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Short-Term Missions: Good and Bad Consequences

A small team is accompanying me to Iquitos, Peru, later in the year so I’ve been doing some thinking and preparation.

One recurring question concerns the value of short-term mission trips. Not just my Peru trips, but also more generally.

As a church, we have a steady stream of people going on a variety of short-term mission trips so we have a responsibility to encourage good practice.

Some might ask, “What’s the problem?”

Broadly, I think there are five potential questions / pitfalls.

1. Short-term mission is expensive and takes lots of resources.

The cost, often more than £1,000 ($1,319), and the fact that flying isn’t exactly environmentally friendly raise the question of whether the money wouldn’t be better used by giving it to the mission project directly. After all, the costs might keep a locally supported partner worker funded for many months.

But there are also hidden costs, in the time taken up organizing the short-term visit, which usually takes people who are in the host country away from their normal mission tasks.

2. Is it really mission?

The first trip I went on felt more like ecclesial tourism than mission, but then the purpose was to show me how money the church had given was used in a variety of projects so while it wasn’t really mission it was part of “the mission.”

There’s a theological question at the heart of this, but some mission trips seem more focused on giving those going a good experience than actually joining with the mission of God and engaging with the local people in a particular place.

3. It only benefits those going.

The Internet is replete with examples of short-term mission projects where the work done was largely made up to keep the volunteers busy (digging trenches, painting walls and so on). At the end of the two or three weeks, the volunteers leave with a sense of having done something but leaving little or nothing of value.

What’s worse is examples of where teams come and do things that could be better done by employing someone locally. Thus, short-termers deprive the local economy of work.

4. Creating expectation and dependency.

So imagine, every short-term mission team arrives bringing gifts for the young children in the village as part of their “helping” with the children’s work. Soon, everyone expects this and compared to the excitement of the visitors, the long-term missionaries work with children seems really dull.

It’s not just sweets. of course. Mission funding can create expectations and dependency that don’t help long-term development.

5. It can be damaging to the hosts.

Worse than things that are not helpful are things that are harmful and detrimental to the hosts.

In the last few months, there has been a bit of a campaign trying to discourage orphanage volunteering in Africa and elsewhere. Why? Because there is evidence it is harmful to the children.

They become normalized to lots of different people having access to them (in the United Kingdom, we protect vulnerable children and adults and guard them), they go through repeated cycles of attachment to people and then abandonment, and usually the volunteers have no training in how to work with vulnerable people or how to avoid their behavior damaging the children emotionally.

Added to which, Save the Children estimated that 80 percent of those in orphanages are not actually orphans but are placed there because of the perception that they will have a better life and creating a demand for orphans and orphanages.

There are three good reasons why people shouldn’t just stay at home though:

1. Open your eyes to other people and cultures.

Short-term trips give us an understanding of the situation in which other people live, which you can’t get from YouTube or Wikipedia.

This understanding fuels our prayers for others and, potentially, helps us to be more welcoming to people coming to our nations from other places as we can and an appreciation for other ways of living and doing.

2. Learn to see with new cultural eyes.

As well as opening our eyes to see things differently, we come to recognize how materially we are rich, even if (by our nation’s standards) we are poor. We also may come to see that while we are materially rich, we are poor in other ways.

We also start to see our own mission context differently (both the challenges and opportunities).

3. Become more mission-hearted.

For some, short-term mission opens the door to long-term service but hopefully everyone becomes more mission-hearted, both globally and locally.

So what, as a church minister, can we do to encourage good mission?

First, we can encourage people to ask questions about who they go with, what they go to do and why they want to go.

Our congregation encourages people to go with organizations who are signed up with global connections best practice. Hopefully we do so in a way that affirms responsible mission engagement rather than pours cold water on people wanting to go.

Second, encourage a positive attitude to short-term mission where those going seek to serve and be an encouragement, where they go to serve but also to have a long-term view so that they might make a small contribution to the longer-term mission.

For all the difficulties, “it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

Third, understand mission as a partnership.

In a short visit, the primary onus needs to be on learning and listening to others, to stand alongside them as partners in the global mission of God. We can all learn from the global church and we are privileged to be able to do so.

I’m committed to global mission and to encouraging local churches to play a full part in it. What about you?

Neil Brighton is senior minister at Poyton Baptist Church in Poynton, Cheshire, United Kingdom. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Distinct Reflections, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @NeilBrighton.