Are Short Term Missions a Waste of Money?

A Washington Post article last week entitled “Churches Retool Mission Trips” examines the criticism that short term missions are high cost and lack value. HT: Seth Barnes Its a good article and worth reading. I share many of the same concerns. Yes – a $2000 house built for $30,000 by an overseas mission team might not be the best use of money and someone needs to rethink these kinds of trips. But what are the costs of NOT sending out our youth on altruistic Christian missions? Here are ten quick responses.

1. Short term missions might be an expensive past-time but if they are a far better alternative to overseas vacations and holidays. They are a lot cheaper, especially when teams stay in homes or sleep on church floors rather than hotels. Short term missions are less selfish, and they help redirect resources away from tourist destination to more needy areas.

2. A cross cultural experience, even if only for a week, is good training for a career in overseas social enterprise or preparation for long term missions. Sometimes the impact is felt more in the volunteer than the community she is sent to but this is also a viable reason to continue in short term missions.

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3. The fall in number of long term missionaries worries me but I am encouraged by the number of missionaries being sent out by the global south.

4. We should send out young people for longer periods of time. My short term mission lasted two years. I think the article rightly criticizes the ‘religious tourism’ aspect and the often selfish and consumeristic nature of these trips. But tell someone they are going for 2 months (or 2 years) and they will have to put their career on hold and you will weed most of them out.

5. Short term mission should be more relational, connected with local authorities, churches (if they have any) and local families.

6. Missions today is multi-directional and it is a mistake to talk about missions only in terms of our country sending missionaries to others. Christian communities in every country should expect short term missionaries to be sent to them and start making provision. For example, a suburban church in Manchester or Dallas or Sydney might have accommodation ready for mobile missionaries, or even camper-van facilities in their car park. Families should expect to be hosting internationals in their homes and know how to orient them to the local scene.

7. Pilgrimages and self-guided mission experiences, although not mentioned in the article, are also on the increase and sometimes offer a better posture of learning and receiving hospitality than traditional short term missions.

8. When I was with Operation Mobilization, I heard founder George Verwer say that churches must stay involved in both sending overseas missionaries or they will lose their vision within one generation.

9. Partnering with an established mission organization is a good way to get some cross-cultural sensitivity training for the team. CMS (Church Mission Society) in the UK do a great job in this and many American mission agencies also. Short term missions like OM and YWAM normally offer their own training and their expertise can be utilized for your teams. See if the mission you have chosen is connected with Global Connections (UK) or Standards of Excellence for Short Term Mission (USA)

10. And lets not forget the massive resource we have with retired missionaries now living back home who can guide and train short term mission teams. Hey . . . invite them along!

Andrew

Andrew Jones has been blogging since 1997. He is based in San Francisco with his two daughters but also travels the globe to find compelling stories of early stage entrepreneurs changing their world. Sometimes he talks in the third person. Sometimes he even talks to himself and has been heard uttering the name “Precious” :-)

29 Comments

  • I really appreciate this post Andrew. Having been raised in a missionary family my heart still longs for the mission field. I was recently discouraged when a pastor at my church said he didn’t like the idea of staying in people’s homes while on mission because he likes the trip to be able to double as a vacation. Perhaps I’ll have him read this!

  • loved your post Andrew. i read seth’s post and the article a few days ago too. we are in the midst of raising and spending a ton of money this summer and i’m in the middle of that tension – are we being good stewards, is it right to spend all that money in light of the reality around the world, etc. in fact, i was just writing my own post about it…. your perspective is very helpful and adds some good pointers for us to keep focused on.
    blessings!

  • Having just returned from leading a short-term missions endeavor to Brooklyn, New York City, I found this post very very helpful. I like your points and definitely agree with the one about the local church.
    In Brooklyn, we were able to hook our 51 young people in to this ministry that was already set up and help them in whatever way they needed. We surely were not tourists and the kids were really able to learn a lot.

  • Andrew – i was on the phone today with an amazing contact in Northern Africa re: my exploratory trip in 2009 – lots of good stuff to share with you later. One issue that kept emerging was the need for Americans to interact with the local Christian churches and learn from them instead of just showing up to “do something” for them as though our ways are superior. The later has created a climate of mistrust (mild understatement) about American Christians coming to the Middle East but she said there’s still a receptivity for those who want to adopt a less aggressive stance. (We didn’t talk about missionaries from other countries as that wasn’t the focus of my trip.
    I’ve seen some amazing groups of young people come here to New York City who have rolled up their sleeves and helped with some of the ministries in need here that gives me considerable hope. I’ve also had youth groups come up to me en masse all wearing the same church T-shirt and try to convert this heathen. (Didn’t realize I looked so unholy but there you have it.) The obnoxious nature of the later has turned so many people off the nature of missionary work.

