Many valuable tools come with warning labels, such as “handle with care,” to highlight the dangers of misuse.
As you plan your next short-term missions trip, consider these eight dangers and the tips we offer to minimize their impact on your trip.
In a construction project, power tools make work significantly easier. However, many of these same valuable tools are inherently dangerous. Power saws and drills perform their roles masterfully, but users must handle them with care. They’re safe when used correctly, but one must focus to avoid causing damage.
Short-term missions trips are a valuable ministry tool that carries this same caution. They perform their role masterfully – providing significant benefits to the ministry, the community served, and the trip participants – but they create potential dangers that must be managed.
We’ve encountered these issues leading trips over the last 30 years and learned how to guard against their becoming a reality. We’ve created a list of potential problems which trip leaders and hosts must proactively address. As you plan your next trip, consider these eight dangers and the tips we offer to minimize their impact on your trip.
1. Cultural Issues
Short-term trips can cause cultural issues that negatively impact the local ministry.
Many well-meaning teams have unknowingly offended locals due to a lack of cultural knowledge. These offenses can negatively impact the credibility of the local ministry substantially, damaging essential relationships. A culturally unprepared person is like a toddler handling a running chainsaw. It can have devastating consequences.
Avoiding this potential crisis requires preparation by the team. Learning cultural information and displaying cultural intelligence is crucial for teams. The trip leader should work with the host to understand important cultural nuances before arriving on the field. Most importantly, each participant must remain humble and continually observe how the local believers interact with those in the community. They should feel comfortable asking the host and other believers for guidance to ensure their actions don’t offend.
2. Spiritual Tourism
Short-term trips can turn into spiritual tourism instead of true ministry trips.
When a trip focuses on the participant experience instead of ministry, the trip can become a glorified vacation or “spiritual tourism.” Spiritual tourism negatively impacts the ministry, the host, and the participants. It’s caused some to incorrectly view short-term trips as a waste of time and money, as they confuse spiritual tourism with authentic missions and ministry. True short-term missions trips are valuable and benefit the community served and the participants.
Planning and preparation are the keys to avoiding the pitfall of spiritual tourism. Well-planned trips by the ministry host and the trip leader will focus on ministry instead of personal experiences. Most of the activities should bless or enhance the ministry and positively impact the community being served.
Proper planning also includes training and spiritually, culturally, and mentally preparing the team. The foundational thread of the trip should be spiritual since it’s a spiritual journey to serve on a missions trip. The spiritual focus should drive humility among the participants, encouraging denial of selfish tendencies, often the root of spiritual tourism trips.
3. False Affirmations
Short-term trips can create false affirmations of readiness and cultural awareness.
While short-term trips provide real ministry experience, the trip’s limited nature can create misunderstandings. Short-term trips can veil the complexities of living and serving on the field due to the focus on ministry. The team can experience the fruit of the ministry without seeing the hard work and sacrifices necessary to sustain the ministry throughout the year. A great experience on a trip can provide a potential missionary with a false sense of readiness for long-term missions.
Additionally, the limited time interacting with the local people can cause participants to overestimate their cultural knowledge. Cultural preparation should be a part of training to serve, but the team should not think a week or two in a location makes them masters of a culture. It’s like someone who’s only used a desk shredder thinking they’re prepared to use a woodchipper. The team should remain humble and tread carefully to ensure they don’t offend as they adapt to the culture.
Avoiding the threat of false affirmations can be achieved by maintaining a position of humility and an awareness of the limitations of short-term trips. The participant should connect with experienced missionaries and discuss the realities of living and serving on the field and within a foreign culture. Such discussions will help create an understanding of one’s position in readiness and cultural awareness.
4. Missing a Calling
Short-term trips can inoculate one’s conscience against a call to long-term missions.
Trip participants often encounter a transformational experience on short-term trips. The experience can result in a passion for serving on the mission field. Repeatedly serving on short-term missions trips can temporarily fulfill the desire for missions, which results in missing a call into mid-term or long-term missions. The participant has allowed something good to replace something better.
Serving on short-term trips can mute God’s call to learn the language and culture and go for an extended period living abroad and serving in ministry. The trips merely touch the passion for missions, but fulfillment will only come with a deeper commitment of obedience.
