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.

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