. Suffering moves from the abstract to the concrete.

Every Christian needs to experience this transformation. The heart of every Christian needs to be broken for those who suffer in this world. The surefire way to break our hearts for others is to spend time with people.

And no amount of money can do this work in one’s heart.

5. Mission trips do have a lasting impact. Growing up in Southern California, I was a racist. I had terrible conceptions of Mexican people and felt very comfortable sharing those views with just about anybody. Yet, God began to gradually work in my heart during the spring break of my freshman year of high school.

Our senior high youth group spent the week working in an orphanage near Ensenada, Mexico. Now, God didn’t do something instantaneous or dramatic in my life after that trip.

But I went back the next year.

I returned all four years in high school and spent most of my summer before my senior year living at the orphanage, hanging out with the kids, teaching them to read.

Because of how much I enjoyed my experiences in Mexico, I studied Spanish through all four years of high school and minored in it at Seattle Pacific. Although I’ve never become fluent, I’ve always marveled at that moment when somebody from a different culture connects with me and we realize that we can communicate with each other.

Through all of these experiences, God has given me a heart for Latin America that I never had before. And it all started with a week-long trip to an orphanage near Ensenada, digging trenches for a new gym that never got built.

If our church sends people on short-term mission trips and God uses that trip to grab a hold of just one person’s heart, then the money and time spent was worth it. Because with one changed heart, God can change a generation.

So do these reasons outweigh the costs outlined in part 1? Am I leaving anything out? How have you seen God use short-term mission projects?



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  • Brian Gregory

    Austin – I think you are correct in your outline of the benefits of short-term mission trips. I have been personally transformed while of trips of this nature, and I have seen immense transformation happen in the lives of youth I have led on mission trip. However, short-term mission trips are often advertised as a chance to make a difference in the world, a chance to help others in need, and a chance to share God’s love with others. While these things certainly happen, they are often secondary to the real effects of the trip. Short-term mission trips often change those going more than they change those we are going to. There is nothing inherently wrong with short-term mission trips, but I would like to see churches be more honest about motivations and what the desired outcomes will be. If we could reframe our trips as an opportunity to be present with others – learning from them, experiencing their culture, and looking for the ways God is already present and working in their lives and in their communities – I think that would change many people’s negative perceptions of short-term mission trips. Mission trips are more about solidarity and experiencing Christ in others than they are about the actual work being done (I agree with the criticism that more work could be done by locals which would produce more lasting change in the host country as people are put to work, money enters the local economy, and the community is active in changing their situation).

  • Austin, short-term mission trips exist in a great variety of shapes and constitutions, some are effective, some are not, while some can effect very undesirable consequences. As you note from your own experience, some of these expeditions result in positive attitude changes on the part of the participants, which in some instances, leads to the call of God on a person to spend a lifetime as a career minister or even a missionary. But, the same thing could probably occur simply by exposing such a person to a depressed inner city or impoverished rural part of America.
    Some short-term trips place such a burden on the host missionary or organization, that it becomes a distraction for the full-time ministry that goes on at the trip’s destination. Arranging accomodations and local travel, acting as interpretor, protecting the visitors from danger and disease, satisfying the group’s desire for tourist activities (trips to the beach, shopping, etc.), and just waking them up every morning, can shut-down the host’s regular ministry and leave him/her exhausted by the time the group leaves. If the group goes to build something, they likely don’t have the skill or the fortitude for doing it in a strange climate. They have to be taught to do the work, then nursed back to health when they collapse. I’m saying “some” not all, but this scenario is very common.
    And, in some unfortunate instances, short-term missions trips can very negatively impact peoples and missionaries in the field. Case in point: A church planting trip in which a new church is built in a village that already has one or more churches (but not one of the visitors’ denomination). The visitors slam together a crude building and appoint the most educated, but untrained local man or woman they can find, to be in charge of it. They snap a few photos and go home. Instead of building a church of people, they built a church building, which is soon stripped bare. But, the group goes back to their home church with photos and callouses for their brave effort and the denomination chocks up another statistic for their missions program.

    Your trip sounds unique and practical and I hope it influences many hearts of those who went, to serve God. But in a growing number of places in the world, Westerners are no longer welcome. The possible destinations for both long-term and short-term missionaries and workers, is dwindling every month. Mission boards saw this coming in the 80s and started focusing on training indigenous and national peoples to minister to their own people after the missionaries were forced out. But in recent years, the financial and material support for these nationals has gradually declined, leaving national pastors trying to minister in their locales on starvation diets and without any materials, Bibles, or funds to operate. A secondary problem, is that many of these national pastors and workers have been on their own for so long, that they are now 2nd and 3rd generation, meaning that their small amount of knowledge has been used to train others, leaving many current workers very ignorant of Biblical principles. In many instances, which I see in my region routinely, these local workers have become apostate, simply because they never received decent training.
    I have to admit to being quite critical of short-term missions trips, especially those of a misguided church-planting nature. I’ve been in the field for 6+ years and the situation among national leaders here is dismal. Of course, in my region, we rarely see short-term missionaries because of the danger. Western mission boards withdrew their people from this region in the 80’s due to terrorism, and it’s only become worse. But, I know many missionaries around the world who candidly share with me the challenges they often face in hosting visitors. In one extreme case, a mission team in an African destination, had to bring on another full-time missionary to do nothing but host visitors because the visiting teams had become such a burden for the local ministry and a distraction to their regular work.
    I suppose a fitting conclusion to my comments here, would reflect what I mentioned earlier: if the motivation and agenda of a missions trip is primarily to inspire future servants, spending time in an American inner-city, or a poor rural community, could accomplish the same thing. And, the dollars saved, could be sent to struggling national leaders in countries they are not free to visit, so those existing ministries could become more effective.
    Plus, there is a great need for national pastors and leaders to receive refresher training (or, initial training in many cases). I would like to see American pastors and Bible school teachers travel to the countries where missionaries are no longer active, to provide training to national leaders. A church funding such a program through their missions giving would likely produce a much greater return on their investment.
    I appreciate your candid observations and remarks. It sounds to me like you’re very realistic about this subject and I’m very glad that you have a burden for other peoples, in other lands.

  • scrhill

    I agree with Brian that “[s]hort-term mission trips often change those going more than they change those we are going to.” Going on short-term mission trips has changed my life, clarified my purpose in life, and ultimately led me to the vocation I’m in today.