Rethinking Mission Trips

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Short-term missions are a vital part of Christ’s church. But maybe it’s time to rethink them.

Flights are booked, bags packed, and vaccinations are in order. You’re ready to go!

There’s no doubt about it: short-term missions are in.
With participation booming since the 1990s, one might expect the success of short-term missions to be widely evident. All those participants, all that money and time spent should have grown the body of Christ, reduced the global number of “the least of these,” and enhanced the passion for mission in our home communities.

Why is the evidence of success so lacking? Could it be that our mission trips are too participant-centered? Perhaps the Great Commission and the call to love our neighbours have become intermingled with our cultural impulse to “do” something for others—bring Bibles, build a church, give away clothing, care for orphans—the type of doing that puts relating, loving, knowing, learning, and worshiping together second.

Short-term missions are a vital part of Christ’s church. But maybe it’s time to rethink them—starting with a shift away from being participant-centred in favor of being other-centered.

The authentic mission of the church has always been about “the other”: people who are far from God, who are poor or sick, who are refugees or widows or orphans. Mission history, beginning with Jesus’ ministry and extending through the apostles and many missionaries since, puts “the other” in proper perspective. This focus should also guide our short-term missions.

So before your next mission trip, I invite you to do an honest self-assessment. Consider the following statements and their responses:

1. I want to do something for the poor. Great! Sponsor a refugee family. Volunteer at the food bank. There are poor people in your community too. No need to travel anywhere.

2. I want to take along supplies poor people need, such as used clothes, school supplies, or medicines. Used clothes and free school supplies may put local market vendors out of business. Medicines with English labels may be abused.

3. I want to build a church, a school, a gravity water supply system. There are lots of unemployed tradesmen and unskilled laborers in poor communities. Why take their jobs? They know more about building codes and practices in their communities than you do.

4. I want to tell people about Jesus. In countries such as Honduras, 97 percent of the population is already Christian. Only 72 percent of Canadians are Christian, and only 80 percent of Americans. How about inviting your neighbor to church?

5. I have the money for this trip. If you’re planning a two-week mission trip costing $2,500, consider that the average annual income for 2.1 billion of the world’s people is less than $1,000.

6. The poor invited me to come. They will receive and host me in their home or community.

7. I need to receive, not give. My gifts are respect, humility and gratitude, and a compassionate heart. I will graciously accept hospitality and receive the gifts offered to me.

8. I want to relate. I’ll make an effort to learn a few phrases in my hosts’ language, even if they laugh and correct me. These people have a lot to teach me about family, community, and worship.

9. I want to let those who are poor minister to me. Through their hospitality, fellowship, and worship, they show me how to cross the divides of race, education, and wealth.

10. This trip is money wisely spent. A mission trip that’s focused on “the other” is money wisely spent!

Are you ready for a mission trip that is other-centered? Then book your flight, pack your bags, and get your shots.

Related Links:
Short Term Missions Trips (The Network)
Ten Questions for Debriefing After a Mission Trip (The Banner)
Short Term Missions (Resources from Christian Reformed World Missions)

About the Author

Harry Spaling lived and worked in Sierra Leone as an agriculturist on the Krim team and then as country director for CRWRC (now World Renew) and World Missions (now Resonate Global Mission) from 1982-1988. He is a professor of geography and environmental studies at The King’s University, Edmonton, Alta., and a member of Fellowship CRC in Edmonton.

See comments (2)


Great article and something that needs to be repeated.  I learned decades ago while on the CRC's old Summer Workshop in Missions (SWIM) program, that many short term "missions programs" pretended to be programs to help others (not the SWIMers), but are actually programs that intend to help those who go (the SWIMers).  That's not entirely bad of course, but we do well to pay more attention to what really is, especially when our helping actually hurts others (examples given in this article).

Too often, we conclude that to truly serve we have to do something "special" in some location that is a distant from where we live.  The trick is figuring out what is always right in front of us: that we usually don't need to go anywhere and what needs to be done isn't all that special.  The good Samaritan didn't go anywhere he wasn't already going to, and he didn't do anything that didn't obviously need doing (and wasn't very exciting).

And if one is inclined to go to a distant place, that's great, but that usually means going to live there, so that the distant place becomes your local place.  Thankfully, many foreign missionaries/workers are figuring that out.

There are, to my mind, three purposes for short term missions.

1) Assisting the local church.  This, however, requires the local church to have a clear idea of how they will use the short-termers and integrate what is done with their long-term ministry.  If the church does not have a plan for follow-up and integration, they should not ask for short-termers to help.  Don't go to do for, go to do with.

2) Fostering connections among churches.  It is valuable for both our members and the members of churches in other places to see and experience the unity we have in Christ as a present reality and not just a theory.  Cross-polination, sharing ideas, and just enjoying the fellowship should not be something restricted to a few on the EIRC.  You'd travel across the country to spend time with your brother or sister, right?  That's what a short-term mission is.  So focus on people - learn them, their culture, their language, their names.  This may mean repeated trips rather than once & done.  Figure out how to maintain the connection over the distance, too.

3) Training.  Short term trips can provide, in a concentrated fashion, practical training experience not feasible in one's home environment.  But the sending church should have a clear concept of what they want their people to be trained in and practice.  It helps if the receiving church has thought through what they can and will teach, too. Go to learn.

And when you come back, report what you've learned.  Don't tell us again how wonderful it is that they're happy without all the stuff we've got.  I've heard that a bazillion times.  Unless you are also telling us that you're selling all your possessions to give to the poor and follow Jesus, it's just boilerplate.  What have you learned about doing ministry that you will put into practice back home?  Tell us who you met - names, personalities, lives - make them come alive instead of just faces in a photo.  Help us get to know our brothers and sisters as family, too.  Tell us what they're doing, what we can pray for, how we can be one in Christ.

Used wisely, short term missions can enhance the fellowship of believers and the ministries of both sending and receiving churches.