If you were active in a youth group growing up, chances are you went on a short term mission trip. The mission trip probably lasted for one or two weeks in the summer. You might have painted or built the foundation of a house, and you probably ended the trip with an excursion to Schlitterbahn or a baseball game.
The value and effectiveness of short term mission trips are sometimes called into question. They have been accused of causing more harm than benefit or of acting as glorified vacations.
Dr. Brian Howell, professor of anthropology at Wheaton College, spoke at ACU last week about his research on short term missions. Howell and the Optimist’s Editorial Board share some conclusions and cautions about short term missions.
There has been a gradual shift in our overall definition of missions to include not just evangelistic or conversion focused pushes, but plight based missions that look to meet physical needs, Howell said. It’s a good shift and is a more holistic look at missions, but we need to be sure to recognize the problems that can occur when on a short term mission trip.
Short term missions, at their core, reveal a good impulse of the church. They help teenagers practice selflessness and service – things they should exercise as much as possible to form healthy habits for the future. These trips can also cultivate further interests in missions leading to a long term missionary life or regular service.
But churches should think about the damage a careless short term mission trip can cause.
Howell emphasized that personal experiences on short term mission trips can sometimes blind people to the larger political, cultural or social context. Sometimes a danger of the trips is to take our limited experiences and let them completely shape our understanding of a situation. This is irresponsible. While on short term mission trips it is important for members to value relationships with people they are serving on the trip, but it is also important for people to have a wider, more informed knowledge about the background of these people.
This enlightened view encourages a healthier kind of connection between the short term missionaries and the people they want to help, because that’s ultimately what a trip like this should be about – realizing beautiful connections between diverse groups of people in the body of Christ.
It’s not about forcing ourselves into the lives of less fortunate people. It’s not about overwhelming them with the gross imbalance of resources. And it’s not about simply going somewhere and fixing someone’s problem.
Howell said, and the board agrees, if we embrace a holistic definition of short term mission trips, there’s an impulse to see it as more than church planting or helping people. It can be more if we are intentional about how our trip affects others and affects ourselves, and a short trip can have long lasting consequences.