January 16, 2021

Open Mic: Short-Term Mission Trips

By Chaplain Mike

According to Warren Cole Smith in his book, A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church (full review to come later this weekend), short-term mission trips may be more of a problem than a productive way of doing the work of Christ’s Kingdom.

He cites Robert Priest, professor of mission and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, who said:

The number of lay people in the United States involved in short-term missions grew from an estimated 540 in 1965 to 22,000 in 1979. By 1989 it had grown to an estimated 120,000. three years later the figure had doubled to 250,000. It is now estimated that there were at least on million short-termers in 2003.

Source: “Short-term Mission Trip, or Donor-Paid Vacation?”
by Brittany Smith (Evangelical Press News Service, 10/19/06)

Estimates today range from 1-4 million North Americans taking short-term trips every year, with the cost of such trips surpassing the annual support of all long-term missionaries combined. Priest calls this explosion of participation, “the first mission movement in church history that is based largely on the needs of the missionary.” Other critics have suggested that these trips condition the people in the host countries to wait for help from their wealthier visitors rather than building their own ministries, businesses, and programs. In the process, pastors and other Christian leaders become glorified tour guides, the indigenous Christian communities develop a sense of dependence, and the more foundational work of missions—discipleship and church-planting—gets pushed to the back burner.

I’d like to throw this open to the Internet Monk community for comment. Talk to us about the good, the bad, the beneficial, and the detrimental of short-term mission trips. What questions and concerns do you have about them? What unqualified positive things do you have to say about them?

Everyone is welcome, but I would especially love to hear from:

  • Believers who have led and been on these trips.
  • People in mission organizations that sponsor these trips.
  • Pastors and church leaders in churches from which you and/or your parishioners have taken trips.
  • Career missionaries. What is your view of these trips?
  • People in places where these trips are taken. What impact have short-term teams had (good/bad/other) in your communities and churches?
  • Folks who have supported others financially and in other ways to take these trips.

Step up to the mic!

For further reading: Check out the 4-part series at Christianity Today that starts with an exchange called, “Are Short-Term Missions Good Stewardship?”


  1. As a youth pastor I have taken students on several short term mission trips. I think they should be called short term service projects, since realistically that is what they are. I’ve also seen many youth groups view the short term mission trip as a summer camp, which inevitably leads to a very poor work ethic. I think if we relabel them in an honest fashion they can be good things for all involved, but lets not fool ourselves by calling them mission trips.

  2. I will step up to the plate on this one. My first job out of seminary was for Student Mission Advance, and organization that existed for the purpose of hooking up young people looking for overseas experiences with Mission Agencies who were looking for young people. As such, I developed what was probably the Internet’s first Mission Opportunity database (April 1995), and recruited 40 agencies to post their opportunities. As an elder in the church, I have organized multiple mission conferences.

    I come from a Missionary Family: My great-grandfather was a pioneering missionary in what is now Zimbabwe in 1905. My grandfather made it his life work to translate the Bible into Bemba (Zambia). My brother smuggled Bibles in Eastern Europe, and then worked in Japan for 12 years. An uncle is just retiring from a life time of Missionary service in India, Pakistan and Zambia. Two cousins are teaching in Indonesia. A third cousin founded the urban mission movement MoveIn. (By the way, it is really exciting about what is happening with MoveIn – I strongly encourage you to check it out.)

    In short, I have had a lot of exposure to missions.

    So what do I think about Short term missions. Short term missions are very resource intensive. The cost of sending four or five people overseas for two or three weeks can be equivalent to the cost of supporting a missionary family for an entire year.

    Yet, it remains one of the best ways to help a young person get a vision for the world, and become a supporter of missions themselves. It challenges them to look beyond the confines of their church walls and become a global Christian. I may be wrong, but I don’t believe that short-term missions has hindered what we are doing in career missions, rather when properly planned can serve to enhance them.

    • Michael, I know that you like to back your opinions up with data. I wonder if you have read any of the studies that track what impact these trips have on those who take them and on the communities to which they go?

      I also wonder what you think about the fact that if 1-4 million people take these trips each year, your designation “resource-intensive” may be quite the understatement!

      • There have been studies that have been done, the following link refers to one of them. I would seriously encourage any church who is thinking of doing short term missions to read The Best Practice Guide to Short Term Missions put out by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. The people on the EFC task force have decades of experience in both short and long term missions.

        • Link didn’t work. Here it is again.

          The Best Practice Guide to Short Term Missions

          • If you have the bucks to shell out, here is the study itself.

          • Here is the conclusions to the study as reported in The Best Practice Guide.

            A survey by STEM Ministries would seem to strengthen the evidence of the beneficial nature of shortterm ministries. The 1999 publication Can Short-term Mission Really Create Long-term Career Missionaries? a survey by Daniel P. McDonough and Roger P. Peterson, concluded that those who had participated in STEM’s short-term mission program reported significant increases in the amount of time in missions-related prayer, giving and openness to long-term career service.

            • Mike you might want to check out the study that CT based its articles and conversations on, by Kurt Ver Beek at Calvin College. You can read a summary of it at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/juneweb-only/12.0c.html. It’s based on a specific case study, but its conclusions question some of Peterson’s findings.

              • Sounds like a glass half-empty analysis based on a small sample size based on a single mission group to a single country.

                Lets look at the glass half-full perspective.

                30% gave to the particular mission’s organization in the next three years. Who knows what percentage were financially capable of giving, or what percentage gave elsewhere.

                Almost a quarter maintained some sort of contact with those they had visited. Not bad for just having worked with them for a week.

                It had a positive effect on congregational giving.

                • I tend to agree, Mike. However, I do think studies like this should make us pause. I’m not one who normally criticizes STMs, because they have been among the most life-changing experiences I have known personally and as a pastor. Having said that, reading the CT conversations confirmed many questions that have nagged at me over the years—whether many of these trips have any kind of long-range perspective associated with them, either with regard to the ministry on the field or changed habits in the lives of those who participate. I wonder sometimes (at least here in the U.S.) whether short-term trips have become just another “program” of the church, designed to make a big splash by creating an unforgettable experience, but without the kind of community and pastoral follow-up that would lead to real transformation of life.

