We’ve all heard inspiring stories of lives transformed as a result of short-term mission trips and most will agree that they have the potential to be a powerful force for good. Nevertheless, many people will have nagging concerns or misgivings that may cause them to limit their commitment to short-term mission. Instead of losing heart, let’s recognise these dangers and focus on how we can avoid them.
The desire to make a worthwhile and lasting difference within the local community is usually high among the priorities of those going on short-term mission trips. This need is often met by projects involving construction, renovation and other practical tasks, yet these kinds of trips can prompt others to ask the question “Why not pay local people to do it?” These contrasting perspectives highlight the real need to think through the missional heart of any potential ‘mission trip’ and to carefully communicate it to both those who are participating and to their supporters. It is worth bearing in mind that a trip that puts you side by side with nationals and connected with long-term workers is preferable to one where the team work alone.
We should also be aware of the risk of devaluing long-term mission by emphasising short-term ‘success’ over long-term growth. Short-term trips can lead to people seeing mission just as an activity or an event. We need to remember that “ministry is more like raising a family than throwing a party”1. Short-term mission cannot replace the involvement of those who share their lives in long-term committed relationships, but it can be of immense value if done hand-in-hand with, and contributing to, a longer-term vision.
Some people may be willing to give up time to go on a short-term mission trip, but unwilling to commit to regular involvement in local ministry. When communicating the purpose of any trip it’s worth emphasising that mission is not something you do for just a few weeks a year but is something that needs to be part of everyday life.
It’s all about me
People considering a short-term mission trip may be looking for a kind of spiritually responsible holiday, to see the world and ‘do their bit as a Christian’ – in that order. Or they may be looking for an adventure or something that’s fun. While there is an element of adventure (and maybe even ‘holiday’) in a short-term trip, it’s important for those going to be encouraged to examine their hearts – to have a servant attitude and focus on the ministry.
Another common mindset is to see short-term mission as primarily being an opportunity for personal growth. Similarly, churches investing in short-term mission can place an unhelpful emphasis on the benefit to their team members rather than on the value (and potential costs) to those who are receiving them. The emphasis ought to be on God and His purposes for the trip, on what He is doing, rather than on how the team members are benefitting personally or being changed. Team members should be encouraged to reflect this emphasis when on the trip and when giving feedback on their return.
Doing our own thing
Ministry methods can sometimes be chosen to fit those going on trips rather than for the receiving hosts. But unsuitable methods can have serious implications. The ministry and methods used should be shaped around the needs of the receiving community, not around the team. We need to ensure the team has the relevant skills and gifts so they can maximise their usefulness. For this reason, short-term teams operate best within the context of a partnership with those who understand the needs of the local people and with whom there is a mutual accountability.
Similarly, without an ongoing relationship, there is a danger of creating a culture of dependency within the receiving community, where local people actually feel disempowered to make a difference themselves.
A quick fix
There is a sense that short-term mission can serve as a distraction for both individuals and churches in addressing more fundamental issues of their ministry and witness. Telling people in another country about Jesus through an interpreter is a very different challenge to being real and vulnerable about your faith with your friends, family, and colleagues. In the same way, churches should be wary of viewing short-term trips as a good substitute to investing or partnering in longer-term ministries, locally or abroad.
Short-term mission can be an important process for those considering longer term involvement. But even for people with a sense that God is calling them longer-term to ministry overseas, regular short-term trips might lead to them avoiding making firm decisions about their future. We need to encourage people to address this issue head on.
Individuals may have godly motives and be sincere in their approach, but without adequate preparation there is potential for a lack of cross-cultural sensitivity, an unawareness of ethnocentrism, and/or interpersonal difficulties within the team. These problems may lead to individuals or even the whole team causing offense and giving negative impressions of Christianity. Orientation before the start of the trip, and debriefing and support on return should be seen as an important part of the whole programme. Is your team adequately prepared? The Global Connections Code of Best Practice for Short-Term Mission available at www.globalconnections.co.uk/stm is an invaluable tool to help you determine this.