What is the purpose of short-term mission trips? I’m talking about those 10-20 days trips we take during our vacations or spring breaks.
To the short-termer who goes: The purpose is to be a witness of Christ; love those who are different from us; encourage cross-cultural believers; build a church building or other needed asset in the work of the kingdom there; make a difference!
To the long-termer who hosts the short-termers: Make them feel like they’ve made an incredible difference.
Yes, it’s all politics.
Have you ever noticed that a politician never criticizes the culture or the people at large? Never will you hear an American presidential candidate say, “Well, you know Larry, this is where a vast majority of the American people are dead wrong. They need to change their thinking. They need to change their behavior.” No, they don’t go there even if they think this way. Instead, they compliment Americans. They talk about the greatness of the American Spirit and how they identify with the masses of people who live on “Main Street.” If anyone needs to change, it is those few but loud “radicals” that belong to the other political party.
Politicians have everything to gain from telling people they are good just the way they are. If a candidate says everyday people need to change, it is political suicide. Instead, they need to make people feel as if everything about them is all right.
So it is with short-term missions. Few people are brave enough to criticize these trips. Why? Because so many people go on them and have loved them. Because so many supporting churches send groups to visit their missionaries. A long-term missionary would be in trouble of losing support if he criticized his supporting church’s short-term approach.
I, for one, am not against short-term trips. Not in the least. If done right, I think they are great. In fact, I went on exactly ten short-term trips before I became a long-term missionary. (Well, six were in the 10-20 day range; four were in the 2-3 month range.) I would not have become a long-term missionary if it weren’t for those trips. So, I am not against such trips. Neither am I against people from my supporting churches coming to visit or do a small project. I love it! I love getting to share with them the country and the people I have grown to love. I feel like I have learned an entire world of new information from living in The Location and am delighted to share these things with people who come.
But there is one aspect of these short-term trips I have come to realize. Most people come to achieve one thing: An experience or sense that they’ve done something incredibly good.
People want to go home with the feeling, “That was awesome!” And there is only one thing, for Christians, that makes them feel that way—that they made an eternal difference.
It is not impossible, but it is very difficult to make a long-term impact in the space of 10-20 days. Even in the life of one person. Chances are the people coming for a week will be much more affected by the trip than The Location is affected by the people coming. But this doesn’t help recruiting:
“Come to the Far East and learn that you have anger issues you need to resolve when you return home!”
“Go on an exotic trip to Africa and learn that there is another way to live besides your narcissistic, consumeristic, individualistic existence!”
“Visit the other side of the world and discover that God is not only interested in, or dependent upon, the American church!”
These lines do not get people signing up in droves to spend $3,000 and precious vacation time.
Instead, we like to advertise like this:
“Spend a week of your time and make an eternal impact.”
“Experience what God is doing on the front lines of the gospel.”
“Be like Jesus and make a difference among the most unreached and the poorest of the poor.”
And we tell stories of how somebody went somewhere, met a local, shared the gospel and how he became a believer. We show pictures of white people hugging dark-skinned natives with bright white smiles. And we know that going on a trip is the best thing a spiritual person could do. While people at home don’t even want to hear the gospel, it is so easy to make a difference overseas where people are begging to hear the gospel but no one will even tell it to them!
If there ever was a missions “urban legend” that last statement is one! While there have been some instances of this dynamic in the history of Christian missions, it certainly does not characterize the “mission field” in general.
So, as a long-term missionary who often hosts short-term groups, I often feel like I have to sell an experience. I have to make people feel that what they’re doing is incredibly critical to the advance of God’s kingdom around the world. I have even had churches tell me that they want their people to have that feeling when they return.
I have to laugh. It is clear such churches aren’t really interested in making a difference overseas. Instead, they want to make a difference in their own people—in their church dynamic and church “life” back home. They want to feel like they’ve made a difference. And I’m stuck with the role of politician trying to make sure they feel that way.
If churches were really interested in making a difference on “the mission field” they would learn to accept that differences aren’t made that easily. They wouldn’t be so concerned about their “feelings” upon return home as they would be about gaining a greater understanding of the task ahead of them. They wouldn’t be so concerned about what they “do” but about what they “learn.” And they would spend more collective resources on long-term efforts than they spend on short-term trips.
But that just isn’t as sexy as being able to boast about one’s short-term trips and the incredible difference these trips are making to listeners at home who have no way to evaluate the real impact.