Participants can avoid this risk through prayer and godly counsel from their pastor, trip leaders, and the host missionary. The godly people in one’s life can often help one identify God’s anointing and direction. If a participant consistently senses a desire to go on trips every year or more, they should engage in those conversations. Don’t let a good thing cause one to miss God’s best.
5. Unrealistic Expectations
Short-term trips can create unrealistic ministry expectations and unsustainable levels of engagement.
Planning for teams to participate in ministry often involves creating events with local churches and partners. The team provides additional labor and resources, which allows for more impact and engagement for the local ministry. These additional resources can result in unrealistic expectations for ministry and engagement by the local partners and the community. It would be like teaching someone to use a table saw and then giving them a handsaw as a replacement. Both will do the job, but the handsaw takes much longer and requires greater effort and commitment.
To minimize this vulnerability, the host should communicate with the local churches and partners to set proper expectations in the future. Additionally, the team should be allowed to engage, but the local ministry should be the ones who are visible in the community. The team should be seen as supporting the local ministry, while the local ministry should be the connection for the community since they will be the ones to follow up after the team leaves.
6. Resource Reduction
Short-term trips can reduce resources from critical long-term needs.
Short-term teams usually provide resources to field ministries through labor and financial gifts, but they come with a cost. Hosting trips requires local ministry time and resources to plan, organize, and host the team. Occasionally, these costs come at the expense of investing in long-term needs and ministries.
The visiting team can minimize this possibility by providing all required financial resources for the ministry while they serve on the field. We recommend the team cover all its ministry costs and give additional gifts to provide abundant assistance to the ministry. I (Jason) send funds to the host before the team arrives, so the ministry isn’t required to cover any of the costs for our activities. Additionally, if the team is flexible and the host plans well, the team’s time of service should provide long-term benefits instead of distracting from the long-term ministry.
7. Minimal Evangelistic Impact
Short-term trips can have minimal evangelistic impact.
The goal of short-term trips is to spread the gospel and encourage those serving in the local ministry. Successful trips can result in minimal evangelistic impact, especially when serving in a country with a language barrier. Although the team prepares and plans great ministry activities, they may have little direct evangelistic impact on the community.
Even in these situations, the trip can accomplish great things toward the spread of the gospel. Serving the local believers can enable them to build community relationships that ultimately result in people hearing and accepting the gospel. Additionally, serving with the local ministry can encourage them to keep ministering to the community, which results in more people coming to Christ.
It’s hard to avoid this issue when serving with language barriers. I (Jason) recommend not forcing times for team members to share the gospel when it’s more effective for a local to share the gospel. The goal isn’t the team getting to speak but sharing the gospel most effectively. Additionally, a local believer leading someone to Christ can begin a discipleship relationship that carries forward long after the team returns home.
8. Spiritual Pride
Short-term trips can cause participants to become prideful due to serving on mission.
Short-term trips often require sacrifices by the participants. The trips cost money and time and often require the team to live in conditions below their usual standard. Participants can easily develop pride based on their sacrifice to serve others in the name of Christ, even though they’re simply obedient vessels Jesus uses for His service. It’s like someone bragging about their ability to drill a perfect hole when the drill inherently does all the work.
The participants can avoid the temptation of pride by focusing on the importance of the ministry instead of their perceived sacrifices. Properly preparing the team to be humble, flexible, and willing servants is crucial. Teams should continually emphasize these themes on the trip and upon return in debrief sessions. Guide the attitudes of the participants to help them focus on humble service.
Many valuable tools come with warning labels, such as “handle with care,” to highlight the dangers of misuse. Short-term missions trips could carry the same label. They’re a great ministry tool with vast potential but must be managed properly to maximize benefits and minimize issues.
We hope the cautions in this article will help churches manage their trips well. Preparing a team, leading it with a spiritual emphasis, and debriefing with the team when they return are all part of good trip planning and may minimize many of the items above.
Plan accordingly and avoid the dangers associated with short-term missions trips. Let Launch Point help you by visiting us at www.launchpointmissions.org.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Focus on the Family on April 21, 2023. Used with permission.