Short-term mission trips seem to be everywhere. They’re easily accessible, common in schools and churches, and increasingly affordable due to fundraising. They go hand in hand with that cliche catchphrase, “eye-opening.” Mission trips give perspective to the wealthy, they humble us and take us away from the pressures of work, school, and society. We take time to play with children and work with our hands instead of sitting in class or in our offices.
Sometimes these mission trips turn into getaways for us, we enjoy experiencing a new culture and appreciate seeing different ways of life--and in many ways that’s good. However, when we tell ourselves (and others) that we’re going to serve and instead we place all of our value on our own experiences we’re lying to ourselves. Further, we’ve heard about the damage short-term trips can do in books like When Helping Hurts, Toxic Charity, Dead Aid, and others.
Does this mean that short-term missions are altogether bad? I don’t think so. But I do think we need to reevaluate why we go on mission trips and be honest about what we discover. The reality is, we cannot continue to go on one or two week trips and pretend we leave having transformed a community and changed countless lives like a quick fix. The issues are too complex for that. We need to take a step back and think about doing short-term missions in a different way.
Caspar Geisterfer, World Missions field staff in Honduras, expressed his concerns about short-term missions to me recently. “We’re too focused on ‘helping’ and not making relationships. We should still do them, but in a different way.” Caspar suggested that short-term mission trips should focus on making relationships. Rather than entering a community to “do” something, we should just “be.” We cannot enter into a community thinking that we can change it, we have too much to learn first. “It’s like dating,” Caspar says, “you’re developing a relationship. You eat with them, swim in the river with them, learn from them. You don’t learn about people by doing things for them.”
Perhaps short-term mission trips should be more focused on learning, as one piece of a bigger picture, rather than a quick “eye-opening” trip in which we learn more about what the terrain of another country looks like than the people themselves.
World Renew has partnered with Youth Unlimited to rethink short-term mission trips, has incorporated short-term trips in Global Partnership Programs, and has a short-term program called Serve With A Purpose (SWAP). Additionally, short-term trips can be much more effective with careful planning, cultural training, and reflection, detailed in an earlier post. The Chalmers Center also has a study to guide churches and ministry leaders in how they do short-term missions. The beauty of short-term mission trips is that often we leave feeling more challenged, more renewed, more convicted, than we ever thought possible. However, we cannot lose focus on our purpose: we cannot sacrifice our mission for the experiences or pleasure that we hope to obtain. Instead, let’s focus in on the learning that can be done, and make this our goal.
I just read this post today, and even though we are eight years further along, there hasn't been much change in the way that short term missions are 'advertised'. Lets continue to work on moving away from service trips, to the idea of building relationships, or simply immersing oneself into the daily experiences of the countries we travel to. Lets learn from these "eye-opening" experiences and acknowledge the great privilege that we have in making these trips.
A few months ago I completed my capstone research on the topic of the cultural dynamics of volunteerism between the global North and global South. There are so many level to this topic but hopefully we can find a way to do it right.
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