Good or Bad: Short Term Teams?

If you have been a part of the Christian world for any amount of time, you are likely familiar with short-term mission trips. A group of well-intentioned people raise money to travel to another community (often overseas, but not always) to do ministry work. Usually anywhere from 1-2 weeks, these trips involve programs for children, sometimes physical labor, or large evangelical events.

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There is a lot of conversation over how effective or even healthy for local people these kinds of trips are. Some argue they offer exposure and connection of the Church, while others argue they are overpriced feel-good vacations that take work away from locals at a cheaper price. It is easy to find valid points on either side. We are not here to argue their validity or prove one perspective. We are here to acknowledge that people are going to continue to go on short-term mission trips, and if they are, we would like to encourage some healthy perspective before doing so.

We need to watch how we speak about going on short-term trips. As American Christians, we often use language like “We are going to bring Jesus to_(whatever location)__”, or to focus on speaking about the level of poverty or hopelessness of those we are going to serve. This language stems from years of a white savior complex mixed with a need to fundraise and for our efforts to seem significant. It is dangerous because it elevates us (pride) and demeans the people where we are going.

The truth is this: we can’t “bring Jesus” anywhere because He is already everywhere. He doesn’t need a boarding pass or to make sure he fits in our 50lb weight limit of our luggage. Jesus is already wherever we are going and He is simply inviting us to be a part of His grand story in a different part of the world.

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This is where it gets messy. In our culture, we have an ever-present need to ACCOMPLISH and prove our worthiness by deeds done. This easily trickles into our faith. When we go on a short-term trip, we need to have things done to point to it’s effectiveness. This is why we spend $20,000 to send some teenagers across the globe to paint a school. The truth is that money could have been sent to missionary contacts and allocated to hire locals to do that job- a job they may not otherwise have. It could have created a small business, fed a local school, or dug a fresh water well. (And, yes, locals often come back and fix the work of unskilled well-meaning volunteers). It may sound like from that thought we are denouncing the validity of sending mission trips, but we aren’t. We believe it is time to REFRAME our language surrounding them. 

Some of the really beneficial outcomes of short-term trips:

  • Perspective of the people who GO. 

    • It has been argued that a person’s personal experiences aren’t worth the thousands of dollars it costs to go. I disagree. It was trips overseas that helped my passion take shape and mold. It is because of some of these experiences I am doing the long-term work in missions I am today. Plus I met Patrick on a short-term trip so its all good in my book.

  • Energizing Local Projects.

    • There is something magical that happens with fresh passion. When people are grinding away at their everyday life, especially in a community where needs surround them, it can be emotionally exhausting. It is very true that teams often Invigorate the people they go to serve alongside. They are able to pull off large events that energize existing ministry and encourage locals as well. There is something so exciting about visitors that livens up what is happening. Often the energy from visitors can carry leaders through the next season.

  •  Long-Term Relationship.

    • There is also value added through an on-going connection if the team is committed to that. To continue to support the missionary or community where they go to serve. Often after team members leave they give towards projects, rally causes and fundraise back home. This can be extremely fruitful. I have many relationships still with people who came from all over the country on short term teams that we hosted. I would encourage any short-term team leader to intentionally encourage on-going influence after returning home.

    All of this to say that I believe that mission trips can be a fruitful. But I encourage us all to reframe our language in speaking about this. Dont speak from a need to prove what you will accomplish. You aren’t bringing Jesus anywhere because Jesus is already everywhere. He is inviting us into His story of what He is doing around the world. You just get to be a bridge between His people. What a beautiful opportunity!