short-term mission trips: hindrance or help?

I really shouldn’t be so proud of myself just for writing a post I said I’d write, but it is what it is. Follow-through is a weakness of mine.

There’s a lot of discussion going on about short-term mission trips and how effective they are or aren’t. (This post is especially thought-provoking.) Some people are all for them. Some are skeptical to super-opposed. Some (like me) say that it’s a tricky tightrope, and not all mission trips can be lumped together, because they’re not all alike.

I’ll be honest. It’s getting late, I’m tired, and my head hurts. I have a lot to say on this topic, and it’s extra-close to the very core of my heart. I can’t do it justice tonight.

So, I’ll share this sweet video our friend Jen made of our summer trip to Cambodia (both teams). She has another one on her blog if you can’t get enough of these beautiful kiddos.

There is Love from Jen Morgan on Vimeo.

Heather in Haiti (the post I linked to above) talks about us going on short-term mission trips where we hug on orphans and then essentially abandon them all over again when we leave. I’m so, so grateful that our orphanage in Cambodia is a happy, joyful place even when we’re NOT there. And that these kiddos love us as soon as they meet us and pray for us every day and write us letters.

Speaking of letters, I have 41 of them (all written on different colors of construction paper and index cards and whathaveyou) in a neat little stack beside my computer right now. Letters written by all of the older kids to me, Gabe, and each of our girls.

Like this one from sweet, beautiful Longdich.

Dear Mommy Marla,

Hello, Mommy. How are you? I miss you so much because you are my mom. I’m very happy because I can play with you. You can make me laugh and you can make me cry. And thank you for your love. I want to see your smile. God bless you and your family.

I pray for you and your family. I love you so much and Jesus love you too. Longdich & Marla.

Love, Longdich

Do you see why I’d move heaven and earth to go back and see these kiddos? And why I want so badly to take my own girlies with me? I’ll be honest. I have to make sure I don’t cling too tightly to this dream, if it’s not what God wants for us. It’s one thing to give up a little birthday money; it’s another thing entirely to hold loosely to a dream that means so stinkin’ much.

God, help me to delight myself in YOU and nothing less. To hold tightly to you and lightly to everything else. To trust that your plans are highest and best and will ultimately bring you the most glory and me the most joy.

Do you have any thoughts, one way or the other, on short-term mission trips? I love hearing different people’s perspectives.

30 thoughts on “short-term mission trips: hindrance or help?

  1. Pingback: oh, short-term mission trips. {smh} | Marla Taviano

  2. BJ Bechtel

    I saw this last wk when it was posted and wanted to read and well just getting around to it πŸ™‚ but I agree some are good some are bad, I think it comes down to the heart of the person going and the purpose behind it. . . it isn’t just oversees but even to the cities, too often it is b/c of what the person wants to get out of it and not serving in whatever way needed. As someone that works w/ tons of groups you can definitely tell the difference. I would ask the question though of why are so many people encouraged to go on “missions trips” when they aren’t even serving where they are at now? Do we expect them to change because they are on the trip?? I would also ask the question of how has short-term impacted the view of long-term missions? We had someone apply for full-time when asked how long are you willing to commit said 1 yr seems like a long time! YIKES!

  3. Jeff Goins

    I’m a fan of doing short term missions like Jesus did them – simply and prayerfully (see Luke 9). I’ve seen tremendous fruit come from adopting that model. It causes a greater dependence on God and usually requires more humility of participants. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Marla, and for your heart for the mission field… especially Cambodia. All the best.

  4. alittlebitograce

    my husband and i work for a missions organization that sends a lot of short term teams. we believe that STMs are very important, but also have to be done well. it isn’t simple. typically, the team goes through about 8 months of training by an IT(international teams) staff. This is mostly working through cross-cultural training which we base off of the David Livermore book mentioned above. He’s come in and done training with us before.

    our goal in sending teams is to enable churches to help the poor. our churches tend to find a location where they go and build a relationship there longterm. we’ve seen some beautiful things come out of that where the churches here are able to serve the churches there. for three years, a team of pastors went a couple of times a year for the express purpose of training pastors in rwanda, both in the refugee camp and the surrounding area.

    one of the other benefits we’ve seen is that when the church serves overseas, they are much more open to the needs in their community. for example, some have worked with refugees, only to come back to their city and see refugees everywhere. there’s been some neat ministries born from that.

    yes, it’s tricky. yes, it needs lots of prayer. but when STMs are done right, they revolutionize the church.