                  • I think that the range of responses here show that there are real advantages to short term missions, and real concerns as well. That is why I highly recommend the guide mentioned earlier.

                  • Mike, all of the questions and criticisms raised here are valid ones, and I could come up with a few more as well. The question is not whether “career missions good/short-term missions bad” but how to reconcile the two. Do the positives outweigh the negatives? Wolf Paul raised this very well, above, and affirmed some of the things I have said, too.

                    About Christianity Today: There was a similar article about STM’s back about 1996 or early 1997. I referenced it in a report I wrote in the spring of ’97. I don’t know how googleable it would be, because it was (almost) pre-internet, but it would be worth reading if available.

                • Thanks

        • In the Christianity Today discussion linked to in the main post here it was looking bad for STM really leading to greater giving for missions.

    • Michael Bell, I’m glad to hear that you are still supportive after being involved in career missions as well as short-term–and seeing the relative expense of short-term.

      I have been involved in short-term missions each year since the early 90’s. Currently I go with a medical group to Ecuador as a translator each February, and trip # 13 is coming up fast. I can’t wait. Previously, I had been to the Dominican Republic several times with a church group buiilding a hospital. This has since morphed into another group that my wife now leads–building a school for a Haitian Baptist Church in the DR.

      The cost of a two-week trip to the Caribbean or to South America (from east-coast USA) costs between $1500 and $2300. Those who say that this money could be better spent if given to the locals for their projects, or to career missionaries, have a good point. The problem with this point is that such money would not likely be raised.

      Michael, I will second your statement that “it remains one of the best ways to help a young person get a vision for the world, and become a supporter of missions themselves. It challenges them to look beyond the confines of their church walls and become a global Christian.” Further, when we take young people on our trips, they have no trouble raising the money from enthusiastic families and friends who may never have considered giving to overseas missions, short of a tsunami or an earthquake. Not only is everyone supportive of young volunteers, the volunteers (young and old) come home, give talks and slide shows in their churches, civic clubs and schools and raise more enthusiasm from others, thus raising other monies for the ongoing projects as well as for the career missionaries who may have hosted them. This enthusiasm upon returning is one reason the movement has mushroomed in recent decades, and possibly why you, Michael, can say that short-term enhances long-term. It is mathematically true that such money could fund more long-term projects, but, as I said, unlikely that those particular monies would be raised. But it does lead to later funding.

      Our medical mission has a scholarship program to fund two high-school Spanish students each year. In addition, other teens come on these trips, including my own. Our mission holds family clinics in rural areas of Ecuador as well as a surgical team (we take over an under-utilized hospital and become a factory for removing gall bladders and repairing hernias). Aside from the obvious and quantifiable surgeries, if I could point to one other great benefit it would be our student program. So many of the kids have come back charged up and ready to hit college with a clearer vision. My oldest daughter is now in medical school, owing largely to her deep exposure to the surgical team at an early age, and to a women’s health nurse for whom she has translated. And she is not unique. Many of the kids go on to something medical or to something overseas or linguistic.

      As to the charge of team leaders becoming “glorified tour guides”: I am one of the leaders, as is my wife on her trip, and the touring is only done on weekends. After a week of busting butts during 12-14 hour days in the OR wing of a hospital, or by digging in the dirt and mixing concrete with a construction team, one deserves a day at the beach. Or horseback riding in the Andes. Spectacular–and no guilt feelings permitted.

      As for a related charge of us being “tourists for Jesus” or otherwise wasting money, let me ask what most Americans do for vacation in February: Disney World? Las Vegas? Cancun? Give me a friggin’ break. For my money I’ll go and bust my butt with real people in Ecuador or the Dominican Republic who could use a little help.

      • Nice rant Ted,

        I think you are a great example of how short term missions can work.

        • Rick Ro. says

          I wouldn’t call Ted’s post a “rant.” I’d call it a nice, well-argued rebuttal. (A rant would be more akin to “Chaplain Mike, you are an idiot.”

      • chiefbenda says

        Nice post Ted. My family and I did a 2 year missionary training program in the Jungles of Ecuador. We are in Argentina at a children’s home now, ironically hosting a team from the States in a week. In Ecuador we hosted medical teams, among other projects like clean water filters and church planting. I have seen kids that are alive today because a doctor decided to spend his/her “vacation” serving the poor in the Jungle.
        I can also trace our involvement in missions directly back to our exposure through short term mission trips.
        I understand the criticism, but I do believe that short term missions is making a difference.

    • Michael – about the online database of mission opportunities in 1995 – we would love to know more of what you did and what happened. We were unaware that someone had done such a website earlier.

  3. I offer only anecdotal evidence specific to my area:
    I live in Taiwan as a missionary (about 7 years now). Nearly 50% of the people who become believers through our mission first come to meet us and bond with us because of a short term mission project. This year, because of the economy, there have been no short term mission projects and the number of new contacts has been demonstrably lower. My wife and I do make new contacts and have shown seekers the Way… but those short term service groups have done a great job in breaking down barriers and introducing us to new seekers in the terribly shy nation. Nearly ALL of my seeker Bible Studies have been started through students seeking contact with the strange group of foreigners in town. This year… as we go back for a month of church contact… for the first time we are taking three Taiwanese with us. They asked to come, two of them believers for less than 18 months, to personally thank the churches that support us and talk to the churches that sent short term workers. They plan to encourage them to continue because it began the path that led these three to the Lord.

  4. I’ve never been on a short term mission trip but I have several friends and in-law (and my wife) who have. I often wondered about the efficiency myself, but living in L.A., a lot of short-term mission trips here are ones to border towns in Mexico to help build churches, etc., so it’s probably pretty cost effective to send a dozen people on a 3 hour car trip for a weekend.

