The authors of these articles attempt to position short-term trips as a waste of financial resources with little to no lasting impact on local ministry, while risking an unhealthy local dependence on foreign resources. Although they raise some legitimate issues that should be addressed, I believe the issues highlighted are a result of poor preparation and execution of the trips and an inadequate focus on ministry.
Short-term missions trips can serve as a great tool for global ministry. Abandoning short-term missions trips based on the negative results of some trips is short-sighted and irresponsible. The argument misappropriates the blame on the tool instead of the misuse of the tool. Many trips that result in little to no impact usually bring self-centered groups, with little to no spiritual or cultural preparation, that are more focused on having a fun experience than doing ministry.
There are plenty of local churches that focus more on entertainment and drawing crowds instead of the gospel, which results in little to no spiritual impact; yet, we do not stop gathering as a local church in other places simply because there are some that are not focused on the gospel and making disciples. We do not blame the global church because some local churches are not God-centered, nor should the use of short-term trips be castigated due to the ineptness of the poorly planned and executed ones. Let’s not make the mistake of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We can do better!
Don’t cancel your short-term missions trips! Instead, maximize the benefits available from your short-term trips by ensuring your trips are focused on transformational ministry instead of spiritual tourism. Begin by analyzing your past trips and honestly assess the impact of those trips. Did the trip truly benefit the ministry on the field? Was the trip executed in a way that had a spiritual impact on the participants? Do the participants continue to display a fire and passion for global missions? If the answer to any of the questions is no, you have time to address issues identified with past trips and make changes for how future trips will be planned and executed. Use this time while travel is limited due to the pandemic to shore up your ministry and prepare for the day when we can serve with our global family again. We all have time, due to the pandemic, to assess our missions trips and implement any needed changes to maximize the benefits from future trips.
When planned and executed correctly, short-term missions trips serve as a valuable and vital tool that bring great benefits to all parties. The trips offer the opportunity to provide needed resources to global ministries, introduce participants to global missions and the life of a missionary, build relationships within the global church, encourage believers in the host location, expand ministry opportunities on the field and develop a passion for Christian service in the participants, among many other benefits. Maximizing these benefits requires proper planning and execution of the trips, with a God-centered focus instead of a self-centered paradigm.
An impactful short-term missions trip starts with proper planning, training and accurate expectations. Planning includes ensuring the ministry host identifies valid ministry needs and the skills of the missions team match the ministry needs appropriately (i.e. a teaching ministry needs participants that can teach and lead). Most importantly, ensuring the participants are spiritually, culturally and physically prepared for the exact location and ministry through proper training will greatly affect the ultimate impact of the trip.
Spiritual preparation begins with prayer (for the ministry, the host, the people you will serve, your own heart condition, the team, etc.) and includes purposeful time in Scripture. Cultural preparation includes understanding the culture of the location being served, including the “do’s and don’ts” to ensure not to offend, the differences of daily life in the culture and some basic phrases in the language to assist in acclimation on the field. The host missionary should provide the team a detailed cultural overview, which should be learned and followed carefully. Finally, each member needs an attitude of humility and flexibility, keeping the focus on God, his mission, his glory and his work (in ministry and in each heart). The proper attitude provides God with an emptied vessel to fill and use as he desires, which will maximize the long-term impact on the participant and the ministry being performed.
Short-term trips can absolutely have a long-term impact. Properly planned and executed trips can provide a huge and lasting impact on the participants, the on-field ministry, the local believers serving in the ministry and those being served.
The long-term benefit to the participants can be transformational. When we get out of our comfort zones and humbly trust God to use us as he wills, we are stretched and are able to see God working in and through us. We get to experience him using us for his ministry to others, molding our hearts to what he cares about and helping us to see others the way he sees them. Nothing replaces a full experience of the Spirit working in us. An old Chinese proverb states, “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.” Experiencing the work of God in and through us will transform our relationship with him and with others. My first trip created a passion for global disciple-making that transformed my understanding of the Great Commission, which continues to shape my ministry today.
A short-term trip can transform one’s view of missions and missionaries. My first-trip experience opened my eyes and heart to missions and drove me to lead numerous future trips in multiple contexts across five continents. Many long-term missionaries began their life in missions by participating in a short-term trip. Experiencing ministry on the field, alongside fellow believers in another culture, helps us look outside of ourselves and cultivates a heart for the global church. Building relationships with the global church should drive us to pray differently for our Christian family members and the advancement of the gospel across the globe. It also opens our eyes to what it will be like in eternity when “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” are gathered together worshipping God (see Rev. 7:9-10). Serving in other cultures cultivates a spirit of humility and selflessness that prepares us for eternity while enabling us to be more effectively used by the Spirit here on earth.
A short-term trip full of humble, flexible and selfless Christians, who are spiritually and culturally prepared for ministry, can bring enormous encouragement to the local believers serving alongside the short-term team. Changing the paradigm from seeing participants as rich westerners who have come to see our country to committed and poured-out brothers and sisters who have come to support us and serve our community transforms everything. The local believers are encouraged by the sacrifice and love shown by the team, especially if the team is there to serve the believers and their ministry. The team should defer to the local believers to ensure those being served see the local believers as the hands and feet of Christ; after all, the local believers will be there for follow-up and continued ministry far after the temporary team has returned home. The willingness of the team to humbly serve in the background lets the ones being served know these Christians came to support the church, which can cause them to see their local church differently—opening the door to future ministry.
Serving alongside a local church or ministry will build a deeper relationship between the team and the ministry, resulting in mutual prayer for one another, the possibility of consistent opportunities to serve year after year and a newfound passion within the sending church to provide ministry in a foreign culture. The passion can impact the view towards missions for the entire church family, resulting in new missions participants each year and possible expansion to other global ministries. The fire for missions must be started at some point, and one properly planned and executed short-term trip can be the spark that ignites the fire.
The above benefits merely scratch the surface. Short-term trips provide an enormous gateway to long-term impact on many lives. Proper follow-up and continued cultivation of the spiritual lessons experienced can transform the participants’ lives, which God can and will use for his glory. One trip of completely surrendered (to the guidance of the Holy Spirit) participants can spark a missions movement among a body of believers that can quickly turn into a network of future missionaries and expanded global ministries. Let’s address the issues with short-term trips and utilize this wonderful ministry resource for long-term gospel impact around the globe!
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published November 18, 2020.