***Update*** Consider my latest article on "The 3 Reasons to Embark on a Short Term Missions Trip" as another resource to help guide your decision.
Short-term missions are/have a dubious distinction of being more ‘volunteer tourism’ than actual reflections of competent expressions of God’s unfolding mission to rescue and redeem all of creation. ‘Missions’ trips that fly over to far-off lands with a purpose to do something aid related (occasionally it’s just to win souls which is a terrible reason to embark on such a trip).
You can do some work to make an informed decision before embarking on a missions trip. I’ve put together a list of questions to ask prior to planning a short-term missions trip. (Maybe someone wants to make an infographic of this? :P)
When considering a short term missions trip (measured in weeks) or program consider the following questions:
Does your church believe trips can act as a catalyst for young people to become missionaries?
- If you answered YES then your church needs a fundamental shift in how it views mission. The church doesn’t have a mission, rather, the mission has a church. To regard missions as something only a “missionary” can do is a shallow view. Many contemporary churches fall into this paradigm, but imagine the results of valuing local missions first and compelling everyone to exist in that local mission rather than regarding the qualified missionaries as the only ones capable to ‘do’ mission.
Would the target area benefit more from your presence or the money you would’ve used for the trip (plane fare, accommodations, etc.)?
- If you answer ‘MONEY’ then don’t go. Crunch some hypothetical numbers. 3500 x 15 people = $52,500 in flights alone. That money could potentially purchase many times more resources than what you’re slated to contribute. Are you interested in helping people? If so then how much good can be done is a relevant question? Do you build 1 well or send the money so the locals can build 5?
Does your presence in the project area develop jobs?
- If you answer ‘NO’ don’t go. One of the things short term missions work (and other foreign aid) inadvertently does is eliminate local employment. Do a quick benefit analysis where you compare if the trip primarily benefits the sender or the recipient. To put it simply, Mexicans know how to build houses, your teenagers don’t need to show them how. Let local workers work, you on the other hand should think twice about replacing them. Of course, if you’re not trying to alleviate poverty and you want the experience of helping someone in a far off land then so be it, there are many programs out there to do just that (I’m simply suggesting it’s not the best way to address the fundamental need of poverty).
Does your project require additional maintenance in the long term and will you train local people to do the upkeep?
- If the answer is ‘NO’ don’t bother. Don’t even think about going because your well will break in 4 months and will sit rusting in a field because nobody will know how to fix it (or the parts aren’t available).
Does your short term mission provide greater spiritual benefit for the locals rather than your team?
- If the answer is ‘NO’ then you should probably reconsider. This is a tough one. Short term missions are designed to give Westerners an experience of doing something good for the world. Apart from the obvious colonialist mindset behind this intention (do African countries really need to learn from a dead church how to evangelize? do Mexicans really possess few skills to build houses?). Sometimes there are worthy skills to share. In those cases, given everyone has the internet, it’s better to teach for free (or nominal fee) via Skype versus the cost of flying to the community.
Can you confirm the validity of the need? Do you know if the orphans you’re holding are really orphans?
- If the answer is ‘NO’ don’t go. There are emerging ‘sectors’ in developing nations that will rent kids to plop them into orphanages to be hugged by hapless North American saps. Unless you have an explicit relationship with a local organization you’re not an expert nor a solution to a devastating local issue. Find an organization to partner with if you’re interested in helping.
Do you have to go into debt (borrow money) to go on your trip? Or are you compelling poor students to embark on a trip that puts them a step behind for future aspirations (like an education)?
- If the answer is ‘YES’ then don’t even plan. I don’t imagine many churches would compel their parishioners to borrow to go on a trip, most international trips are a luxury of well-to-do churches. However, I know of a number of kids who work hard over summer or various fundraising activities to go on missions trips that have little impact for the local community. There is value for life changing experiences, but let’s not call them missions trips (more on that later).
Does money raised for international missions trips have greater impact locally?
- If the answer is ‘YES’ then don’t go. Do you even have a local missions ethos? Does your church regularly participate in the needs of the immediate community? If the answer is NO then you must recalibrate your church towards the local needs before ever contributing something internationally (of course, this point is moot if your intentions for missions trips is to do something cool for the youth group).
Speaking of impact, is yours going to be measurable? Both in dollars and experience?
- Measurement is important when doing foreign aid, and not how many wells you build, but how many wells are still operation in 1 year, 2 years, 5, and more. One of the failures of short term mission help is that it only offeres a band-aid solution at best to a situation we care to learn little about.
Are you taking a trip as a chance to convert unbelievers?
- If you answered ‘YES’ then you need to consider a paradigm shift in evangelism. One thing you shouldn’t be measuring, and the one thing many nonetheless do, is conversions. Why? Our paradigm of the “sinner’s prayer conversion” is the by-product of a highly consumerist and individualistic brand of Christianity that has little bearing in scripture. So not only are you measuring something only the Son can judge, you’re measuring a fleeting moment in time (that people readily fake to get the free stuff). Consider a more holistic view of salvation instead.
Did you get a ‘sign’ from God to go to a particular people group?
- Not to undermine the potential God would call someone vividly to a particular people group, but that would generally take the shape of a long-term commitment, not a week long affair. Then again, who am I to judge? Ensure you go through a thorough process (a year?) of discernment if this is your primary motivation.
After reflecting on these questions maybe you’ll want to reconsider your short term missions aspirations (after all, it’s a ton of work). I know a lot of youth leaders going the local route to wide success for both community and student. (Conversely, I know a lot of pointless trips happens because elder boards just feel one trip every two years is a necessary rhythm of the church.)
At the end of the day is your trip really more about you then helping the local people? It’s important to experience another part of the world, especially ones much poorer than your own, which can become important paradigm shifting experiences. But let’s call a spade a spade and plan for a trip focused on tourism not missions.
Enough with bursting short term missions dreams, what are some noble reasons to embark on a short term trip?
Are you looking to establish local partnerships to invest in long term development?
- If the answer is YES then send a small team to fact find and begin the process of both creating strategy to address a distinct need and the right people who will compel everyone back home to jump on the bandwagon.
Can you join an organization already on the ground running?
- Then your impact suddenly increases (assuming a competent organization) because the groundwork has already been established.
Does the receiving community want to connect?
- If the answer is YES go. There are times when you’re helping a community overseas and THEY want to connect with YOU. A lot of people you’re helping don’t necessarily want a check carte blanche, they want to know the people sending them cash too. SEnd a small team to see what’s going on, meet the local community, and report back.
Are you going to spend 10 years learning the local language and culture?
- So long as you have a support network at home then go! But now we’re outside the realm of short-term missions.
Are you trying to educate on poverty or social justice issues?
- Developing vision and offering experiences, especially to younger generations, is a valid reason to go on a trip, just frame it as such, not under the guise of ‘missions’.