short-term mission trips

Many of you probably already read the wildly popular blog, Jamie the Very Worst Missionary.  Others of you should surely check it out — but not ALL of you.  TVWM‘s popularity is due, in my opinion, to unabashed honesty and in-your-face transparency, which is refreshing to many of us.  But candid writing of this sort surely is polarizing.  So some of you will not like Jamie’s blog.

All of that said, Jamie, a long-term missionary in Costa Rica, has been writing a fair amount lately about short-term missions (a topic which can also be somewhat polarizing).  For a taste, read Hugs for Jesus, which is a snapshot of what I consider to be short-term missions at its worst.

As you might suspect, I often find myself thinking about mission strategies, both long- and short-term.  And I sometimes — should you catch me in a mood — complain that I’m in favor of doing away with short-term missions.  But I suppose, to be more accurate, I should say merely that I fall on the side of wanting to improve short-term missions — but improve them drastically, to the point that most organizers of short-term works would not be willing to put in the time and effort required to do a truly worthwhile trip.  [On that note, it’s interesting to me that we’re willing to put thousands of dollars into short-term projects, but we’re not willing to put in an extra 5-10 hours a week in order to make those projects worthwhile.]

Those who call for an end to short-term missions are, in my estimation, both shortsighted and not grounded in reality.  We all know short-term mission trips will continue to exist.  And I would hope we all realize there are numerous ways to radically improve these works.

It’s likely that many of those calling for an end to short-term missions are long-term missionaries who better understand the difficulties of ministering in another culture and, therefore, more clearly see the short-comings of short-term efforts.  It’s also likely, though, that many of these very same long-term missionaries are themselves products of short-term missions on some level or another.  I would love to see a show of hands; how many long-term missionaries reading this post first participated in short-term work?  [My hand is up.]

Don’t hear me saying “we ought to allow short-term missions to exist as is because they’re working — after all, look at all these long-term missionaries.”  That’s not my argument.  My point is merely that the answer is not to do away with the entire system of short-term mission efforts.*  Rather, the answer is for us to begin to do short-term missions better.

Now — as my regular readers know — I’ve not of late been writing what we’d call… frequently.  So I certainly am not willing to call this a series.  But I do want to devote some time in the coming weeks to exploring short-term missions.  For now, though, I’ll offer just one thought, as it has to do with what I’ve already mentioned:

Creating Long-term Missionaries 

If the creation of long-term missionaries gives value to short-term missions (and I’d argue it may be chief among all factors), perhaps we should design our short-term trips with that in mind.  We ought to make clear that short-term folks are less doers and more learners.  Short-term efforts are less about changing the world today, and more about changing the world tomorrow.  We should stress worldview, culture, and language learning.  We should model family and team life on the mission field.  Participants should spend less time handing out fliers and playing with children, and more time understanding the difficulties of being intentionally subversive in a foreign culture for the sake of the kingdom of God.  If short-term missions are truly going to be about the creation of long-term missionaries, let’s make the visitor’s experience as valuable as is possible for the sake of future works.


 Your thoughts on short-term missions?  Are you a long-term missionary who first spent time in short-term efforts?  What would you do to improve short-term trips?

*We too often, in missions and development, throw away valuable tools simply because their current (or recent) state is one of misuse.  Many have tossed aside relief in favor of education only.  Others have stopped being culturally subversive in favor of merely looking like everyone else in their new culture.  But the answer isn’t to stop providing relief or to simply look and act like everyone around us; the answer is to do what we do with greater intentionality and wisdom.


Filed under missions

17 responses to “short-term mission trips

  1. Looking forward to this “almost” series. We have been having discussions on this very issue at Stones River. Be blessed.

    • we’ll see how much time i find to write this “almost” series. which is just another way of saying that we’ll all find out how many mornings i get up at 5 this next couple of weeks, versus sleeping in ’til 6:30. today was a 6:30 day.

  2. Here is one of my favorite articles on this subject:

    I’m 46 years old I’ve been a follower of Jesus my whole life. Up until last year I personally thought short term missions trips were not good for the Kingdom. In June I’m going to Rwanda with E3 with some young disciple makers. Because I’m lazy I’ll refer you to my web page where I wrote about the trip.

    I honestly still have concerns about this trip. It will cost a lot of money and time. At this point I’m taking it on faith that it will be worth it. Well see.

    • good link, darrell. thanks for pointing me to it. as one who worked in asia for a time and one who is committed to a cpm / dbs approach to evangelism, i especially enjoyed the article.

      as for your upcoming trip to rwanda, i will be praying for you guys. God, i pray that you bless darrell’s preparations and his work in rwanda. i pray that you work in and through the team of high school students he’ll be leading, and that you accomplish much through them. give them safe journey, and lead them with your Holy Spirit. Father, may you receive all the glory. amen.

  3. We like short-term missions in our ministry. The Lord has used them in my life, and I think, as you say, if they are organized well and done in such a way that you aren’t creating dependency I think they can be of great benefit for the kingdom.

    • i think one of the most useful things that can be done for short-term missions is to have those of us who have hosted successful campaigns share why we believe those trips were indeed successful. at any point in this “non” series, dias, feel free to offer ideas.

      and thanks for coming by.

