Are Short Term Missions Even Effective?

As Dan and I head to Kenya and Tanzania to work on our first international partnership as a church, it seems worthwhile to say a few things about short term mission trips in general.

They’ve come under a lot of fire recently and for good reason.  All too often these trips do more harm than good – a dozen well meaning Americans drop into a village where they dazzle kids with iPads, play some soccer, hand out some food and fly out 10 days later.  It’s all very expensive and, when it’s all said and done, everyone wonders if anything meaningful was accomplished.  Sure, the Americans return home with some great stories and a resolve to never take the comforts of home for granted again but what about the kids in the village who are left in their poverty?  Did anything good happen for them or was a cycle of dependency perpetuated?

All of that is by way of saying we want to be careful to set up international partnerships that ensure we are contributing to what God is already doing in a country.  We want to be a part of empowering local populations to restore their communities and love their cities in Jesus’ name.  We want to approach our partners as equals not as objects of our pity.  To guide us in that, we’ve come up with three simple principles that define success for us on a short term mission trip.  This is what you can expect if you go on a short term trip through Restoration City:

  • Faith Building.  We want these trips to grow and strengthen your relationship with Jesus.  There’s value in trusting God to provide financially for your trip, stepping out of your comfort zone and serving in new ways.  There’s benefit in seeing the beauty of the global church in person.  There is something to be said for new experiences that stretch our hearts, our thinking and our imaginations.  At the same time, we want to build into the faith of the people we are serving.  We firmly believe that the ultimate hope of every community we serve is Jesus and we want our trips to point to Him.  Mark 8:36 asks the question, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” We want to care for and speak into the souls of the people we meet.
  • Useful.  We want to accomplish meaningful work that advances the goals of our partner organizations in the communities we’re serving.  What this means practically is that we want our international partners to set the agenda for the trips as much as possible.  We want them to tell us what they need, what would help them and what would empower the local population.  Those aren’t decisions we can make from Washington, DC.  All we can do is see how our partner’s needs line up with our capacity, vision and direction as a church.  But we want our partners in the driver’s seat.  We think that’s a far healthier model than us announcing what we want to do and forcing our partners to accommodate us.
  • Relational.  This is a stretch for the Type A among us.  Yes, we want to be useful but there is tremendous value in relaxed, relational moments where we interact with the people we meet.  We want to hear their stories, learn from them, allow them to speak into our lives and be able to encourage them in return.  So, our trips are not all work all the time.  Sometimes the agenda is to go speak into the lives of a small group of young adults over a Coke.  As much as I’m a fan of getting things done, these relational moments are the ones you’ll remember in 10 years and they’re the ones that can change the trajectory of someone else’s life forever.

There is a role for short term missions.  When done right, they are a win/win for both Restoration City and our partner organizations.  So, as you think and pray about the possibility of going overseas for the sake of the gospel in the Fall of 2015, know that we’re working to design an experience that will serve you and our partners well.

I’m curious what else you would add to this list. Are there other things you think are essential for a successful short term missions experience?  If so, leave a comment below.  I would love to have your input.

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