The complexity of short-term missions

Lately I’ve had the privilege to be part of great discussions about how to improve our current short-term mission praxis. Many of us know that something is wrong with the way we do short-term work, and thankfully there are a handful of people who are trying to find solutions that will make short-term missions worth it.

To explain the problems with short-term missions would take a lot more space than is available here, but to be concise there’s a problem for those who go and those who receive mission teams. Those who go often claim that the experiences transform them; they are not the same. The problem is that research shows otherwise. There is no substantial difference in giving or in further mission service between those who go on short-term trips and those who don’t.

On the other end of short-term mission, we’ve learned that many of our practices harm those we hope to help. We often spend more money to go and do work of a lesser caliber than it would have cost to employ someone locally to do better quality work. We’ve also learned that many of our handout-based mission trips have served to damage the dignity of the people we hope to serve as well as create situations of dependency. In some countries, entire markets have been created to cater to the desires of short-term teams in order to try to get their money and their handouts by offering work that fits the needs of most teams but is in no way needed or helpful to the recipient.

All of this has led some to renounce short-term work and focus only on sending full-time missionaries. This is understandable, but we live in a short-term minded world, where those who want to go will go. We also live in a world where travel is readily available and many people will travel regardless of if it’s with a church group or not. So it’s beneficial to improve upon our understanding and methodology of Christian travel experiences.

To do so some have said that what is important is to turn the trip into a discipleship experience, or a pilgrimage, and in doing so they hope to make a lasting impact on those who go. Others have tried to work hard to make sure that sustainable practices are taking place on the field, so that those who receive the work are blessed. At times these two sides work independently of each other without much contact. What we really need is for these two sides to work in harmony, each relying on and building upon the work of the other.

There are two sides to every mission, and if either side is malfunctioning the short-term experience will fail. If the team going has not prepared for the experience devotionally, theologically, and culturally, they can do much harm on the field, regardless the missiology of the organization receiving them. I’ve seen this happen first hand where a team went on a trip with an organization that truly focused on responsible missiology, but that team did minimal preparation and did not follow the organizations guidelines. In result an entire village was damaged.

On the other hand if a team takes the months necessary to prepare for a short-term mission trip through cultural, theological, and devotional studies, but the organization that receives them does not take any of these best-practices into consideration, the work done may be in vain. In addition to that, the preparation the group undertook may be seen as useless by the very team that devoted months to the process.

What we need then, are mission teams and mission sending agencies who are devoted to honoring both sides of the mission experience. Both the teams that go and the organizations that receive need to be devoted to cultural, theological, and devotional preparation, as well as sustainable, empowering missiology on the field.

This is a much more complex understanding of short-term missions that requires more of our time, energy, and focus. This sort of mission can’t be planned in a couple of months, but if we don’t take seriously the complexity of short-term missions, we run the risk of harming more than we help and turning our mission work into nothing more than religious tourism.

Blake Hart

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About the Author
Blake and his wife Bekah live in Rock Hill, SC. After receiving his M.DIv. from the McAfee School of Theology, he and Bekah spent two years as CBF Field Personnel in Chile. Blake currently serves as the Missions Coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of South Carolina. He has two sons: Silas who was born still and Benjamin who was born October 2013.

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  • Christopher B Harbin

    Thank you for bringing this issue into focus. There are things that short term mission teams can accomplish, but we too often focus on those things that make the team feel good, rather than what can make the greatest long term impact.
    We had planned to host fishing trips and craft skills exchanges between groups from the US and Brasil as a way to open doors for friendship and dialogue. Unfortunately, we had to leave the field before we could implement that. Nationals and missionaries can do the evangelism and discipleship, but the short term teams are most effective in opening doors to dialogue and ministry.