    I’d like to ask a follow-up question related to this. My church is about to send 6 people to Mozambique for about 2 weeks. It’s a very expensive trip, but the goal is to build relationships, etc. Our church is small (150 people?) and has adopted Moz as the country for our foreign missionary resources. So we work with an orphanage there and are working with a Brazilian church in helping to establish a seminary. We also work close with Opportunity International in providing micro-loans in Moz. So, this trip isn’t meant to just send 6 people out to pass out rice or watch some babies for a couple weeks. The purpose is information gathering and relationship building. Does that still fall into the category of “short term mission trip?” Is it the right or wrong approach?

    • Right or wrong, I can’t say, but relationship building has been the defining characteristic of our church’s (approx 120 attendance) approach to short term trips. We have sent teams to the same place over several years, first in a different part of the US with a large international community, now to southern Africa, where a family from our church is participating in an orphanage/community development project. Other churches send groups to do projects and such, but the locals consider those of us from Delaware as more like themselves because we spend time to talk with them.

      We also made the commitment only to send teams to assist missionaries we already support, so that it builds the relationships long-term.

      • Deb, I like your concept of relationship building. The best model I have seen is a local church here that is deeply involved in a ministry in Brazil that does church planting and leadership training. The church literally sees the Brazil work as its own multiplication and church planting work. There is a steady flow of people, both U.S. and Brazilian, back and forth from the U.S. to Brazil, and an ongoing relationship that has grown for about 15 years now. It is not perfect (nothing is), but I like their focus on what we might call international church planting.

  5. A few years ago, my family went to a boy’s ranch ministry in Venezuela that our church was partnering with. Normally, our church would go and do some physical labor that needed to be done at the ranch. We went separately because I was going to give each boy a physical examination and update some of their immunizations. My medical practice at home actually had a fund to supply me with some of the supplies. Over the course of the week, I treated a case of bacterial diarrhea and two cases of parasitic worms and saved the ministry the cost and trouble of going to the clinic. They now have records of the boys physical condition at that point in time. A few years later, another physician went down there and updated things. I also updated and organized their first aid closet and gave instructions on how to use all the stuff that had been donated.

    I definitely think this trip was a useful trip for the Ranch. While I was providing these services, my husband and kids were playing with the kids who lived at the Ranch, which is no small thing, since they are all from the streets and need positive interactions.

    The biggest change, though, was that my husband and I came home completely changed. Even though the trip was four years ago, we find it hard to own more than a few pairs of shoes or to look at a closet full of clothes. Knowing that we can go to the grocery store and get food or turn on the faucet and get clean water (the barrios only get water a few times a week – and no one knows when) are no longer things we take for granted. I hope that my children carry some of these memories with them as well.

    In our case, it was a good use of money. Even after the initial outlay, our income has gone down, but our giving has gone up. We are fundamentally different.

    But if these short-term trips are essentially “Christian vacations”, and there is no corresponding heart change and behavior change in those who go, then I can see how some might suggest that they aren’t a good idea.

    In essence, we have to view each situation individually. Are we setting up a mission trip because that’s the thing to do every summer with restless teenagers? Or is there a mission that has requested help and wants us to come visit?


    • i recognize that you also got a personal experience out of this, but I wonder if the bigger question is, would it have been more cost efficient to send money to the ranch and have them use it for medical examinations and treatments.

      I’m not judging, this is an honest question.

      • Kenny, it’s a very good and honest question. The short answer is yes, it would technically be more cost efficient to send the money on down there, but as I outlined in my response to Michael Bell above (still in moderation because it’s a long-winded rant) the money would not likely have been raised for a sight-unseen project. Catherine mentioned that her own giving has increased, even though her income has decreased. This is one of the unexpected benefits of short-term missions–that it raises awareness and therefore raises more money after-the-fact and from unexpected sources.

  6. I had the same question a few years ago and discussed this with a career missionary to South America. He said if the permanent missionary clearly communicated the need in the area and if the short-term mission group was organized in the manner and for the designated purpose then they were very helpful.

    For instance if the short-term mission project was to build a church building and this was accomplished then he said within a year there would be a viable church at that location.

    However, he found that many times the composition of the short-term mission group was not as specified by the permanent missionary and the project was not successful. And as you have alluded to it then became a distraction to the on-going mission work.

    It is a very expensive way to build a small church building. From strictly a financial consideration it would be cheaper to hire it done if possible. But maybe the effect on the short-term missionary is worth the trip.

    But is the purpose of the trip many times just make the short-term missionary feel good about himself. I went on a short-term missionary trip for two weeks in Lithuania. I personally did not feel very productive. The permanent missionary seemed pleased with our group. But he told me that many times for him it was a waste of his time.

  7. Oh boy did you strike a chord with this topic!

    The evangelical church has created a institution for doing mission work that fosters, especially in young adults, what is best termed as the sin of “wanderlust”. I have seen countless peers as a young adult abuse this system that the church has created. Many have even become addicts. They are now adults working full times jobs, living on their own, buying houses and cars, yet you can still count on a support letter for their summer missions trip.

    Okay, that gets my overly-critical scathing rant out of the way (for which I am repenting even now). The following is much more constructive and inspiring.

    I wrote in my journal 2 years ago after attending a short term mission trip debrief put on by a couple friends:

    This is any debrief from any one of thousands of short term mission trips that were sent this summer. I’m sure you will reconize the contents of this dialoge well

    Amazing experience, amazing stories, look forward to going back.

    They are clear to communicate it’s not the traveling to foriegn countries as exciting as that is, it’s not the interaction with new cultures as eye opening as that is, it’s unique experiences as fun as those are it is:

    a time of unity
    a time of prayer
    a time of encouragement
    a time of shared purpose/mission
    a time of extraordinary community
    a time of serving
    a time of intense growth
    a time of testimonies to the power of the Spirit
    a time of building relationships
    a time of supernatural energy
    a time of passionate living
    a time of reaching out
    a time of loving

    and it’s for this reasons they can’t wait for the 2 week next summer.

    Let that sink in for a couple minutes. What are we communicating? What are we modeling to the youth of the Church? What has been modeled to us as the appropriate fulfillment of the mission of the Church? WHY are we settling for something SO much less. When I look at the list of attributes that typify short term mission trips I see a list of attributes that describe a time of true authentic Christian living.