  4. The first time I ever participated on a short-term missions trip was as a long-term missionary helping to host the team. (And it was in Geita- remember?) Growing up as a missionary kid, I was VERY firmly in the anti-missions-trip camp. (Or at least, if you must do your missions trips, please keep them out of MY backyard.) I saw it as spiritual tourism that was often destructive to the local Church, and useless at best.

    I’m still not fond of missions trips in principle. But I’ve seen them done well. I’ve helped to host a few that, I believe, were quite valuable to the local Church. The key (as I’ve seen it) is for the host Church to be in charge, and to only invite in short-term visitors to fill functions that actually need to be filled- for the host Church to be selective. Overseas missions-trips-organizers should send volunteers to participate in work that the local Church is actually managing and directing… the missions-trip shouldn’t be organized parallel to or independent from the local Church.

    But my fiancee came to long-term missions from short term missions trips. She and I started dating while she was on a trip that I hosted. She actually came to Christ during a high-school missions trip. (I couldn’t have even begun to imagine sending a non-Christian on a missions trip…) So, you won’t hear me complaining about short-term missions trips so much these days.

    • i don’t know what’s better: for short-term missions to produce long-term missionaries OR for short-term missions to produce long-term marriages. you’re a blessed man to be on the receiving end of both. hardly seems fair for that to happen to a guy who was firmly anti- short-term mission trip….

  5. Jason

    Hey Brett.

    It seems to me, being a pseudo-intellectual snob, that one of the most difficult things about STM is that almost all information we have about it is ineffectually gleaned in the very way we are doing it: anecdotally. Not very scientific, to say the least. This is not to say that relaxed conversation about a subject is not helpful for processing, but much of the time (not necessarily here) I find that we’re not really processing

    There have, though, in the last few years, been publications trying to study scientifically the monster or blessing of STM. If you know of any, post them here if Brett ok’s it. One of them I know is Effective Management in Short-Term Missions: Doing it Right!, edited by Robert J. Priest. It first tries to locate patterns, then tries to talk about those patterns, and then tries to offer paradigm changes (in some cases) as well as slight alterations (in other cases) to improve a tool that, as you said Brett, is unlikely to disappear (regardless of how LTM feels).

    Cheers all. See you soon, Brett. Go Chelsea! Get Real! (Soccer cheers from a sports-challenged fan).


  6. I never did any “missionary work” until China, unless you count a trip to Miami during spring break with the ACSC when we painted houses and helped out poor or elderly families in various ways. I never wanted to go the short-term route because I don’t like socializing 24/7 for any amount of time. I liked the China deal because I actually lived there, had a job and a life there, could become part of the backdrop and minister to my Chinese students and friends that way. I wanted to live among the people and be their friend first. I wanted to know as much about them as they seemed to want to know about me before I presumed to tell them about Jesus and my beliefs. It felt arrogant to just show up and think “these people want to know about Jesus!” I felt they should know and like me before anything I did or said would matter.

    There is a lot of “I want” and “I like” in there, but being that I’m equipped with a set of talents, abilities and desires, this format (living there for a year) was better for me than visiting for a week or two. I really didn’t want to put up with other Americans either… I kind of liked that I didn’t know any of the ones currently working in my city when I got there. That made me get to know and spend time with the Chinese people, form relationships and from there I think any teaching, sharing, etc was more effective. And I wasn’t a grouchy old hag because I had some alone time in there to get a breather and have a minute to regroup and refresh.

    • Jason


      I think it is interesting that STM used to be exactly what you describe here…specifically, 1-2 years of cross-cultural living with specific tasks that were relationally based.

      Now, like you indicated, it is 1-2 weeks in culturally padded groups that eschew relationships of any real, lasting quality.

      One thing has had an overwhelming impact on the way we look at STM: youth groups. But has that impact created a better mousetrap? I think the evidence shows otherwise.

  7. Amy

    I feel like short term missions can be done well, but it also depends on the heart of the person going to serve. I have seen people treat mission trips like vacations, but I have also seen people whose lives were turned inside out, upside down by these same mission trips. I was one of those people whose life was changed. If it wasn’t for short term opportunities, I wouldn’t be who I am, and I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. Is it possible that those people in long term missions don’t see the results of short term missions?

    • Amy,

      Perhaps people in long-term missions are more interested in the *local* results of short-term missions. Are the lives of *local* people being changed by this visit from foreigners, or are their lives being disrupted? Is the visit intrinsic to the ministry of the local Church, or does the work of hosting foreigners take so much effort that it pulls the local Church away from its ministry?

      If short-term mission teams are life-changing for the foreigners who participate in the teams… well, of course that’s good. But if the goal of short-term mission teams is MISSIONS, then the question that matters is whether they are valuable to the host community.

  8. Pingback: missions: two by two | aliens and strangers

  9. Eden

    Interesting post! I do think short term mission trips are essential for youth. They allow youth to actually question a “cushy” faith, and then learn to fully rely and trust on God. However, I do agree that many overseas short term trips are a waste of money and resources. For the past few years, my youth group has been doing mission trips that are within a few hours of our church in North Carolina. We find some through or personal connections within the church. And since we often go back to the same places, we gain more personal relationships with locals. There is so much need within the United States, and youth still get the same benefits as they would overseas. We save money, but youth still get great benefits from these trips.

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