The Shocking Truth about Short-Term Mission Trips

A couple of generations ago the idea of traveling to another country for only a couple of weeks for mission work was rare. Then Youth With a Mission and Operation Mobilization began sending teams of college age youth on short-term trips in late 1950’s and 1960’s.

In recent years, over 1000 organizations and countless churches send short-term teams every day all over the world and throughout the U.S.

A Barna Group study from 2008 estimated that 8 million people went on a short-term missions trip in 2002-2007.

I have been on over 15 short-term mission trips in my lifetime, including one six-month assignment in Thailand. I am going on another one this fall with a team working with Living Water International.

I also helped prepare many other teams while I served as a missions pastor for three years.

I believe that short-term missions are a good thing.

However, there are some things about short-term mission trips that need evaluating. Recent books, such as, When Helping Hurts and Toxic Charity, ask valid, challenging questions about the Western church’s approach to missions and charity.

From my own experiences, I see many challenges and questionable activity.

Local pastors and believers rely too heavily on mission teams

Mission teams come in and do everything because they are the experts and have the resources. This leaves the local pastors and believers dependent and weak.

The money spent sending a team

The amount of money needed to send a team of 10 to a south Asian country for 10 days could give much-needed theological training for a year to 10 local pastors.

10 days does not paint a complete picture

Western believers spend a week or two in a foreign country that they have never been to before. They are jet lagged and in minor culture shock for most of the trip. Yet they return home thinking that they fully understand the culture and it’s needs.

Focus is on one week

Mission teams forget that God is already at work long before a team shows up. He will continue to work after they leave.

Check the mission trip box  

Team members take about two weeks from their busy schedules, spend and/or raise thousands of dollars, place themselves in a foreign context that challenges them in many ways, and focus their actions, prayers, and thoughts on a mission. Then they return home to never live life like that again. Maybe they do for a few weeks, then it is back to life as normal.

The question is whether short-term missions are a good use of our time and money

Yes! If handled with wisdom and purpose. Here are a few suggestions how to do so:

Work with the local pastor and churches. Our church has partnered with a couple of churches in Progreso, Texas along the Mexico border for almost 10 years. Our teams used to come in and lead VBS, build homes, etc. The local believers basically stood and watched if they showed up at all. Now the local church leads the VBS, and more homeowners help out constructing their home.

Consider Return On Investment. Have a clear purpose that validates the spending of thousands of dollars to send a team. Evaluation might limit the size of the team or possibly cancel the trip altogether to use the funds more efficiently.

Keep in mind that there is more. A two-week trip to a foreign country will never give the complete picture of that context. A missionary friend of mine that served in Thailand for over 20 years and married a Thai women stated that he still does not fully understand the culture. Another reason to follow the lead of the local believers.

Join God in His Mission. Not only have this mentality about the short-term trip, but approach life as a missionary after returning home. He sends all of us, everyday.

If you want to read more on this subject, here is good blog series by Darren Carlson.

What do you think about short-term mission trips?

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I am a longtime Austinite. Married my beautiful wife over 25 years ago. Adopted our son September 2012. Currently a writer and loving it. Previous jobs and careers include project management, missionary, and pastor. I enjoy sports (both watching and playing), traveling, reading, digging in dirt and hanging with my friends and family.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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10 thoughts on “The Shocking Truth about Short-Term Mission Trips

  1. Great thoughts Kenny, we have a lot of these conversations in our home as our oldest daughter goes on short term mission trips and is now saving towards a longer trip to a friend’s orphanage in Uganda. The challenges of perspective and purpose are always before her and part of her passion. I’ll take a look at your recommended read!

    • Hello Shellynne! It is great to hear that a young woman with a passion for missions and orphans remains mindful of perspective and purpose. I know another young woman that served eight months with an orphanage in Uganda in 2009. That experience completely changed her outlook on life. A very positive outcome of short-term missions.
      Thanks for reading and leaving a comment!

  2. Great topic Kenny.Both of those books are must reads at least for the leadership of mission organizations and churches interested in venturing into the short term mission field.Thanks so much for your writings.

      • Hi, so I am curious as to why you are doing a trip with living waters international as I am considering doing this myself. My church is sending a team to El Salvadore in the fall. I can afford the $
        1,900 cost but wonder if it is efficient to send teams there as opposed to hiring locals and thereby also contributing to the local economy.

        • I love your question. This is always the tension with short-term missions. I made the Living Water trip last November. What I learned about this organization is that they do hire locals to run the in-country operation. My trip was to Honduras. All of the staff that we worked with were Honduran.

          Not all organizations that host short-term are structured like Living Water. So I think it is wise to evaluate any mission organization to see how money is spent.

  3. My first time short term mission trip gave me a tiny glimpse of what being a missionary living overseas would look like and it is where I discovered my calling. Now I’m living that life full-time, but you knew that already. 😉

    • Hello my friend! Yes, I do know that you are living a missionary life full-time. I admire you guys and am very proud of you.
      Your family has a lot to teach the rest of us who live in the States. Thank you for serving Him.