    It is clear there is something so appealing about the time that is experienced on a mission trip. But how and why have we structured our lives at home to not facilitate this. And why don’t we think about restructuring our lives so that we can?

    is it because of distractions that we aren’t willing to cut out?
    is it because of costs we aren’t willing to pay?
    is it because of risks we aren’t willing to take?
    is it because of comforts we aren’t willing to let go of?
    is it because of pleasures we aren’t willing to sacrifice?
    is it because of ourselves that we aren’t willing to surrender?

    • My concerns are similar to yours.

      Without saying anything against short-term missions in general, I will note that it really feels to me that many youth group or college-age short-term missions trips are really mostly about the congregation and parents investing in the American teenagers being sent abroad. It is unbelievably ineffective cost-wise to ship a pile of American teenagers anywhere, especially when those teenagers are merely set to work painting a high school gym and pushing some wheel-barrels for 5 days. It seems to me that this kind of project is about giving that American team an experience — a chance to travel, a change to feel they’ve given back, some cross-cultural contact, a new backdrop against which to bond to each other and ‘have an experience with God.’ That’s all very good, but its also all about us. The actual work accomplished makes for a cheery slideshow but is inevitably limited, and the contract with the host culture is so brief that the participants return saying things like “They were so poor, but so happy!”, “They had nothing, but they were so hospitable!,” and (admittedly a breakthrough moment for some teens) “I didn’t realize how much stuff I have here in the States.” All these comments are sincerely meant, but they are also the kinds of comments one makes after basically breezing through a place a tourist.

      I realize my tone is a little off-putting and probably not entirely fair. So let me add that I don’t think what is invested in the American teens is necessarily bad — young people do some to get something out of it, like cross-cultural contact and exposure to the concept of missions they would never have otherwise. I’m just saying that I think the reality of what happens and rhetoric don’t entirely contact.

      Now that I’ve ground that ax: I fully behind longer missions (6 months-two years) that enable a temporary missionary to actually see a project through (like teaching school) and to connect with people. (Probably the best project I am personally familiar with involved an evangelical friend who went to South America to teach in conjunction with a Jesuit mission.) I am also fully supportive of shorter trips that really support the local, long-term efforts of long-term missions team or that specifically focus on bringing in skills or work that can’t be done as well with local resources.

  8. Yourname says

    I’ve been part of church discussions where we decided not to send people on short term missions to Africa, but to just send the money instead. It was hard to justify spending $10,000 or whatever on airplane fares when that money could be used far more effectively on the ground to build whatever building the people were going over there to build.

    But these were youth missions. We did an adult mission where we sent doctors and assistants, and they really did some great work.

    We have a very successful summer camp where we host youth groups from other cities who come to do mission work in ours, and we send our youth out to do work in other communities. But all in this state. You don’t have to go to Africa to find people living in poverty. it is a very good experience for upper class white kids to spend some time in the hood or in some of these dying Delta towns.

  9. I was a cross-cultural ministries major in college. I currently oversee missions at an evangelical church in Washington State, including the sending of short-term teams.

    Just like anything else, short-term missions can be helpful or they can be a disaster. Career missionaries are not exempt from encouraging paternalism, so I would be curious what kind of data you could put forth to suggest that short-term teams encourage it more.

    I also think there is a faulty assumption implied in the main post–that missions spending is zero sum and that every dollar spent on short-term term trips is money that would have been spent on career missionaries. It could very well be that money spent on career missions is what it is and money spent on short-term trips is gravy.

    I have put a lot of thought into the legitimacy of short-term missions, and I think there is a place for them, if done right. The age of the white missionary traveling to the jungle to convert the heathen is coming to a close. There are Christians in every country, and the next age of missions is nationals reaching people in their own country. Thus, as a missions pastor, my interest is more in getting people excited about supporting the work that Bolivians are doing in Bolivia than I am in sending an American to Bolivia long-term. But, people can’t really buy-in to something with which they have no personal contact. Short-term trips are about building relationships so that long-term support is about more than just cutting a check to a nameless, faceless church-planter or organization.

  10. I could probably write a fairly lengthy epistle on this topic. My family and I served as career missionaries for 16 years in Latin America and we received and worked with several short-term mission teams. In my current position as an associate pastor and a missions mobilizer for a Baptist state convention, I both recruit and lead short-term teams on missions trips–principally to Guatemala of late where I’ve traveled some fifteen times in the past 5 years or so.

    It’s true that at times volunteer teams can be very taxing on a career missionary in terms of the demands on time–transportation, translating, coordinating, etc. When a team comes though that’s well prepared, having done their homework and with clear objectives about what they wish to accomplish, they can be a tremendous blessing. It’s a plus when the team can travel in response ot a request for assistance from a career missionary on the field, but that’s not always the case.

    In Guatemala we work closely with a pastors’ association in the western part of the country as well as through the Guatemalan Baptist Convention and this helps ensure that our teams are coordinating their work well with national brethren.

    There’s no debate in my mind at least about the positive benefit in the lives of the volunteers who go in terms of their heightened missions passion, commitment to give and pray for missions, and the significant number of those who will later feel called into missionary service as a result of their short-term missions trip experience.

    In summary, I’m strongly committed to the principle of utilizing short-term mission volunteers.

  11. I don’t know if there’s a clear rule. On one end of the spectrum you have a team of doctors doing work that won’t get done otherwise, and on the other you have youth who don’t speak the language building a house in a town with unemployed carpenters. I’ll accept the claim that you get more full-time missionaries if you encourage short trip groups. And I’m coming to understand that physical or financial efficiency isn’t always a useful measure (*). But somewhere along that spectrum you have to draw a line and say–“send cash.” For overseas trips, I’d draw that line pretty far over to the “doctor” end. For trips to Chicago inner city, farther the other way.

    I’m going to a wedding in Senegal later this year (my daughter). The cost of the trip exceeds the groom’s annual income. This isn’t going to be entirely comfortable, and it is certainly not efficient, but it seems to be what we’re supposed to do.

    (*) Example: it is much more efficient to deliver food, medical care, showers, job training, etc if all the homeless are rounded up in one place. However, the social environment will be hellish, and who will be role models?

