Dan Wunderlich says that mission trips can be life-changing mission endeavors, but they also raise serious issues and questions. He names a series of considerations for churches that want to do short-term missions well.
Short-term mission trips, particularly international trips, can be faith-deepening and even life-changing. They offer experiences we might never have back home, and they are a way to put our beliefs into action. However, when they are not done the right way, or when churches partner with the wrong organizations, short-term mission trips may end up doing more harm than good. As representatives of Christ, the church, and our home communities, we have a responsibility to do short-term missions well.
While short-term mission journeys can be truly transformational experiences for the volunteers, it may be possible to make a similar if not bigger impact by supporting a missionary or organization from home.
Learn the issues
You first need to recognize that there are many potential issues with short-term service trips. This isn’t to say that all short-term trips are bad, but consider questions like:
- How much money are you spending on things other than actual help on the ground?
- Are you being asked to work on projects for which your team is qualified and prepared?
- Is the work you are doing a part of a larger, sustainable plan to help the community?
- Are your team and the organization you are partnering with focused on your experience or on relationships with the local community?
It is estimated that nearly $2 billion are spent annually on service trips of all types, religious and nonreligious. This boom has led to difficult conversations in the field of international development. The impulse to serve is a good thing, but we need to beware of causing unintended consequences.
Assuming that your help is better than nothing or that your team is the right group of people to help simply because you come from a richer or more developed nation are just some of the myths around short-term trips that need to be re-examined.
Check your perspective
The places to which you travel may be exciting. The communities in which you serve may open your team’s eyes to issues of poverty and inequality around the world. And an international service trip may be a valuable addition to a resume or college application. These are all positives, but if they become prime motivators, you have to ask whether you are being selfless or selfish. Find an organization or project within a community that churches can return to year after year. This kind of long-term bond can be achieved through short-term trips, and it helps to keep the focus on the community being served. It allows us to go from seeing a project as a there-and-back event to an experience that encompasses dialogue, respect, and relationship.
Pick the right project
Knowing where to find vetted organizations and projects is only half the battle. If you are uninterested in or unable to participate in the work of the organization, the trip or journey will be of little value for anyone. The first key is remembering that your team represents the whole church. If you select and invest in the right project, it becomes a part of the wider mission of the church. This connection will make it easier to recruit team members, raise money, and rally support within the congregation.
The second key is to know your team. While you will likely select a destination and project before team members sign up, you should have in mind things like:
- How big will the team be?
- What are members’ physical abilities or limitations?
- What specialized skills might they have?
Consider not going
After a bit of research, prayer, and discernment, you may decide that an international journey is too much to undertake now. Or you may count the cost of transportation, training, insurance, supplies, food and lodging for your group and realize how much of a difference all that money might make in the hands of the local organization itself. Again, while short-term mission journeys can be truly transformational experiences for the volunteers that serve, that should not be the No. 1 goal. Depending on what area of the world or type of project you are exploring, it may be possible to make a similar if not bigger impact by supporting a missionary or organization from home.
Train your team
Once you know where you’re going and what you will be doing, it is time to train your team. Depending on the project, you may be able to learn or practice a few skills that will be needed. This is also the time to gather supplies and make other important preparations, such as purchasing special medical and accident insurance. Regardless of the project, one thing every volunteer team can use is time to pray together. This will help keep your team focused on the “why” behind your journey and build bonds among team members, especially if they don’t know each other well.
Tell a responsible story
Through the pictures and videos you take while on your journey, you have the opportunity to tell a story. The big question is: What story are you telling? Perhaps the best story you can tell as a mission team is how God was present and active on your journey. This story is wide enough to include both the fun you’re having and the work you’re doing. This story allows you to showcase the local community and its people without using them as two-dimensional props or backdrops. You can also share about the relationships you are building based on mutual listening and learning.
If you have the ability to post or even stream via blog or social media while you are on site, this is a great way to keep your church family connected to your work. Just be sure throughout the journey to get permission from the people or organizations you’re photographing or filming when it seems appropriate. They deserve the same measure of privacy and courtesy that we expect for ourselves. Finally, know when to put the camera down or the phone away. Not every moment needs to be documented. God, the community, the work, and your fellow teammates deserve your focus.
This article is based on one originally published in MyCom, an online newsletter for church leaders teaching tips on communications, outreach, and new technologies. Adapted with permission.