ACROSS THE STREET & AROUND THE WORLD
The following article is the product of years of observation and reflection. I’m especially indebted to Darren Carlson and The Gospel Coalition for their original research and contribution to the discussion, some of which has been included below.
The Popularity of Short-Term Mission Trips
A horde of middle and high school teenagers waved hand-painted signs that read, “Free car wash! Donations accepted!” Their bubbly enthusiasm was outshone by their neon shirts with Comic Sans font and clipart crosses. Screen-printed on the front was the logo and name of their youth group—Impact2:42—while the back read in large letters: “Youth Missionary” with the year and the location where the teens would soon be headed for their overseas short-term mission trip.
Events like that occur every weekend at gas stations and church parking lots across the country. Stats recently reported that nearly half (41%) of people aged 15-22 have taken a short-term mission trip at least once in their life. How did we get here? How did these trips become so popular? And what should we think about their popularity?
The History of Short-Term Mission Trips
Short-term mission trips as we know them have only been around for a few decades. Before the 1950s, people called “missionaries” were those who left home for the purpose of bringing the gospel to another country or culture for the rest of their lives.
But during the 1950s and 60s, organizations like “Operation Mobilization” and “Youth with a Mission” (YWAM) began offering the chance to serve overseas with shorter commitments. Instead of committing for life, high school and college-aged students were able to sign up to serve for just a few months.
As our nation’s affluence continued to increase, the cost of travel continued to decrease, and those two factors made short-term mission trips even more possible (and attractive). InterVarsity began offering short-term mission trips in 1970, and other organizations have continued to follow suit.
Today, short-term mission trips are so popular that Americans spent nearly 2.5 billion dollars on them each year. That averages to more than $6.5 million dollars per day (enough to feed, clothe, and educate 5.71 million children for an entire year!).
The amount of money needed to make these trips happen is so significant that only affluent Christians in America can afford to spend so much on plane tickets, food, and lodging for such a brief period of time. For these reasons, short-term mission trips remain a mostly Western phenomenon.
The Tragedy of Short-Term Mission Trips
In theory, short-term mission trips provide an opportunity for Christians (again, usually Americans) to connect with the global church or to meet needs of others in very under-served areas of the world.
In reality, many (not all) short-term mission trips provide services of little value, very often doing more harm than good. Consider the observations of Darren Carlson, founder and president of Training Leaders International, an organization devoted to worldwide missions. He writes,
“I have seen houses in Latin America that have been painted 20 times by 20 different short-term teams; a New England-style church built by a Western team in Cameroon that is never used except when mission teams come to visit. I have seen teams of grandmothers who go to African countries and hold baby orphans for a week every year, but don’t send a dime to help them otherwise; teams who build houses that never get used; teams that bring the expensive vacation Bible school material that the nationals can never reproduce; teams that lead evangelistic crusades claiming commitments to Christ topping 5,000 every year in the same location with the same people attending.”
To make matters worse, the expense of getting short-term team members to their destinations is so high that 85% of the money spent on short-term trips never reaches the targeted areas of need (instead, most of the funds are spent on plane tickets, food, and lodging for the participants). For example, U.S. mission teams who went to Honduras to help rebuild homes after hurricane Mitch spent $30,000 per home (because of travel costs and other expenses), whereas the locals were able to build the same homes for just $3,000—ten times less! In fact, the average amount of money it takes to send a short-term mission team to repaint an orphanage is enough to hire two local painters and two full-time teachers and to purchase new uniforms and books for every student in the orphanage.
Sometimes, after citing examples like those above, people ask, “Well, what about those who go?” The thinking is that maybe short-term missions ‘does something’ for the person who goes, and this is worth more than whatever cost it took to get them there. But isn’t the point of missions about those who are supposed to be receiving the help? Why do we flip it to talk about those who go, instead of those who receive? This seems a bit selfish and backwards.
Additionally, several studies have been done that show the people who go on short-term missions trips were “no more likely to give to missions or to be involved with missions.” The overwhelming majority of people who participate in short-term trips show no increase in giving or participation in missions as soon as a year after they go on a short-term trip. You get an exception here and there, but for the most part, people just come back and say, “We have so much to be thankful for,” without being motivated to give. Or they say, “That was a life-changing experience,” without their life actually changing much.
Perhaps this seems surprising, but it really ought not be. Many of those who go around the world to tell others about Jesus are often unwilling to go across the street to do the same. Similarly, sociologists have noted that the same people who are willing to hold small black children in Africa are unwilling to help black children in America, despite the fact that it costs thousands and thousands less to do so. Tragically, it seems that for many people, short-term mission trips have become a way of relieving the guilt they feel about not fulfilling the Great Commission in their day-to-day lives. Think about it: it’s easy to go around the world to pass out tracts in a language you don’t speak; it’s much harder to go across the street to share the gospel with a neighbor. It takes time, it takes a relationship, and it can involve years and years of sacrifice.
Any follower of Christ who is serious about the gospel and the Great Commission should be deeply saddened the current state of short-term mission trips. But they don’t have to stay this way.
The Possibility of Short-Term Mission Trips
Neither the affluence nor the ease of travel that have made short-term mission trips popular are problems. In fact, they give us reasons to rejoice. We should thank God that we can reach almost anywhere in the world by plane in less than 24 hours. This allows us to bring immediate, time-sensitive relief to people in need. It also allows us to expand relief work and take the gospel to places that we formerly didn’t even know existed. The ease of travel and possibility for short-term trips also brings a measure of accountability, allowing churches to see if their funds are being used responsibility by the pastor or church planter they are supporting.
Nevertheless, the possibility for helpful short-term trips will remain a tragedy unless we acknowledge the very real damage that has been caused by the prevailing approach to short-term mission trips and begin to rethink the entire enterprise.
First, we should start by changing the name. Calling these trips “short-term mission trips” gives the impression that our day-to-day lives aren’t about missions, when God says they absolutely should be. Maybe we could call them “short-term ministry trips” or even “short-term cross-cultural ministry trips.” Granted, those names aren’t very catchy, but they’re a lot more accurate. This may seem nit picky, but our words reveal what we really think. So if we think “missions” = short-term overseas trips, then we’ll always struggle to help Christians see the need to live on mission no matter where they are.
Second, we’ve got to reconnect short-term ministry trips to the local church on both sides of the equation. That means third-party, for-profit, travel-agent-like “sending organizations” should get out of the picture completely. It also means local churches should seek to develop real relationships with church planters and pastors in cross-cultural contexts.
Third, we should ask those cross-cultural pastors or planters what they need, instead of telling them what we want to do for them. We’ve embraced this practice in our own church, and so far it’s meant sending a lot more money overseas than people. On one occasion, it meant sending a very small group to visit a young missionary couple our church was supporting. In addition to encouraging them, praying with them, and helping them strategize, the team also babysat their three children under four so that the couple could go on their first date in over a year.
If churches were to adopt a model like this, the fruit for the kingdom would be enormous: no more wasted money on plane tickets, no more wasted time on projects that don’t actually help the locals, no more people who serve only overseas but never at home. Instead there would be: long-term relationships between churches in America and churches around the world, specific requests for help and the right type and size of teams to meet the requests, and a growing understanding among Christians of their role in going ‘across the street and around the world’, living on mission for Jesus wherever they are.
We humble acknowledge of our past mistakes, commitment to improve how we serve others, and a passion for the people that Jesus died to save, we can change short-term trips into endeavors that produce real and lasting fruit.
For further reading, check out Why You Should Consider Cancelling Your Short-Term Mission Trips and Toward Better Short-Term Missions.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.