  12. david carlson says

    like most things, I think they can be done well, and done badly.

    First, I certainly agree that STM money could be better spent supporting FTM. It’s a legitimate issue and I think we should consider it

    I have several observations.

    I think when STM support FTM, it builds church support for the FTM – it builds connections. Our church supports several FTM in a country, while at the same time several STM have gone to work with them. I think the continual support – year after year participation can be helpful. I think it increases support of those FTM

    STM can lead to FTM commitment

    STM does not have to be “overseas” – my daughter is interning at a church which runs middle school missions in their own community – they spend the week doing activities in their own community. It’s a great alternative to summer camp

    Some ideas. Still think that STM can be the wrong decision, in particular if it is not done in conjunction with supporting FTM in that location

  13. Isaac Rehberg (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

    I’m currently on the board for a 501(c)3 corporation that raises money for missions in Israel. We discovered early on that many of the American missionaries we had been introduced to are resource sinks. Much of the money would go to support their unwillingness to live in the relative poverty that is the norm in the country. So, we switched to primarily supporting indigenous “missionaries” who are native or long-time Israelis. We’ve seen the money used much more efficiently that way. We occasionally take folks from America or Canada to Israel to help out some of the Israeli Christians in various projects or service activities. But we acknowledge that such trips are more tours coupled with service than missions trips. And no money from what we raise goes to those trips. Anyone who goes must pay their own way, including representatives from our ministry.

  14. I’ll take this opportunity to plug for my sister-in-law. She works for Food For The Hungry and also runs a great podcast called Poverty Unlocked. I have learned a lot about the intricate and delicate nature of missions work from her. If you have the time, listen to this podcast which touches on some areas where well intentioned missions can go wrong: http://povertyunlocked.com/2009/12/17/mistakesinmissions/

  15. I have a passion for missions and have a hard time saying ‘no’ when someone asks for support. Over the years I have supported full-time, long-termers to youth going on short trips. Although the amount of money I give has not declined, I’m less inclined to give in some instances for a variety of reasons.

    Youth missions are a little troublesome for me. While I love the idea of allowing kids to get a vision the tremendous need much of the world faces, I think most youth missions don’t require significant commitment in terms of work and service for the amount of money it takes to send them. I once helped support a high school girl who raised $4,000 for a summer long trip to South America to basically help run a VBS program. Conversely, there are rarer instances in which youth are thrust into primitive and dangerous environments because parents or church leaders are trying to turn them into missionaries. The kids may not be old enough to count the cost for themselves. I know one young man who lost his life in such a situation.

    As to supporting full-timers, I’ve had a couple of different experiences. Some make it a joy to want to be a part of their support team. They are hard workers and genuinely love the people and cultures in which they minister. They keep up a constant communication so their support team can feel a part of what they are doing. On the other hand, there are those who communicate only when they need a new car or bigger digs. One family I knew admitted they enjoyed the culture where they had lots of servants and nannies for their kids. It made me think they were unwilling or unable to function here so went overseas to have it their way.

    I’ve also had several missionary friends say that it was often a burden to host short term missionary teams who, at best, were awkward with the work required or functioning in the culture and at worst, were simply there to be entertained.

  16. I have participated in and helped to lead almost twenty short-term mission trips, in North America and abroad, almost all involving teenagers. The most effective trips were those in which the participants were required to fulfill numerous obligations prior to the trip, including scripture memorization, mandatory planning meetings, contributing a portion of the funds, even the ubiquitous support letters. Take away all that and the trip turns into self-centered youth camp. It’s not just weeding out the fun-seekers; it’s changing the tone. “This is not about you.”

    But even if you do everything right, a trip can go wrong. One of the most important components to a successful trip is that there actually is a clear need. A mission requires a purpose. How disheartening to bring a group so far from home, only to give them nothing to do.

  17. I think there are a number of observations to be made here.

    First, I am getting increasingly uneasy with the questions we ask: Are STM a good thing? Is Facebook good or evil? etc.etc. Wrong question.

    Anything, in the hands of sinful human beings, can be abused. That does not yet say anything about the thing itself.

    Secondly, in a previous comment, Matt says,

    I also think there is a faulty assumption implied in the main post–that missions spending is zero sum and that every dollar spent on short-term term trips is money that would have been spent on career missionaries.

    I think that is spot on. American Evangelical missions giving has its own strange dynamic which is not always dictated by logic (I am sure this applies to non-Americans and non-evangelicals as well, but let’s stay focused). It is a well-known fact in missionary cirlces that it is far more difficult to raise money for the regular, longterm salary of career missionaries than for one-off projects. Likewise, it is easier to raise money for a career missionary going overseas than for one staying in the US working for the benefit of an overseas people group, it is easier to raise money for the support of church planters than for the support of the secretary or school teacher helping the church planter stay on the field and be effective, it is (often, not always) easier to raise money for the support of a US missionary known to the church than for the support of a national worker not known to the church, and finally, it is easier to raise money for a ministry in a “sexy” mission field than for a ministry in a “boring” missionfield.

    Since short-term mission trips are by nature one-off projects, it is easier to raise money for them than it is to raise money for the support of a career missionary. Thus, this is money that would not have gone to support the career missionary in the first place. Also, to a good extent this is money the short term missionary’s family would have spent on his or her summer vacation anyway. And finally, as has been pointed out, often the short term missionary returning from his/her trip can actually increase the willingness among his friends and acquaintances for giving to the needs of the long-term career missionaries in that field.

    My main exposure to short term missions is the ministry of Operation Mobilization, an organization started over 50 years ago by some Moody Bible Institute students for the express purpose of supporting STM in Mexico. Then it branched out ot Europe, then Asia, and then the whole world. Over time, some of those short termers stayed longer, and now it is a fairly large worldwide organization with more than 5000 long term missionaries. But in all of this, their main focus has not only been evangelism and the “misison work” done by the short-termers, but discipleship — the formation of those who went on short term missions with them, and arguably OM’s greatest influence on world missions is not their current 5000 workers, or the thousands worldwide currently engaged in short term missions with them, but the many, many thousands who have returned from short term and medium term mission trips with them and went on in life with a heart for missions and the lost of the world.

