Anyone who knows me personally knows that I’m a huge proponent of short-term missions. Over the years, I’ve seen students change their college majors, team members commit to fostering or adopting, and orphans plant Scripture in their hearts as a result of these brief visits. Personally, I’ve encountered God in fresh ways as I’ve seen Him through the lens of a new culture or as I’ve witnessed His miraculous, redemptive work. The short-term trip is an integral part of The Boaz Project’s ministry to orphans and can be used to bless orphans, their caregivers, and the short-term team participant.
I’d be remiss, however, not to acknowledge that short-term mission trips also have their liabilities. The potential damage is real and can be significant; I’ve witnessed quite a bit myself. But rather than “throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” I think it’s wise to pursue the blessings and benefits of short-term missions while proactively doing all we can to minimize the risks of mishaps.
So let’s have an honest little chat. Let’s name some of these nasty potential downfalls and see what we can do to diminish them BEFORE your next ministry venture:
- Short-term mission trips are expensive, and the money could be better used to support the long-term effort.
Depending upon your destination, short-term trips can, indeed, be expensive. The airfare alone is daunting, and teams don’t stay very long. It could be a logical conclusion that the money should be invested in the organization’s ongoing efforts.
But don’t be too quick to assume. Typically, those who’ve seen the work of a mission first-hand become its biggest champions, praying fervently, giving generously, and telling others about the valuable work that’s taking place on the field.
To counteract this potential downfall of wasted funds, determine before you go to make a long-term commitment to serve the people you’ll meet and the organization you’re joining. Resolve to—barring some dreadful surprise on the field—out give the cost of the trip, whether personally or through those you’ll report back to after you return home. Then your trip becomes an opportunity for you to become an informed advocate, enabling you to pray, give, and share. You can encourage others to visit the field and start the cycle again. This way, the long-term benefits exponentially outweigh the one-time cost.
- Exhausted missionaries don’t need the additional stress of chaperoning short-term teams.
It’s true: missionaries are constantly stressed by their varied responsibilities and the needs they encounter daily. Having lived overseas, I can tell you that some teams ARE an additional drain, while others are a blessing. It’s all up to the perspective and intentions of the team.
So make it an intentional part of the team’s mission to bless the long-term workers. What foods, magazines or clothing items do they miss from home? Take them gifts that express your appreciation for their efforts. Offer words of encouragement send them to a nice dinner—and pay the bill. Do they need additional funding for their work? Consider making a donation to their personal support account.
- Short-term team participants make too many assumptions based on their experiences.
Imagine three Germans visit the U.S. for one week. One vacationed on Miami Beach and interacted with a homeless man. One visited New York City after winning backstage passes to a Taylor Swift concert and took in a Giants game while he was there. The third participated in a cross-cultural program and stayed with a farmer’s family in Kalvesta, Kansas.
If these three travelers were to meet up and chat about their impressions of the US after their return to Germany, they’d have very distinct impressions. Which of them really knows America? Each of their experiences truly reflects a part of our cultural landscape, but none is complete.
Every researcher knows: the greater the pool of data, the more accurate the conclusion. So be cautious after your trip not to paint too broad of strokes about the culture and people you encounter based on your brief time frame and limited location and experience. Talk about all you observed and learned, but preface your reports with “In my experience…” or “While I was there, . . .”
- True life change doesn’t happen in a week to ten days.
First of all, let me say that while life change typically takes more than the duration of a short-term trip, we serve a God who can change hearts in an instant. Remember a guy named Saul who took a little walk to Damascus?
Yet, I admit it’s wise to give consideration to the long-term follow-up that will take place for those you hope to serve. Select an organization whose teams are set up to serve the long-term ministry rather than one which uses the short-term team as the summation of its ministries.
- Damaging to the long-term work
Accidental missteps by short-termers can set a ministry back years in terms of relationship building. Cultural faux paus, language barriers, and religious traditions can blend to create unknown and delicate territory for a newcomer. When mistakes are made, it reflects on the entire work of the organization.
Minimize this risk by learning all you can about the culture you’re visiting before you go.
It’s also helpful to learn how people typically view Americans so you can be careful not to be “that” American. For example, Americans are known around the world for being loud. This means compared to other cultures, we often are! This information encourages us to use softer voices and not use time on public transportation for comic routines.
Lastly, invite someone familiar with the culture to halt or correct you if you’re on the verge of a faux pas. This act of humility will not only potentially prevent a mistake, but it will also communicate your submissive posture.
- Short-term teams can strip a community’s dignity by doing a job locals are capable of doing for themselves.
Sometimes, organizations can be guilty of creating jobs for foreigners in order to get them overseas to see the work they do. Whether it’s painting a building for the fifth time in four years or taking construction jobs from those who need them, this “job creation” for short-term teams can be counterproductive.
Before joining a short-term team, ask a lot of questions to determine if the purpose of the trip is valuable to the community you’re hoping to serve.
- Short-term team members often take the posture of savior.
Sadly, some short-term team members go into their experience thinking they’re going to save the world. Even worse, a few come home thinking they did!
It’s important to enter your short-term mission trip with the posture of a learner. If the issues you face on your mission experience: poverty, spiritual darkness, human trafficking, broken governmental systems, etc. are so complicated that full-time workers have been unable to solve them over decades of devoted service, it’s unrealistic to think that you’ll crack them during your visit.
Be honest about complexities of the issues facing the world today and acknowledge that if any good comes from your mission trip, it’s by God’s grace alone.
As you can see, most of the risks that threaten short-term trips’ effectiveness can be mitigated with careful, thoughtful planning and an attitude of humility. So don’t hesitate to get on that plane! Commit in advance to do your part to minimize the risks and then prepare to watch God at work. You won’t regret it!
As you pray for The Boaz Project this month, please remember the following:
A short-term team will head to India June 18-26 to conduct a Vacation Bible School in Jireh Home, our newest children’s home, and visit other homes as well. In addition to praying for their safety, please ask God to help them be effective in ministering to orphans and their caregivers.
Thank God for our largest 5K ever, providing support for the ministry and exposing newcomers to the mission and vision of The Boaz Project. We’re grateful for a partnership with The Gathering Place and Community Church of Greenwood for the boost in participation.
Ask God to provide the resources needed to extend the outreach of The Boaz Project to more children in need.
Excellent, Excellent, Excellent.
Thanks, Dave. You taught us everything we know!