By Georges Houssney
The Pros and Cons of Short-Term Missions
Are short-term trips worth it? In Part 1 of this article, I discussed the growing phenomena of “missions trips.” Church members are often ill-prepared and told to not necessarily expect spiritual results, while these trips eat up millions of dollars of mission budgets.
Short-term missions trip have had a tremendous impact on my own life. What I share with you today are observations and lessons I have learned. I will also make recommendations for maximizing the potential of short-term missions in part 3 of this article.
Negatives and Drawbacks
- Many who go on mission trips have no cross-cultural experience and due to the shortness of the trip, they are sent with little or no preparation or training. As a result they are likely to behave in ways that are not culturally appropriate or sensitive. I have seen young men dress in shorts and women in tank tops in conservative countries where men and women cover the majority of their bodies. Young people also tend to behave immaturely, with coarse joking, flirting, and inappropriately touching others of the opposite sex. On the other hand, some come with their expensive clothes, expensive gadgets, computers, and iPhones and flash money around while people in the target culture cannot afford such luxuries. This results in either disgust or adoration of the missionaries. In either case, it is not healthy.
- Due to the excitement associated with going to a foreign country, some fall in love with the new culture and do not see beyond the facade of its external expressions. Rather, they become enamored of the culture’s music, folklore, dress, and lifestyle. In fact, some expect to see a much darker side of other cultures than they discover. As a result, they fail to see the lostness and spiritual depravity of people from the target cultures.
- Recruiters who are anxious to sign up people for these trips tend to exaggerate how great these trips are. They raise the expectations too high. The result of unrealistic expectations is usually disappointment. Some expect to love the people in those counties but find out they are not as kind or attractive as they were promised. Some expect to see many people saved. They end up painting walls and laying bricks and hardly seeing any natives. Some return from a short-term mission disappointed because they did not lead anyone to Christ, and they feel that they have failed and that they are not made for missions.
- A percentage of those who have a positive experience on short-term mission trips end up returning for a longer term. They often discover that living in that country long-term is not as exciting or intense, so they get disappointed. They reason that if they had so much fun for two weeks, living there would be even better. By some estimates, half of those who go on long-term trips return home disillusioned. Long-termers cannot maintain that level of intensity and excitement over a long period of time. It is like going on a honeymoon or vacation; you do not have to go to work, and you enjoy every moment. Then reality hits and you are back to real life, where there is work, tiredness, shopping, cooking, cleaning, and countless other things that keep you busy. Some missionaries do not realize that just figuring out how to live in a foreign country takes up a huge chunk of their day.
- Short-term trips are expensive. Once I was on a prayer walk trip in Morocco. Four hundred came from many parts of the world for the five-day journey. I estimated that no less than one million dollars were spent on travel alone (400 x $2,500). Some have argued that it would be better that we send this money to the mission field where it can make a much greater impact.
- Many go on short-term mission trips in response to guilt trips laid on them by preachers or missions speakers, who rightly challenge them to do something about unreached people. For many, going on a short-term mission relieves them of their guilty feeling. Rather than consider a longer-term commitment, they settle for a trip or two here and there. Some feel that they now have missions checked off on their “to-do in my lifetime” list.
- The impact on the national church is not always positive. Some churches are inundated by short-term teams that demand a lot of attention. This takes national pastors away from their regular routine and disrupts the ministry.
- A good percentage of short-termers end up going long-term. Some statistics claim 50%. Many would never go to the mission field were it not for these short-term opportunities. In addition, short-term trips are excellent for those who are hesitant about their calling. These trips enable them to test the waters and see if career missions might be where God is calling them.
- Many gain a heart for missions, and they return often and/or become supporters, prayer partners, and mobilizers.
- Short-term mission trips are eye openers for many. It is one thing to read missions newsletters and reports, it is another to actually be on the mission field and see the poverty, the hardships, and the spiritual depravity of people of other cultures.
- Some who have never witnessed back home become bold in witnessing when they are with a like-minded team witnessing in a cross-cultural context. This can even help them begin to witness when they return home.
- Some cannot be career missionaries because of job and family considerations. However, they do want to make a difference, so they use their vacation time or a break from school to do something for the Lord, rather than spending it on themselves.
- Many who go on mission trips come from affluent families. They are not used to doing dirty work. Manual labor gives them an opportunity to serve others and to experience hard work like they never have before.
After looking at some of the pros and cons of short-term missions, let us see what the Bible says about this. Missions is a word that came out of the Greek apostolos, a messenger who is sent to accomplish a certain mission. To better understand the meaning of apostolos, we must look at the life of Jesus and the apostles, and what they did as missionaries.
Jesus and Paul, the Short-Term Missionaries
By today’s standards Jesus came to earth on a short mission trip! In fact, his three years of ministry were a series of short-term trips as he went from village to town to city, from region to another. He was on what some call a traveling team.
Likewise Paul was constantly traveling on short mission trips. He typically stayed from weeks to a few months. His very first assignment was in Antioch, which lasted for one year (Acts 11:26). He spent one and a half years in Corinth (Acts 18:11), three months in Greece (Acts 20:3), and his longest stay was for three years in Ephesus (Acts 20: 31).
Looking at the life of Jesus reveals three aspects of his short-term mission trips: teaching, preaching, and healing.
Jesus’ Teaching, Preaching, and Healing
In training his disciples, he instilled in them the attitude they needed to take with them to the world. He told them that were to be fishers of men, light of the world, seed planters, disciple makers, and that they were to preach the gospel of the kingdom. Jesus also asked them to care for the non-spiritual needs of people. He mandated that we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and take care of the widows and orphans, all in his name. (Matthew 25:31-46)
But learning from his example of ministering to the needs of the crowds, we observe that his humanitarian work was always accompanied by his teaching and preaching.
Watch for Part 3 of this article, “Practical Principles for Successful Missions Trips” coming soon!