    Currently I am somewhat involved with two types of short-term missions:

    1. American young people coming to my country which is still predominantly Roman Catholic, although of an increasingly nominal nature, and fast becoming secularized. American short term mission teams come to help with summer camps and ski weeks for children and young people, which are evangelistic in nature, using an offer to learn English with native speakers as a way to open the door to people who would not otherwise darken the door of an evangelical church. Some of them come back year after year, and I won’t deny that it might in part be a vacation to them, but they are contributing something of value and we would not want to miss them. (Some of these are organized by various state Baptist conventions, some by Athletes in Action, some by Assemblies of God, some of them by Calvary Chapel, etc.)

    My wife’s church just finished two weeks of “English Camp” with five Baptist kids from Texas, and it was an overwhelmingly positive experience. There are people in that church because their kids participated in such a day camp a few years ago, and the camps are also structured in such a way that everyone gets involved — the church does not just rely on the Americans.

    2. Austrian churches as well as the English-speaking Christian school I am involved with here in Vienna organize short term mission trips to countries like Bosnia, Albania, Moldova, etc — countries of formerly communist Eastern Europe where there is still enormous poverty (Moldova is considered one of the poorest countries worldwide) and problems with orphans and street children. These teams usually will go to assist an orphanage or a church, doing practical work (building repair etc) and providing excitement and positive interactions to the local children involved. Usually they will pay their own materials for the work they do, and they will bring needed supplies for the ministry they go to assist. Most of these young people come back from these trips with a lasting change for the better.

    So while my experience with short term missions has in general been positive, I will concede that there can be negatives — but I contend that this is not inherent in the concept of STM, but simply the result of sinful human beings managing to mess up anything they do.

    • Excellent points, Wolf Paul. You are right that we Americans tend to think in black and white terms: “Are STMs good or bad?” and that this misses the point. I hope that this all or nothing mindset wasn’t what I communicated in framing this discussion.

      I do think one must pause and wonder a bit, however, at the explosion of involvement in these trips, the amount of resources being devoted to them, and the expectations we create through promoting them. We Americans are also known for our “fads,” which spring up and grow like wildfire and take over the garden. A bit of analysis and correction along the way never hurts.

      It also breaks my heart to see wealthy suburban churches sending folks around the world at great expense, while neglecting their neighbors and the needs in nearby inner city areas. I would hope we would move toward more balance in being MISSIONAL in our own spheres of influence as well as pursuing MISSIONS in faraway places.

      • This is a great point, Chaplain Mike–the mission field is coming here.

        It seems like American Universities “get” this–you import the world’s best and brightest, and then send them back to their home countries with a more American mindset and a roladex of American contacts.

        Why isn’t the church reaching out more to these students, who will undoubtedly return home to be people of influence?

  18. Hi, Mike.

    I’ve had a lot of the same questions about STMT, myself. However, I do know having been on one myself (to Haiti), I am more aware of faces and situations to pray for, more willing to give generously to people with needs because of my experience, and I also tend to more clearly see the evening news now as global prayer needs and can clue in to people and situations in my mind a whole lot more easily than I used to.

    I have heard that missions and long-term missionaries do not want just anybody…they want the ones God is calling. I know I was called to the trip I took, and I believe if I continue to follow His call, my life will be one mission after another, whether He calls me to stay here or go somewhere else.

    Recently, our son, Michael, went to Honduras and he wants very badly to go back for a longer time because he really thinks he can do good there. His highschool homeschool counselor said that was good, but reminded him that there are opportunities to do good right where he is, too, and not to lose sight that serving your family from your own intiative, with a cheerful attitude, and to the best of your ability speaks volumes to the world. Christ is seen when we give Him our all right now in doing the next thing…as your other blog reminded us.

  19. A lively and intelligent discussion. Look forward to your review of “A Lover’s Quarrel,” Chaplain Mike….

  20. Jesus refers to one of the unacknowledged problems in perspective in this country in Lk. 8:14: “The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.”

    In other words, our prosperity and affluence have become a hindrance to spritual maturity. If you go almost anywhere in the world you will see people living without many things that Americans take for granted. For this reason alone, STM trips offer a valuable adjustment in perspective that is literally life-changing.

    Is that guaranteed? No, of course not. As with anything else, there has to be a response of humility and faith.

    As for some of the other concerns mentioned, I remember observing some of them thirty years ago, when I did two short-term stints in New Delhi, India. It seems to me that we can correct some of the problems without disparaging the STM trip concept and the benefits it provides to hosts and those sent.

  21. Without denying the positive aspects of both short-term and long-term missions, I’d like to mention an aspect of the evangelical culture of “missions” (especially short-term missions) that seems more and more surreal to me.

    For many years, working in a high tech job for a large corporation, “go into all the world” was pretty easy because “all the world” was working right next to me. A very high percentage of my colleagues were not born in the US and did not come from countries where Christianity has ever been the majority religion. Admittedly, most of us did have a common socio-economic/educational background.

    Also in my daily life, when I volunteered in a hospital in a major metropolitan area, “go into all the world” was pretty easy because an even more diverse “all the world” was walking through the hospital doors. And they were diverse in about any way imaginable: Ethnically, culturally, socio-economically, intellectual capability, physical capability, etc. etc. etc.

    I have to think there are a lot of attenders of evangelical churches who are encountering a similar “all the world” in their daily lives … off the top of my head, I would think medical workers, teachers, police, waitresses, high tech or almost any employee of multi-national corporation would be that way.

    It is actually church that is the “odd” place where I *don’t* encounter “all the world.” (And, admittedly, now that I am not employed outside the home, I encounter ‘all the world” much less in my daily life.)

    So it seems somewhat surreal to me when all the short-term missionaries are gathered up in church, and specially prayed over, and ooh-ed and ahh-ed over about how God Is Using Them, and generally gain an increase in status in the church social structure. But there is never a peep about the vocational callings of medical workers and teachers and police and waitresses etc. etc.