  5. erin

    Awww Marla… what a touching post! I’m with you… I’m sure that sometimes short-term mission trips aren’t as effective as long ones, but I feel like any opportunity to help is a good one. Of course, it’d be great if everyone could spend YEARS on the mission field but that’s not always feasible so I think short-term mission trips are a great way to expose kids to mission work and get them thinking globally and mission-minded.

  6. Jen Hanson

    Oh! That video was great! HOW is it possible that every single one of those kids is so incredibly good-looking-gorgeous? They are so precious – I see why you can’t stand being away from them.

    It is so cool that you have a relationship with that orphanage and can write letters back and forth to the kids. I think that is so key after working with orphans. I had no way of keeping in contact with the kids I met and worked with in Uganda last time I was there and it breaks my heart that I don’t know where they are or what they are doing. I’m hoping this next trip will have different results.

  7. Kelly S

    This is a topic very dear to my heart. A few years ago, I wrote a paper as part of my undergrad studies on this topic: why and how do we do short term missions? That was back at a time when not much was being said about STM… Thankfully, things have changed a bit in the last year or two. I would be happy to send the paper via email to anyone interested… I can’t promise it is the world’s best read, but I did spend a LOT of time and effort on it. The easiest way to get it to you would be if you leave a comment on my blog I think… I would rather not post an email address here for spam reasons.

    I mention my paper because it’s free, but if you are willing to spend a bit of money, I wholeheartedly recommend the book Serving with Eyes Wide Open by David Livermore. Seriously, if you are really interested in this topic, read this book! It is definitely worth the money and considers many of these issues!

    Here’s the reason I do short term missions. It’s not because it makes me feel better as a Christian or helps me be grateful for what I have. Its not because I think that the project I am doing can’t be done by the local church in that place, or by long term missionaries. I go for the sake of “mutual encouragement.”

    Β 11 I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strongβ€” 12 that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. (Romans 1:11-12)

    I think when we consider our work to be more like paul’s was… Visiting other believers, encouraging them in ministry, supporting needs in another area, and showing people that they MATTER and are worth our visit… There is tremendous value in that! So that’s why I go… But it certainly has taken quite a bit if thought to get to this point… So keep on thinking about it and praying about it, everyone! I will too!:)

    1. Jen Hanson

      “I go for the sake of ‘mutual encouragement.'”

      That is such a great perspective! I’ve been struggling so much with this topic as my husband and I prepare to go on a STM to Uganda in March. Thank you so much for sharing your insight.

  8. Dorian

    I will only speak from my experience. I have been on 6 teams to Choluteca, Honduras. When I first went, I didn’t even want to go, but the Lord’s call was loud and clear. We partner with churches and ministries already established there so we are not reinventing a wheel or presuming to know what anyone there needs. We serve the people that are serving there 24/7. I’ve had the opportunity to fix toilets & showers, put in lights, share the gospel with 100’s, lead worship, teach bible studies to women, hold sick babies, bathe filthy kids, put bandaids on boo boos, paint orphanages and schools, pray with people, lead people to the Lord, aleviate misery. I have long term relationships with dozens of Hondurans. But the greatest impact has probably been on me. When I saw people that I now consider dear friends living in such filth, without heat, without clean water, etc., I CANNOT go to bed at night without thanking the Lord for the roof over my head and the comfy bed and the thermostat. I CANNOT go to the bathroom without thanking the Lord for my working toilet. I CANNOT eat a sandwich without praising Jesus!!! It has made me a global thinker, an outside the box thinker, a BODY OF CHRIST thinker, a BELIEVER IN THE IMPOSSIBLE. There is nothing SHORT TERM about my mission. It is ETERNAL.

  9. Jessica Peters

    I agree that they aren’t all the same. I really think it lies in the missionary though. If you go in expecting to make a great change without knowing the language and culture, without knowing them, without following the local missioary’s lead, I think you’re doing more harm than good. You leave with all of these wonderful memories and they’re stuck with no one to explain to them what you just did. Any mission experience can be like that. Even a work team.

    It’s sooooo important to know the culture. You can go as far as messing up their economy just because you wanted to bless them with gifts. It’s hard for us to understand that as “rich Americans.” We have such a materialistic mindset. They don’t need all your crap to be happy. They need your Jesus.

    It’s most important to work with a local missionary. They need to be your authority. Not fuzzy feelings.