  • Andrew,
    Enjoyed meeting you a week past Sunday. This was an interesting post. Mainly because this short term mission stuff is so popular in the US. I’m chair of the http://www.Vine Trust.org we send out 300 volunteers a year to Peru to build houses and o medical work. The interesting thing for us is this is a kind of emerging church idea. So many of the folk who go have no faith, the mission is two three fold. 1. To help the world poor. 2. To help people in the developing world become ambassadors for the poor when the return. 3. People return home thinking more deeply about spiritual issues. One other thing in the UK registered charities can claim the tax back on the air fare.

  • I just had dinner tonight with some friends who just got back from a mission trip. We talked about the fact that mission trips are often for those who go on them much more than they are for those who are being served.

  • ummm… about number 2… from the perspective of a person living in one of the eastern countries that receives short (and long) term missions – vast majority of those serve only the needs of the kids coming. very rarely do I see focus on the needs of those who they come to ‘serve’
    sorry, that is how i see it
    the rest i agree 100% – learning by exposure is the biggest advantage

  • I think you also have to consider the positive impact on a community who sees that a group of people care enough to come and spend time with them – even if it is fairly meaningless work – and the long term effect of the advocacy of the people who have been changed by the experience.

  • ahh . . the expensive perfume on Jesus’ foot.
    i think our missiology must be big enough to transcend pragmatism, allowing moments of occasional extravagance that may not make sense to the bottom line, but it must also transcend a mindless, romantic notion that God is not interested in the administration of the project in which money dedicated to his mission must be painstakingly invested with an eye to high yield.
    iTalker (hi – great to meet you) also brings in another element – that of mission as evangelism toward those on the mission team itself. There are many seekers who want to process for themselves what it means to follow Jesus by jumping into his mission. This happens more in deeply post-modern post-Christian nations but I expect it to increase in other places also. Many short term missionaries find Jesus on their mission. I think this is great. From day one, they know that the way of Jesus is about self-less giving and serving his mission and not about turning up to a church service to have their needs met.

  • Great blog…
    The problem is the paradigm of mission – many churches/entities don’t have this. Going overseas becomes a self-serving endeavor with no goals or ends or progress in mind… having said that I still think short-term trips are invaluable for pretty much all the things you’ve pointed out already.
    We’ve designed our short-term YWAM outreaches such that it had a progressive effect – our teams went out not as accomplishers but rather as researchers; and each successive team would add more and more vital information to a growing report, equipping our current and future long-termers. For example, an initial team would identify ethnic groups in a region, unreached status, persons of peace. Following groups would research (in)justice issues among those ethnicities. Following would examine livability/viability options…
    each team wasn’t necessarily changing the world but are contributing to something bigger – a progression – and all the while are coming in as learners instead of arrogant world-changers… in the end the paradigm of mission is not short-term hit and runs with no lasting effect, but rather short-term building up to long-term adoption of people groups.

  • i like that idea of continuity and adding to the research. i also think teams sent to the same area year after year should find ways to build on each others work and not invent the wheel again. good stuff!!!

  • We receive about 9 short term mission teams to help in all we do here throughout the summer. Primarily they are tremendous help, they serve and in the words of Dave Gilmore they put “another brick in the wall” of what we trying to do here. However we at 24-7 prayer had been sending missions teams to Ibiza since 2000 and eventually we came to the conclusion that we could keep visiting we had to get someone to move there so that we could start building. Relationally the only true way we will build within a culture is to move there and become part of it, we have a greater connectedness with our culture now that we live here and it is something that a short term will never truly do. Although if the team come to serve and assist the hosts I feel it is worth while, the team get to experience, in Michael Frosts words “liminality” and “communitas”they get a glimpse of living beyond themselves that many local church settings don’t provide. Of course I am also aware of the financial implications; all the money teams spend to come could pay for our premises and utilities for a whole year! However if they didn’t spend the money on a mission team they would probably just spend it on a holiday. I think the positives outweigh the negatives. On a final note we now have people who have moved here and are living with us permanently because they first came on a short term team. We also have long term financial support from people who have been and seen what we do and probably most importantly we find people are much more connected in prayer once they have experienced our culture.

  • Great post and some very interesting discussion. I’m reading it with loaded emotions as I’m just about to take a team to Peru with Tearfund. I’ve been thinking about many of these questions.
    Yeah, in terms of doing practical good out in the places st teams visit, there might be limited results. But I think there’s still great value in sending people out. I guess because it gives an opportunity to build connections and relationships across cultures – I think that can only be a good thing.
    So as we go, I hope we’re useful to the partner we go with. I hope we can share some of God’s love with the people we meet. I also hope we can learn, grow and come back different; with a new set of relationships, a altered way of seeing the world and fresh vision to live our lives well, for God.
    Oh and I hope in time we’ll build on the relationship and have missionaries coming from Peru to Sheffield!