    When I’m feeling cynical, I do have the thought that it seems like “missions” (especially short-term missions) gets specifically defined to be something “over there,” where we get to define ourselves as The Nice Ones Who Help, safely at arms reach, safely where we can back off and disengage if things get too messy.

    But interacting with “all the world” in our everyday lives … somehow that doesn’t fall into the definition of “go into all the world” and often even seems to fall into the category of things best not mentioned in an evangelical church. (As an example, I was once chastised in church for “exposing myself to demonic influence” when I let it slip that I was finding much to think about in the conversations (as opposed to one-sided evangelical presentations) I was having with my Hindu officemate about our respective faiths.)

    • Becky,

      I like the way you think, and do.

      I’ve often been bothered by the term, “Full time Christian work” when they mean “Vocational christian work”. I’m just as much a witness and missionary to those whom I work with, as anyone who goes into the inner city and does nothing else.

      GRIN and like you, I’ve had some interesting talks with a Hindu, except he was my boss at the time. (I also, unconsciously made him and others uncomfortable because of my lifestyle.)

  22. Rick Ro. says

    This discussion is why the Internet Monk site is so valuable and important to us Christians. It’s the community of believers discussing what it means to live like Jesus, and not just live like Christians. Wonderful discussion and insights all around!

  23. Although I have not been on a missions trip, all three of our children have gone on several when they were teens and young adults. I think as a result of that our son (with his family) is now in France as a missionary. Our daughter and her family have been to Africa several times and are planning for the day when they can go as missionaries to an African nation.

    These trips also made our children much more sensitive to the needs of people in this country as well. They are no longer content to spend their time in the church building but seek out opportunities to connect and build relationships with a wide diversity of people.

    I don’t think we can ever measure the affect these trips have on the lives of anyone. Only God knows that. If we feel God leading us to do whatever it may be, obedience is the response. Certainly we must go into these informed, but we can’t let someone’s statistics stop us from doing what we feel God is truly leading us to do.

  24. I noticed the same thing about the thread order. More specifically, I replied to one comment and had my new comment appear at the bottom.

  25. I feel like those above have covered just about all the ground for ideas about short-term missions, but I’d like to ask, “How common is it for people wanting to do long-term missions to simply move somewhere, get a job there, and serve without necessarily relying on raised support?” I ask this because I myself have travelled to Russia, and would very much like to go back and live there for a time. But I wouldn’t call either my initial trip, or my forthcoming longer trip a missions trip for numerous reasons. However, if I go back, in my own mind that will be a big part of why I’m going (namely, to find any sort of Christian group, ideally local, who is doing work for Christ there, and support them however I can). But I don’t plan to raise money, but instead just to go there and work. Anyway, long roundabout way of asking, “How common is it for people to support themselves in a sort of mission work?”

  26. Thanks for this post, Mike. I’m reading it from central Africa, where I conduct research on the role of religious organizations in providing social services when the state is absent in a conflict/post-conflict situation (read: where missionaries fear to trod).

    While I don’t think it can accurately be said that churches in this part of the developing world sit back and wait for anybody to help them, there are very serious questions to be asked about the allocation of resources, especially when it comes to short-term projects that likely have minimal impact. For example, the cities in which I work have 80-90% unemployment in the formal sector. For about half the families in some of those cities, people eat only once every other day, alternating between children and adults. To say the poverty is desperate is an understatement, which is why it’s incredibly difficult to look at a western Church that spends $50,000 plus to send out a team for two weeks and say that that is a wise use of resources. $50,000 could fund 100 workers for a year, doing everything from construction to improving health centers and schools to paying pastors regular salaries. In a very real sense, short-term missionaries often deprive those in need of work, and the dignity that work provides (When Helping Hurts is an excellent summary of these issues, btw).

    If we are honest with ourselves, we will also have to admit that most of Africa doesn’t need Western missionaries anymore. It’s ridiculous to send untrained, unqualified teenagers to “evangelize” in countries in which 90%+ of the population are already Christians, especially when there are long-established seminaries and Biblical training institutes where local Christians are well aware of the call to go and tell others of the faith.

    The remarkable thing about this region is how much local Christians have been able to do without resources, visiting missionaries, or adequate funds. They run the schools, keep people healthy, and attack social problems head-on with a determination to make things work. Christians in this region may need occasional technical support or training, but they don’t need us to do jobs that they can do. We’ve got to stop making missions all about us, and start listening to those we purport to help. If we honestly listened to them, I doubt most would want us sending STM teams.

  27. The team from my church that went to Bolivia just debriefed with the rest of the congregation, and I thought you might be interested in hearing the results.

    In June, we sent 11 people to Cochabamba, Bolivia, to work with Food for the Hungry in a periurban area called Uspa Uspa. Our project was to help build a community center for the people of Uspa Uspa, though we just poured some concrete for it. In addition to the manual labor, FH also put us in contact with a number of the community leaders–governmental, church, and NGO–so that we could hear their vision for the community. We got to visit the homes of sponsor kids, we participated in FH’s Child Development Program, and we did a VBS with a local church.

    The total cost of the trip for 11 people was just over $29,000 for seven days in country. The only tangible product of this was a concrete slab and some computers. If you do a cost/benefit analysis on that, you may conclude that we should have just sent the money.

    However, $5,000 of the $29,000 went toward the computers and other materials, so only $24,000 went to travel expenses, etc.

    Today we shared with the congregation about our trip. To date, our congregation has sponsored 33 kids in Uspa Uspa. At least five of these children are sponsored by people who went to Bolivia. Some were sponsored before we left, but all were sponsored in relation to this short-term trip. Child sponsorships are $32/month and there is a 10-year commitment.

    So far, our $24,000 investment in a short-term trip resulted in a $5,000 project, and $126,720 of child sponsorship giving (over the next 10 years) that otherwise would not have happened. Now, we were careful about the way we promoted this trip and we worked with a great organization. But, in our case, investment in a short-term trip resulted in increased long-term giving. This is not to mention non-tangible spiritual benefits.

    I highly recommend checking out Food for the Hungry’s Community-to-Community program. Our elders are praying over it, but I am pretty sure we will be entering into a C2C relationship with Uspa Uspa. C2C involves a commitment to prayer, child sponsorship, short-term trips, and advocacy. It’s good stuff.

