Have you been on a short-term mission trip before? If you haven’t, picture these three scenarios:
- You and your church mates are planning a cross-cultural mission trip overseas. You’re excited and raring to go. In fact, you’ve already found the church you want to work with, identified what is lacking in that church, and intend to start a new ministry for the church once you’re there.
- You’ve heard about this place where the houses are in poor condition and they don’t have a local school. So, together with your friends, you make plans to support their cause by providing funds.
- You’re a youth leader and want to bring your youths for an overseas cross-cultural mission trip in order to expose them to missions.
Been on such trips, or know of others who have gone for similar trips? I have.
While I do not doubt the good intentions behind such trips, I’ve found that they’re not always as effective and beneficial as we might think they are. In the above three scenarios, I can see where some short-term mission can potentially do as much harm as good.
1) When we create unsustainable work
In running a short-term mission, I believe we can sometimes end up creating unsustainable work unknowingly. Think about the first scenario. A new ministry needs not only money, but also manpower. After our short-term mission of two weeks or so ends, the local church will need to keep the ministry going on its own. But very often, the pastors of these churches already have their plates full. So who is going to run that ministry? Would we have given the church more work to do—without providing the necessary manpower to do it?
We can also make the mistake of failing to contextualize. This happens when we organize ministries or events based on what works in our own church, country, or culture. However, what works in one place may not work in another, simply because we are talking about different people in a different culture.
For example, a church staff in a northern Thailand village who used to work for a church in Bangkok once told me that the evangelistic rallies often held in villages would probably not work as well in a city. City folk, she explained, were more likely to ask questions that were apologetic in nature—for example, about the existence of God. Villagers, on the other hand, usually believed in some sort of a deity or worshipped such gods, and would not question the existence of God.
Likewise, when we plan an event or ministry without taking into consideration the differences in culture, we may end up doing work that is ineffective.
2) When we create a spirit of dependency
In addition, the way money is given or spent in funding ministries may create a spirit of dependency among the locals in the long run.
Once, my church provided some funding to help build a church building in a particular village. It was meant as a one-off gift for the construction of the church. However, we subsequently received requests for better guitars and sound equipment. It seemed as though it had become natural for the villagers to turn to us for help rather than to raise funds themselves.
Father Vincent J. Donovan, a Roman Catholic priest who served as a missionary in East Africa, also shared a similar account. He recalled that 100 years after missionaries entered East Africa, no single parish or diocese had actually become self-sustaining. What started out as a funding for the church in East Africa grew to become continual support and funding because the East Africans witnessed just how much the church could provide for them without them having to raise any money themselves.
I must clarify that I am not suggesting that we should never provide funding for the building of churches and schools or the support of local staff. But perhaps we need to give thought to the potential consequences that we may unintentionally cause. For example, instead of providing the full funding for a project, some churches pledge to match the amount raised by the local church. Adopting the right methods can help the local church in the long run, and is just as important as having the right intentions.
3) When we mix up God’s mission with our own agenda
Often, the purpose of our short-term missions is to give exposure or disciple youths. It is certainly true that short-term mission can produce our own growth as a by-product; in fact, I know of many who have grown in their faith through such trips.
But if we start to put our own exposure and discipleship as the goal of short-term missions, we will be placing the cart before the horse. Instead, we need to recognize that the purpose of short-term missions is to take part in God’s mission—not ours.
There are many different forms of short-term missions, such as those doing direct evangelism, medical missions, leadership training, or running camps. Regardless of their activities, all of them have the same end objective: to see the good news of Jesus being shared, and to help those who received the good news serve and grow in their faith. This stems from our biblical understanding that Christians are baptized into the body of Christ where they serve, learn the word of God, and build one another up (1 Cor 12:13, 27; 1 Tim 4:13; 1 Thess 5:11). As such, short-term missions should seek to contribute to local churches either directly or indirectly.
But sometimes, we get the order mixed up. Often, I have heard youths share about how much they’ve learned or how much they’ve been blessed. What I don’t hear enough of is how the church or Christian organization there has actually benefited from the mission team. I know this because I was one of those completely oblivious to what was going on in the mission field, and focused only on my own learning experience. If we want to do short-term mission right, I believe we need to prioritize the mission of God over our own agenda.
So Are Short-Term Missions Ever Good?
Well, the answer is yes! I believe that short-term missions, if done right, can be truly meaningful.
One way for this to be done is to put aside any desire to start something new and instead think of how we can assist pastors in their ongoing work. We can establish lasting partnerships with local churches, have regular dialogues with local pastors to hear about what the ground needs are and make frequent visits to follow-up on individuals who have heard the gospel. Such efforts will build upon ongoing work rather than create additional work.
On one of my trips a few years back, a lady from a local tribe accepted Christ as her Lord and Saviour. Because we were partnering a local church, we were able to tell the pastor about her so that he could invite her to his church. When we visited that village again the next year, we were overjoyed to find out that she had been attending church regularly.
Short-term missions can also be a great source of encouragement and a form of pastoral care to local pastors. Mission teams can help them reconnect with the larger church outside their country. They can also help to relieve the work of local pastors by taking over Sunday School programmes or perhaps even preaching. This can help free up the pastors’ time so that they can look into other matters—or perhaps just get a well-deserved break. On other occasions, short-term mission teams with a particular skill set like medical training may also help the church to meet the needs of the locals by providing health care services to them.
A biblical model for short-term missions that we can imitate is that of the church in Philippi which ministered to Paul’s need by sending Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25). His role was not so much as a standalone missionary, but rather that of supporting and assisting long-term missionaries. Epaphroditus was so helpful that Paul described him as a “co-worker”.
In a similar manner, let’s see our teams as co-workers of the local church we have partnered with. In practical terms, this means putting the needs of the church or missionary above our own and seeking to help in ongoing work. In the mission field, this would mean that we need to be flexible in our own plans.
While we may not be able to stay long term in the field, we can make repeated trips over a period of time to build relations and support local churches. In that sense, short-term missions are short-term only in terms of the duration; when done right, they can provide effective and beneficial long-term help.