  • Having said all that, I do like the ideas of local ST mission teams in the original artical. Getting teams of people to do the classic mission team thing, but in a different part of their own city, would be a great idea and maybe help people springboard into more missionary lifestyles. After all, you don’t just have to fly around the world to meet/love/serve/learn from people who are different to you.

  • Brian – i think its great that you moved there to Ibiza, which is probably an attractive place for young mission teams to visit. A little bit like the overload of st mission teams to Bahamas in the article. The novelty wears off after a while and then you have to commit to the place for other reasons.
    hope you guys are well. been a while.

  • i am a full-time missionary in asia. my family and i got our start through short-term trips. unlike some others, we were members of a team where we were the youngest. i’m 39, my husband is in his 40’s. the oldest was i think 78.
    i have mixed feelings about the effectiveness of short-term work. i think it totally depends on what the particular work is that’s being done. the teams we’ve worked with have been extremely effective and we couldn’t complete what we do without them.
    although i would say that probably 1/5 of what we do here involves short-term teams (and that percentage is growing), i too have wondered if it wouldn’t be more effective to just send the money to the mission being helped rather than someone taking a short-term trip. BUT, i would imagine that most people probably wouldn’t do it. it sounds good in theory, but i just wonder whether that person would really spend the money on the mission if they weren’t physically going.

  • Usher: Look down there in the parking lot – the kids are getting back from the mission trip
    Deacon: I see, I see
    Usher: What do they do those trips for?
    Deacon: Lots of reasons Usher, but for the most part, to tell and show the world how great we Americans are at christianity
    Usher: Expound
    Deacon: Well, the majority simply come back feeling good about what “they” did. Where in the story is the community they visited and what happens when they leave? Does this community ever hear from anyone again?
    Usher: And at about $1,000 per person to travel, wouldn’t the money go a lot further if they simply gave it to the orphanages and the communities and the hospitals?
    Deacon: Yep, I know for fact that all the orphanages in say Guatemala work on very tight budgets (typically funded by Americans on fixed budgets) and they typically run out of money 1/2 to 3/4 of the year and have to go begging (because so many kids end up arriving and drive the budget into the red).
    Usher: Do the churches that send these kids have any clue?
    Deacon: Yep, but they keep doing it anyway. No adventure in sending money and no romance either. In addition, they think so much of themselves that their misconception is that the benefit is really from them going to “help the kids”.
    Usher: I know what you mean. I took a bunch of kids to an orphanage once and they couldn’t interact or relate to the fact that the kids were fine and really didn’t need their help. In essence, the kids we took learned more about their own shortcomings than they did about missions.
    Deacon: So you’re saying that they got to see that Jesus doesn’t need them to fix the world?
    Usher: Quite the contrary notion huh? Seems that the only commodity the church in America seems to have is disposable income and kids who don’t understand their own neediness.

  • I did a little short-term mission work in my early twenties and I don’t know how much good I did in the place where I was – some, I guess – but the change in me has been long-term. Having an insight into the real lives of people in Africa, rather than just TV pictures, has meant that I know Fair Trade can make a difference, and that I know supporting mission organisations such as CMS is worthwhile. While I stay in the UK doing my ordinary job I am able to give more to mission, more in the long-term than my trip cost, because of what I learned and experienced while I was there.

  • seems like this was a good responsive post!
    My month of July has involved both a holiday (that I am currently on in Portugal) and taking a group of 8 young people to Latvia for 2 weeks. We ran a kids club and then went on a kinda pilgrimage to a prayer room in the East of the country ran by a guy called Levi. We had been meeting as a team since Feb on a weekly basis and the trip away was the culmination of our meetings.
    The time away was invaluable to the young people and for me as a leader It was again another example of how young people can teach us so much when we let them. The first day I had to go and change dosh in the town etc and the young people (14 – 16) years old had to lead the camp for a 5 hour section (who would have thought changing money in Latvia took that long!) COming back to them, shattered from the games and teaching they had given and fired up by the connections they had made with the orphan kids was a beautiful experience. It had parallels of Jesus sending out the 72 and then them coming back to tell their teacher what had happened. (not that im Jesus but you know what I mean!)
    Then at the prayer house the guys were able to set their hearts bare before GOd and for once in their techno busy lives be still, silent and BE in front of God – letting years of bottled up emotions/abuses etc out in front of GOd and others
    Wonderful time
    GOdly experience
    Pete