  28. The best documented number we have for how many go on short term missions each year is the professional survey done by Dr. Robert Wuthnow mentioned in the article in the Christian Science Monitor – http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0525/p01s01-ussc.html
    “Short-term trips, lasting two weeks or less, drew about 1.6 million Americans to foreign mission fields last year, according to a survey by Dr. Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist of religion at Princeton University.”

    Having read through a copy of the results, I am impressed with the careful academic rigor of the survey.

    From a personal conversation I had with him at a conference on short-term missions sponsored by Dr Priest at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School July 2009, I confirmed that the 1.6 million number did not include those under age 18, i.e. all the youth groups, it did not include those who took mission trips within the US, and it did not include those who went for the summer or longer.

    Considering those three additional groups, and using Barna’s figure (http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/20-donorscause/22-despite-benefits-few-americans-have-experienced-short-term-mission-trips) that 33% of short-termers never leave the borders of the US, I asked Dr Wuthnow if he would be comfortable with someone saying that a total of 2.4 million went on STMs in 2004 (the year of the data)? He responded affirmatively. This total is obviously a guess, but it is extrapolated from fairly recent solid data.

    This figure matches the best guesses we hear from short-term mission leaders at the Fellowship of Short-Term Missions, The Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Missions and the Alliance for Excellence in Short-Term Missions.

    That data was from 6 years ago. The last couple years have seen decreases in the numbers going to Mexico and reports of fewer and smaller teams going overseas, but at least in terms of interest as revealed by traffic on http://www.ShortTermMissions.com, traffic and interest in STMs is stronger this year than in any previous year. Interest has not plateaued or decreased. Interest displayed isn’t the same as the numbers going, but are related.

    If you would like to see the preferred countries, ministries, ages, etc, that people looked for in the 106,702 unique searches done on our website this Spring, you may download the report at http://mdat.org/files/2010_stm_search_report.pdf

  29. I’ll share my own personal experience.

    I went on three one-week evangelistic short term trips with our state youth department my senior year in HS and first two years of college, over Christmas break each year (Tegucigalpa, Honduras in 1986; Torreon, Mexico in 1987; and San Cristobal, Venezuela in 1988). In the summer of 1989, I went back to Venezuela for 6 weeks, where I shared an apartment with the Venezuelan pastor and another single guy in the church, who did the maintenance work. I became decent with spoken Spanish (I already had decent reading/writing skills from my HS and college classes and summer studies in Spain in 1988), and really developed a love for the language and culture.

    After returning home to Arkansas, I tried to keep my Spanish up, doing my Bible reading in both languages and trying to converse with the wait staff in the Mexican restaraunts.

    Fast forward to spring of 1997. My church took a special offering to help a Mexican pastor who had just moved to Little Rock to help start a Spanish-language congregation as part of A/G Home Missions’ Hispanic Project 2000. I called the district office and got the pastor’s phone number, found out where they were meeting, and started attending their services in addition to my home shurch (they were sharing a building with an English-language church at the time, so the service times were such that I could do that).

    In the fall of 1998 I met Diana there, and in January 1999 we got married. My Mexican bride and I now have two daughters. I have served as missions director for the Spanish church, and am now leaving that position to help teach in their Bible Institute this fall. My wife is the church bookkeeper and on the deacon board. This September the two of us are going with a team from my home church to Cochabamba, Bolivia, to work with the Bolivian Hope Center doing some finishing work on the new dorm building for the children of women who are incarcerated at the women’s prison there. This will be my wife’s first trip to a country outside her native Mexico and the U.S.

    I doubt I would be where I am today (family and ministry-wise) if not for those short-term missions trips in HS and college.

  30. I work for e3 Partners Ministry. We put about 3,000 N. Americans on short-term trips every year–so I’m biased.

    First, I think Bono said is best when he said, “My God isn’t short of cash, mister.” I agree with one of the commenters that this isn’t a zero sum game where X dollars given for STM would be instead given for LTM, not even close.

    STM works best in conjunction with long-term strategy on the field. It is a tool in the toolbox for saturation Church planting (in our case) and evangelism, not the toolbox. Dr. George Robinson wrote a terrific book on how this works really well. “Striking the Match”

    I’ve heard that 90% of LTMs come from STM. I’m a case in point. After working in this model for over five years, I think STM are critical to:

    Focus a U.S. church on the Great Commission
    Give the U.S. church a heart for the world, and a global perspective
    Quickly mature believers in the church
    Radically alter the giving philosophy of the church in the U.S.

    There are countless examples of the above. For STM to be successful, you have to:
    * Have a long-term strategy led by indigenous leaders on the ground that STM supplments. In our case, Americans serve as an evangelism spark.
    * Actually, verbally share the Gospel. Without seeing a transformed life with the Gospel, the trip is empty and poorly stewarded.

    Here’s Dr. Robinson’s book: http://www.amazon.com/Striking-Match-Ordinary-Short-Term-Missions/dp/B0015YL8F6/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1280254739&sr=8-1

  31. ATChaffee says

    I do some work helping with medical missions in my faith-based university. There is a lot of gung-ho interest in helping those poor people in other coutrries, but also any number of problems that can be created ranging from undermining the local health care system to generating antibiotic resistance and rebound effects. Also a lot of money that can be wasted by, say, treating for worms without doing anything about the water supply.

    Just as most of the above posts have focused on how good STM are for the missionary,medical missions can end up being all about the people who go and not about the people who are served. Until they learn that it doesn’t work that way, students just love the idea of going overseas to practice doing things they are not allowed to do yet in the US (“and I got to do a C-section all by myself!”), even if it’s a bit rough on the poor people they are practicing on. Boring and cold-hearted as it may seem, all that enthusiasm has to be channeled into work that is sustainable and partnered by someone in the host country, and it has to be part of a strategic plan (though I admit there have been some very lucky mavericks)

    And yes, it has been argued that it is better to send over expired drugs, substandard equipment, and untrained practitioners because it is better than nothing. However, this is not the best way to build a really solid relationship with the host country.

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