“When I went to Haiti, I gave away everything I had and kept only the clothes I wore home.” That was a visitor stirred to generosity on a short-term mission trip. Similar stories abound. However, those who organize a mission trip should strategize to prevent long-term harm to the field.
Possible harm done by enthusiastic visitors who want to bless the poor people includes the following: romances with nationals that end in disaster; careless giving that implies that Americans should give just because they have it; overpaying for help, which makes them expect the same of future visitors; behavior that seems irreverent in the culture; and immodest attire that undermines the standards taught by national pastors.
Short-term mission trips accomplish great things, though sometimes not the goals imagined. It is important for leaders to plan together to accomplish good and avoid the harm.
Based on studies that have been done and interviews with missionaries, I would recommend that a short-term mission (STM) endeavor meet at least these criteria:
Preparation/orientation: A good STM will help prepare the participant spiritually (mission-related Bible studies), financially (guidance for adequate funding), culturally (information about cultural characteristics of his destination), and vocationally (information and basic training for the work he will do).
Good supervision: The STM has team leaders who provide consistent oversight of the participants and balance a good work schedule with some sightseeing. Obedience, cooperation, and cultural sensitivity are vital to the success of an STM trip.
A beneficial project: This might be difficult for you to discern, but the job that a team will do should be helpful either to the mission, the missionary, or the national church. Hopefully good questions have been asked to plan a truly useful project.
Every church can and should plan a short-term missions trip to one of our inner-city ministries. We have hosted numerous teams in Indianapolis and Detroit, and many of them have come back more than once. 1. It is affordable, especially for larger groups (we have had 30 people in a single group). 2. It is accessible. No passports or plane tickets needed. 3. It is safe. In spite of the dangers of the inner city, in thirteen years of hosting groups, we have never had a “security issue.” 4. It is close. Depending on where you’re coming from, you can drive to one of our cities with minimal travel time. 5. It is worthwhile. I know that there are more picturesque places, but a short-term missions trip is anything but a “tourist visit.” We focus on real work and ministry opportunities.
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Successful mission trips are not measured primarily by “Did we have fun?” (although great teams bring home many memories) or “Did we avoid snake bite?” (although mission teams often face exciting challenges).
Short term mission trips are measured by at least two questions:
“Did we minister to those we visited?” and,
“Did we gain a new passion for God’s work around the world?”
To achieve these goals, both team leaders and missionary hosts must prepare carefully.
Spiritual preparation before the trip equips team members for effective ministry. No one should be invited who is not committed to ministry. Short term mission teams must not export rebellious attitudes overseas!
Carefully planning ministry projects that have buy-in from the national church will provide the visiting team with genuine ministry opportunities.
An ideal mission trip leaves the host missionary refreshed and encouraged with “help from home” and gives the visiting team a new passion for missions.
Select a mission work which is actively in “cutting-edge” ministry. In that, you want your church people to work with a ministry which is reaching out resulting in the establishment of churches (not merely emphasizing the building of buildings). Perhaps this includes a mission work which thinks “outside of the box” regarding a target group (e.g. Syrian refugees). You want your church people to see that their involvement (prayers, going as career missionaries, regular financial giving, etc.) is critically important. You do not want your church people to go on a short-term missions trip and then look at missions as an option. The GREAT COMMISSION must be central as to why your church exists. True, not everyone can go into certain situations; thus greater selectivity is vitally important. If we are not careful, short-term missions will evolve into a “passport-stamping” fad which we call “mission work.” We must dialog more regarding short-term mission work.
Make sure the timing of your visit coincides with the best possible schedule of the host missionaries. They are people, too, and have personal lives, on-going field projects, necessary travel, and meetings to attend.
Always leave the place you are staying in better shape than when you found it.
Always pay or reimburse your hosts for any and all costs associated with your visit, including food, gas, tolls, lodging. Including an appropriate money gift for the missionaries as a thank you is always appropriate.
Discern the best projects. STM trips that promote dependence should be rejected. For instance, if the project entails your group building a church for a national congregation without partnering with them, you should choose another project or organize the project so that the national church is providing at least 50% of the project resources, e.g. labor, material, money, supervision.
Always seek to partner with the national church in whatever project you choose.