New Series: Making $ense of Short-Term Missions

Full disclosure: As I start this series, I want to preface with the fact that I have been on seven short-term mission trips. The estimated cost for those seven trips was over $9,000. 

So it’s that time of year again. Summer is upon you, residents of the Northern Hemisphere. The sun, sand, and Sonic all bid you, come. In addition to your normal summer routines of work, camps, vacations, and a little R & R, many will embark on summer mission trips. You have probably read by now that among evangelicals this is a billion plus dollar/year industry. That’s nine zeros written like this: 1,000,000,000. Seems extravagant, don’t you think? Twenty adults and/or teens staying 8-10 days in an impoverished community spending in the ballpark of $25,000. Many trips maintain a dual focus: service and evangelism. The service side could include manual labor projects, feeding the homeless, or medical clinics. Evangelism may include gospel meetings, VBS, or youth nights. 

And a question I have is: are short-term mission trips a culturally appropriate model for evangelism or community development?

As we begin this series, scripture will function as our starting point. In the narrative of scripture, the unfolding story shows God seeking restoration. The text reveals our Creator reversing the effects of sin and death. Since Adam and Eve and the Fall, God has been reconciling humanity back to himself. So he sends Abraham, makes a new people group (Israel), calls Moses, anoints David, speaks to prophets, and ultimately becomes flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. We pursue God’s mission because we believe that God is redeeming his world and chooses to use his creation to point to Jesus. Stated more simply, we share what we have found in Jesus. Jesus taught his disciples the same and they went. Paul followed the commission he was given in Acts 9 at his conversion. In the first century, Christian communities naturally spoke about their faith in Jesus Christ. Even in the midst of persecution, the church continued to advance. At the heart of God there is a call to spread the good news about the Kingdom of God that is subduing the earth. Thus, the question stated another way: are we accomplishing the work of God in a contextual manner by serving on a ten-day campaign? 

The short answer is no. Short-term mission trips are far from culturally appropriate, nor are they accomplishing the work of God in a contextual respect. The ministries done inside those ten days are far from reproducible by national Christians. National Christians simply cannot “put on” a ten-day service and evangelism campaign nor can they follow up with the villages or communities that have been served. The irreproducible nature of many of the service oriented projects our trips are engaging in begins with the North American budget that furnishes the supplies. Many groups pay $200-400 per person for supplies to help fund these impoverished community projects. Rarely are we thinking of the guilt and shame we bring to the nationals as they sit and watch a group of teenagers painting their two-bedroom shack. In addition, the evangelism process has been transplanted from our North American worldview into a completely different setting with varying beliefs and differences. Without proper contextualization many times the gospel will go unheard, misunderstood, or—even worse—deemed non-essential. We often neglect the giftedness of the poor when we work solo and ignore their cultural insights into sharing the gospel. 

So where do we go from here? I believe short-term mission trips have a “branding” problem. The promise of changing lives, spending a week with friends, and teaching the gospel by acts of service and love cannot be our main intentions. As followers of Jesus, if we go we should go to learn and share community with others. Instead of service-oriented projects, spend time with churches, neighbors, and communities. Get to know the struggles and challenges living in that cultural context without providing any solution except your presence and prayers. In this series, I hope to help Christian leaders and those interested in missions rethink how to navigate the summer buzz of short-term missions with respect to our God’s mission which has no short-term; it is always moving, always loving, and always serving.