Borders are opening again! After two years of drastically restricted travel, churches and mission agencies are starting to plan for short-term mission trips again.
Before we hop on that flight, let’s take a moment to think about the role of short-term mission trips in the big picture of missions. Firstly, it is important to recognise that long-term missionaries carry out the bulk of mission work and have the best understanding of the communities in which they serve. This is not to say that short-term trips have no role – they play an important part in encouraging long-term missionaries, or providing expertise and manpower in specific areas. Short-term trips are usually most effective when they support the programmes of long-term missionaries. Secondly, while participants of short-term trips are strongly motivated to serve, they should also realise that they are also there to learn – about missions, cross-cultural ministry, etc.
Short-term mission trips, by their very length (a couple of weeks to a few months), have limitations. The participants do not have the time to learn the language and culture, build relationships, and make disciples. However, what they do and the impression they leave (good or bad) will impact the ministry of the long-term missionaries who host them.
So, what constitutes an effective short-term mission trip – what should we plan for, and what pitfalls should we avoid?
1. Benefits to the long-term missionaries
Long-term missionaries, often serving in areas with little spiritual support, greatly appreciate the encouragement and spiritual fellowship from visitors. Just taking time to hear their stories and pray with them is a wonderful gift!
Other practical help that a short-term team could provide might be taking care of the missionaries’ children for a day so the parents can have a day out, or telling Bible stories to the children so they hear about God from an adult other than their parents. Other practical help might be dealing with an IT issue, or hand-carrying something from the home country.
2. Benefits to the local people
Mission trips can bless the local people in many ways. This could range from conducting training (English, health education, children’s events, etc.), to community development activities (building a house, improving water supply, etc), to direct philanthropy (money, healthcare, gifts, etc). This can “earn” goodwill for the long-term missionaries which could help in their future ministries, complement their work in areas where they are not skilled, or provide additional manpower or funding. Such activities should always be planned with the guidance of the long-term missionaries as they will have the best understanding of the community’s needs, and what is culturally appropriate.
3. Benefits to participants of the short-term mission trip
Many participants experience spiritual growth through observing how God works on the mission field. They also get to see first-hand some of the spiritual needs in the world. This will help them to pray and support missions and missionaries long after the trip is over.
Some participants are encouraged to seriously consider joining long-term missions after they see the work close-up. Those who are already considering taking that step will be able to observe and try out different ministries while on a short-term trip, before taking the plunge.
1. Overloading the long-term missionaries
For long-term missionaries, however, welcome the visit of the short-term team, arranging for the activities planned by the visiting team can take up a lot of time and energy, not to mention needing to be translators, tour guides, cultural advisors, etc. All this takes time away from their main work. If the visitors also make other special requests about the type of accommodation, food, timing, sightseeing, etc, that adds to the preparation load.
2. Doing things that are not useful, or harmful
Unfortunately, stories abound of short-term teams that do things with the best intentions, but which turn out not to be very useful or even harmful. For example, donating equipment that breaks down easily in that environment, and which no one there has the expertise to repair; or giving inappropriately costly gifts to some local people which breeds envy in the rest of the community and creates expectations that the long-term missionaries are unable to meet.
Some participants, in their zeal, may ignore warnings about local sensitivities and put the long-term missionaries at risk by openly sharing the gospel, praying in public or distributing tracts. It is important to be sensitive to local situations, especially as it may be impolite in the local culture to say a direct “no” to visitors.
Go, to Serve and to Learn
Short-term mission trips can bring great blessings to the long-term missionaries and communities they visit, and to the participants who go. So such trips should certainly continue! If participants go with a desire to serve and to learn, God will surely make them a blessing to the long-term missionaries and the communities they minister to.