In 2005, I started taking teenagers around the world to engage in short-term mission trips.  Since our first trip we’ve taken a KIVU trip every year during spring break, inviting students to travel and see the world while working to help others.  To date: We helped build a camp in Costa Rica, lived in an Orphanage in Guatemala City, Worked on a Coffee shop in Beijing China, and worked with natives in Ecuador.  We went to Rwanda to work with Coffee farmers, worked in Israel seeing sites and planning events with Palestinian kids, and we’ve engaged in the Philippines with a large NGO called The International Care Ministry of the Philippines.

In the beginning, I saw a need.  Mainly, there are people around the world without and I work with students who have a lot.  Initially, I saw a week dedicated to helping others around the world good for those in need and good for the students in America that have no idea how the rest of the world lives.  It seemed like a Win-Win proposition offering value for both parties involved.

And then I saw this video and started asking questions.

Are short-term mission trips worth it?

Almost every youth group in America uses the time offered by students being out of school to plan or prepare for some sort of short-term mission work.  There are groups that go to all corners of the globe to teach students how to work for another culture, how to serve, and see how the rest of the world lives outside of America.  With the availability of air travel, the world truly is accessible for the cost of a plane ticket, but is that cost really worth it?

One group reported to me they raised almost $100K just for air travel alone.  When they added the “in country” cost of living, eating, and supplies, the cost grew exponentially.  The destination they chose were people who made somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 a week.  So the amount of money it took to get to the country outweighed most of the community income by a large disproportion.

I think the question has to be asked with integrity, “Is this money worth it, or could it be used to further the said mission by just writing the check?”

Good for the Community they’re serving

Americans are known around the world for taking charge and solving problems.  The group I reference above painted an orphanage, helped form concrete floors for a new neighborhood, and laid bricks for a retaining wall.  The locals were excited for the help but were quickly discouraged because they felt like they were in the way.  The students were so amped to help, they forgot the locals were there and would live there long-term.

Maybe we need to re-invent the way we engage with global communities.  Instead of rolling in with our ideas of what should be done, we need to spend more time listening to the needs and asking local communities how we can help.  After all, service is all about seeing the needs of others, and meeting those needs.  Jesus didn’t just walk up to the sick people of His day and heal.  He actually asked the blind, “How can I help?”  I know it seems like an obvious question, but what if the orphanage the youth group wants to help doesn’t want their rooms painted?

Maybe that seems like something that would help, but often different cultures have different values and they don’t really care if they have a room with a new paint job.  So if you’re planning a trip with your group to go and serve, be sure you’re spending time listening to the culture, working with the local leadership, and serving in the way that benefits THEM, instead of just arriving and taking charge.

I’ve found, you’ll have a deeper, longer global friendship if you take a back seat and become the hands and feet of Jesus, instead of the CEO of some particular problem you may see.

Good for the Students Attending

Of course the two-fold benefit of a short-term mission is the projects that are served on the trip, and the impact of seeing a different culture has on your students.  The group who raised all the money to go serve went on their trip and then took two days to shop and vacation in the country.  They didn’t think about giving their students the educational seminars to address questions like

  • Why are the people we are serving living in poverty?
  • What are the political and cultural problems that need to be addressed?
  • What is the worldview of the people on the ground?
  • How can they make a long-term impact once they get home?

It’s almost like they arrived.  They accomplished.  And then they vacationed.

If short-term mission trips are using the tax-free donation dollars to build a vacation for the students or leaders, that’s almost akin to stealing.  As people who adopt the teachings of Jesus, we need to be careful that we’re not using funds that belong to ‘Caesar’ to get around the cost it would be to go and see sites around the world.  Thou shalt not steal is one of the tenets of our faith, and ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s’ is also a part of living a whole life of integrity.

Be careful the funds you raise for your trip are going to the mission, and not to your own personal gain.

Good for Evangelism

Many mission trips are concerned with spreading the gospel, but none of the students know the language of the culture they’re working with for the short-term.  They don’t take the time to know the nuances in each culture, but instead; they export the system of sharing faith to others.  NEWS FLASH UPDATE:  God works in other countries outside of America.  Today the internet is almost in every corner of the globe and people have access to seeing the greatest teachers of our modern-day.  As I travel the world, I see very little need to go door to door and evangelize the local community.  God is in Ecuador as much as God is in America.

Traditionally, youth groups will perform some dramatic skit to present the gospel; but one critical point arrises.  They story they tell translates well to a western way of thinking, but often it just becomes another event for people to spectate.  When we were in Africa, I noticed many local people equated Americans to money.  They would accept any form of evangelism if it meant they might receive those “guilt funds” from people who thought if they only gave the $20 bill in their pocket it would make a difference.

The sad part is, it doesn’t.

When we go and continue to train organizations to respond to the gospel message because they receive money, we skew the meaning of the gospel.  Much like a Pavlovian experiment, many cultures have been trained AMERICANS = Money.

The Short Term Mission Evangelism concept needs to be well thought through before we just pull out a 4 spiritual law pamphlet in the streets of a city we don’t know.

Good for Long Term Sustainability

Many groups I’ve taken abroad go in and go out. The kids get to experience something new in light of serving, but the long-term sustainable relationships often fail once they board the plan to come home.

Jesus wasn’t about simply going into a culture and fixing and then leaving.  His disciples were with him eery day for three years.  They ate with Him.  They drank with Him.  They served when He was teaching.  They knew Jesus in and out in all areas of His life.  They saw Jesus as a whole person, not simply a message to respond to, a building to paint, or a water well to dig.

The short-term mission trip needs to examine the viability of long-term relationship with the global community they serve.

Going back to a certain place year after year is more sustainable in a serving context, than just picking a new place every year to give to your group.  You get to know the leaders, the culture, the language, and the needs where you can really effect change.

I think it is worth it

I do think it is worth it for short-term mission trips to go out from America.  But maybe we need to start asking those hard questions about the effectiveness of our trips.  I for one won’t do a short-term trip just to fill the calendar of my work.  I want to make sure I have specific goals in mind that can be accomplished both on the ground while I’m there, and for the sustainable future.

What do you think?


1 Comment

  1. Andy-Very well said, and these have been our thoughts for a long while now. If you have not read Toxic Charity, then go buy a copy and read it. Thanks for your thoughts!

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