You brought 30 unskilled Americans into a Third World village for a week. You constructed a school, you held some babies, and you handed out some gifts. You got some great photos, had some very moving experiences and went back to your church with a great report. But do you really know how much good you did for the people you were serving?
It could be a lot less good than you think. Some development experts and mission organization leaders have concluded that many short-term mission trips do more harm than good.
Recent years have brought a lot of discussion in the faith community about the impact of short-term mission trips, with experts warning that many of the customs of American mission travelers can put a burden on the communities and the long-term ministries they intend to serve.
That’s not to say that all short-term mission trips are bad. But it does mean that American ministers and group leaders should think more carefully about how they plan and execute mission trips.
1. Get in-depth, pre-trip training.
A good short-term mission trip begins before travelers ever leave home. Pretrip training is imperative for helping travelers and volunteers understand the geographic, cultural, political, economic and spiritual climate in which they will be working. Travelers should learn to be culturally sensitive, servant minded and realistic about the kinds of experiences they are about to have. A well-trained team can have a much more positive impact on the places they visit than a group with no discipline or unrealistic expectations.
2. Avoid the Western savior mentality.
It’s common for short-term mission travelers from wealthy, developed countries to believe they have the answers for the poverty and problems of the Third World simply because they come from a more prosperous place. But your group is not going to eradicate poverty in seven days, and a nation’s systemic challenges will remain long after you leave. Instead, work with partners on the ground to determine how best to serve and reach out to locals in ways that are respectful and culturally sensitive.
3. Work with locals, not for locals.
Unless you’re a professional construction worker, chances are you have little real value to offer in building a school or orphanage. There are local tradesmen in the places you visit who can do the work much better than you and who would be grateful for the opportunity. Don’t base your mission trips on doing work that locals could do for themselves. Instead, find ways to work alongside locals and support them in what they are doing, even if that work is menial or unattractive.
4. Serve the long-term missionaries on-site.
Many short-term mission teams work hand in hand with long-term missionaries on the ground. And although those people are sometimes grateful to have short-term help from home, the time, effort and expense of hosting a short-term group from America often detracts from more important relationship-building work in the community. Instead of expecting long-term missionaries to act as your local tour directors for a week, find ways to serve them individually and to encourage them personally, even if that means spending less time with locals.
5. Promote the local church.
After your team leaves the mission field, the long-term fruit of your work will depend largely on the local churches in the area where you worked. Good mission trips should always work in tandem with local churches and help those pastors and congregations make inroads into their communities. When in doubt, do things to put local Christians in the spotlight, and keep your team busy serving in the background.