  10. Jennifer

    I think it depends on where you’re going, what you’re doing, and what’s going on there. I read Heather’s post, and I’m eager to read the book she discussed. The wisest thing a potential STM team could do is talk openly with a long-term missionary on the field to discern whether or not going would be best, what needs to be done most there, how they should prepare, etc. STMs aren’t as much for the benefit of those we’re going to serve as they are for OUR benefit, I think. My husband had no heart for the nations at all until he went on a week long trip to Vietnam and saw ancestor/idol worship firsthand. Did his going there really do anything for the lost? No. Did it give him a better perspective to glorify God with and share with others? Most definitely. So, they can’t be all bad, right? When you go, though, I think you have to be careful to HELP those who are there for the long haul rather than making their job more difficult. We had a team of college students come through Namibia once who had all the best intentions, but they did some things that really hurt the work already going on. For months after their departure, we were still dealing with some of the hurts that our teenagers sustained because of it. It was wonderful for those college students to come and witness real poverty and real spiritual need, but in the long run, I felt it would have been better had they not come because they did more harm than good. (But I’m sure THEY wouldn’t say that. And if God used the trip to make a significant impact in their lives, then who in the world am I to say that they should have stayed away?)

    Anyway, all that said, I don’t have all the answers, and my inclination is to shout, “GO, GO, GO!” no matter what. πŸ™‚ That’s why it’s good that long term missionaries are putting disclaimers out there like Heather did for us to read and think through. I really need to check out that book…

    1. Marla Taviano

      I so wish that every single person who goes on a STM trip would come away changed. FOR LIFE. As in, using what they saw and learned to make a daily impact on the world around them. I think that would make such a huge difference. Thanks for sharing, Jenn.

  11. joyce

    I’m trying to catch up on reading here…I appreciated the point of view of someone in the trenches. I agree that much prayer and consideration needs to happen, more than just an announcement that we’re taking a trip and anyone who wants to sign up see Joe in the foyer.

    In recent years, among the youth population especially, taking a STM trip has become something you need to do to add to your college applications and resume. I’m not saying this is true of all but its definitely something that is occurring. That being said, we serve a great big God who is capable of more than we can imagine. My own children went on trips with a specific project planned…the projects they participated in were things the already established ministry within the country presented as need. Those trips truly changed my own kids lives in addition to leaving something tangible in the country they served.

    I don’t think this is a bandwagon to jump on but I do believe there is need and opportunity for those who are called.

  12. Charity

    I’m w/ Heather on this, we are M’s in the UK and I don’t think all trips can be lumped together- we’ve had some great short termers and some awful ones. While I could write a lot here, I just wanted to say that one thing I wish Americans coming over would keep in mind is that it’s not about them. Please don’t come in all guns blazing wanting to do your own thing or what you think needs to be done. Please work w/ the m’s in that area and ask what would be helpful. So many people contact us wanting to come build something- well it’s not like that in Europe and then they get mad and we never hear from them again. Very sad.

    Ok I’ll stop there. πŸ™‚ Thanks Marla!

  13. janelle

    To me….it is the same as everything… “Is God telling you to go? ” If it is not lead spiritually, then it will not have spiritual results. If it is of the flesh…then it will have fleshly results. If you could stand before God and say if I do not go, I am sinning. The stakes are too high, the spiritual results, how those see Jesus through the ones going…”for the sake of the people” ….it is for them that HE came, it is for them that we go…in the name of JESUS CHRIST.

  14. H

    As a missionary here in France, we have hosted several teams/groups. Some experiences have been great while some have been without purpose. I agree with you Marla, that the team should have a clear goal in mind when coming: how can we best serve where we’re headed? What re needs that we could meet? Inevitably, God will use the trip to change/teach you, which is always a good thing. But, sadly some groups come with set ideas/plans that don’t do much to serve. Goals/communication between leaders, missions, churches, missionaries and teams are key.

  15. Bethany Peters

    I really appreciated Heather’s article because she didn’t condemn STMs, but said we should prayerfully seek God’s will and what will be best for those we are trying to minister to. I don’t agree with anyone who says all STMs are good or all STMs are bad–I agree with you that it’s a “tricky tightrope”. Especially if you are sponsoring a child and then visiting them–that is definitely a yes for me! You are Longdich’s mommy–of course you should visit her! But also seeking God as to when or how often you should visit, which you’re doing.

    I think everyone should go on a STM, but you shouldn’t just go on any trip–I think it’s important to do one that is centered around the gospel of Jesus Christ and to work with a local body of believers in that area so there are people there when you leave.

    The whole “STM junkie” is something I struggle with–are you going back to the same place or are you asking people to sponsor you every summer to go somewhere new and different just for the adventure with no intention of developing lasting relationships with the people you are ministering to.

    1. Jen Hanson

      Amen! Amen!

      Thanks so much for your encouragement about this on my blog Tuesday. I so appreciated you pointing out the importance of Devin and I meeting our Compassion girls. I mean, I knew it would be a huge deal to them and very special for all of us, but it was encouraging to have someone outside of the situation say the same.

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