  • Andrew
    well a good discussion started for good reason. actually really good i toy now with linking and blogging myself ;o)
    some quick comments.
    the question is always ‘why are we doing this ‘mission” i put the word ‘mission’ in brackets cause i have a problem with that word when it means an event rather than the ongoing work of God that he invites us to join in. but i know what we mean and it can be a good event…but what kind of event for what purpose? what part indeed does it serve in the mission of God, cause if ‘no part’ is the answer then inddeed we waste all in doing it.
    sort temr mission event thus automatically says, ‘bad idea’ to me. but actually not always so if we know why, and the many great responses you have got say so many of those ‘whys’. the primary reason for short term msiion is what ot does to build up the mission team, if everyone knows that it can ideed be a great expereince that will help equip people for future missionary work. a good misisonal church will knoe how to hadle this, can indeed even plan the visiting rookies into their far more expert programme so that they get to be part of the long term mission and see and feel how it is. and then the church too get the joy of the letting free the enthusiasm of a misision team allowing them to add punch to their programme and everyone goes away knowing ‘it was good’. the short term mission team also learn loads about thr long term nature of mission ;o)
    some wise words above about how this kind of thing can provide th vital spark of cross-cultural expereince…and you don’t get till it happens, and it can happen in oyur own country as welel as abroad, but we desperatley need folks to get that comfort-shell-breaking expereince. and yes some humilty with it.
    sad reality is much short term msiion is not like this. a church that does no mission thinks it ought to have a misssion, or a mssion angency needs to give some folks a mission experience. the two sides find each other and reckon they’ve solved the problem. church thinks in the next couple of weeks all our problems will be solved, mission team thinks we’re goin out to solve their problems and we’re hot. result mission team plays Rambo church just knows this should never have happened, no-one learns a thing, no mission happens.

  • Maybe some won’t like or understand what I am about to say, they may even think it to be selfish. My experience has been that since the late ‘90s and forward that there has been a great decline in the amount of money which is available of career missionaries to do their work. Some will say that this is due to the failing economy, no way!
    Just this past year alone I have known nine people, who were avid supporters of my own mission work, to head out on short-term mission work. Great! NO not really, you see they have now either cutback on the gifts which they were giving to my work or have stopped giving all together. (And, the cost of their little one week trips alone would have taken me for a year!)
    I feel that my next point may need to be a little longer and thought out, but in short I was recently pushed out of a village where I had lived for seven years… you see I did not give the gifts which the short-term teams did. I had a free high school in the village, but could only take six students do to a lack of funds. They felt that we should do more! Of the five churches in the surrounding area (different denominations), all had been built by short-term teams, the pastors were paid from the States ($200 to $400 US a month), and the gas for their generators came from the US. If they did not have fuel, then there simply was not a service (and the mean missionary wouldn’t buy them any fuel). I don’t know how the early church made it!
    Well, sad to say I could keep on going! Some would say I sound bitter; no it just hurts to see my own supporting churches doing this same kind of work now, and to know that we are really losing these people. Ten more years and missions as we knew it will be gone, unless there is a change! The world will soon be full of rice bowl christians!
    It is only when one on one that I really hear other full-timers talk about the problem, and try as I might, I have been unsuccessful in having others to join me in speaking to US church leaders about the problem. I think they are afraid they’ll lose their support, and if you are with a family on the field that can be a big deal!
    I have been to four BIG mission meetings over the last seven years… all I can say is if there is NO change soon… you too may be asked to leave your village!
    You can read more on my blog:
    http://missionariescollectshrunkenheads.blogspot.com/

  • Pictures and tales of woe don’t do it for me. Global mission trips do, and if it weren’t for the trips I’ve made, I would not be digging as deeply into my pockets as I do now to support missionaries, hospitals, and schools in places where people struggle to survive. Sure, we bring money, but we also bring ourselves. The people we serve watch us, and they become enthused and motivated themselves when they see us–sweaty and covered with dirt–working in stifling heat to mix concrete or lift heavy rocks. No one feels alone.

  • nemo – i hear you – we (as fulltimers) are trying to start some businesses to support our work and offset the funds, or lack of them.

  • It seems easy lately to measure effectiveness by dollars. Once that is the standard, that becomes god. Scripture tells us to go and make disciples. No mention of cost effectiveness. Money is just a tool…and not to be worshiped.

  • How about non-traveling short-term mission trips. For two weeks a church would gather every night for prayer and live internet updates from the place they would have gone. Instead of 15-20 people going you send that money 20 x $2000 or $40,000 to that project. I know it’s not as fun but let’s say every other trip is a non-traveling one.

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