Short-term mission trips are exciting. They’re a great way for churches to see what their missionaries are doing. They’re a wonderful way to introduce Christians to the world outside their home country. They’re often the starting point for getting young believers engaged in their faith, and older Christians serious once again about sharing their faith.
But they can also be a serious burden to long-term missionaries. They can damage the gospel’s reputation in the very place they’re trying to help. Those negative effects can happen even when short-term workers come with the best of intentions. Yet they often come because everyone steps into a mission trip with their own (often unarticulated) expectations.
What Missionaries Wish Your Short-Term Team Knew
My aim is not to discourage you from short-term trips but to help as you plan and carry out your short-term trips.
Recognize That Your Short-Term Trip May Be a Burden
I live in a part of the 10/40 window that is fairly tourist-friendly. That means a lot of churches like to send short-term trips here, and many long-term missionaries wind up spending their spring and summer ricocheting between one church group and the next. The combined effect of all these trips is exhausting.
Try to Avoid Being a Burden
Long-term missionaries’ time is not best spent when they function as interpreters and sherpas for short-term trips. And yet, when you’re only here for five or ten days, you need a lot of help. One five-day interruption a year is not that big of a deal. But put five or six of those in a five-month span? That’s difficult to bear up under. While the long-term missionary or local partner might not say anything, you need to realize that the time they spend with you is time away from their ministry or away from their family.
The application is simple: ask the missionary about how many other people they’ve hosted recently. Figure out what things you can figure out on your own. Ask questions ahead of time like whether you can rent a car or if they can show you how to use public transportation. Plan out practical ways you can be a service and gift to the people you’re visiting.
Know You’ll Be a Burden
That said, the reality is that you will need a lot of help. Unless someone on your short-term team speaks the language fluently and has lived in that same place for years, you will run into more than a few scenarios where you need help. That’s ok. It’s good for Christians to rely on one another. One reason why these trips can be so valuable is that relationships are the glue that holds gospel partnerships together. And relationships are often built on mutual dependence and mutual encouragement. Don’t be paralyzed by the fact that the missionaries have more to do because you’re there—but work to be as helpful as you can.
Speak with Humility and Encouragement
It’s common for people visiting on a short-term trip to make sweeping statements about the spiritual well-being of that country.
Avoid Making Spiritual Pronouncements
They might comment, “Christians are just so unified here! They’re not distracted by petty fights or theological controversy like the church back home.” Or, more negatively, they might declaim a “feeling of darkness” that pervades this country. Those evaluations may be correct, but there may also be other things going on of which you’re not aware.
There may be conflict tearing a church from the inside that you can’t see because you’re a guest. There may be in fact more spiritual fruit here than back in your home, which you haven’t seen. When you make summary verdicts about the health or sickness of the entire country, you may inadvertently discourage believers instead of strengthening their weary hands. Ask questions far more than you draw conclusions.
Don’t Be Afraid to Speak up
At the same time, you shouldn’t hold back from speaking the truth. Don’t be afraid to proclaim the gospel to people you meet. Don’t be afraid to encourage the believers you’re visiting with specific encouraging observations. In the appropriate context and relationships, don’t be afraid to even speak a word of correction. God’s Word is useful for all his people in every land. God may use your insight or question to provoke greater faithfulness. Don’t be afraid to speak up, but do it with humble dependence on God’s Word.
Plan to Support Long-Term Work
The natural trajectory of short-term trips is to prioritize activities that allow you to feel like you have clearly accomplished something during your trip. This is why building projects are so beloved. You can see when a building is done, and where your personal efforts contributed.
Prioritize Work that Helps Long-term Work
Those may well be useful projects, but there are often less concrete goals you can serve that will better help the long-term work. It may be things as inglorious as providing childcare so that the missionaries can have sustained conversation without small children. It may be as ambiguous as exploring a region or a part of a city and reporting back.
One church has been especially encouraging to my family by simply sending one or two elders to visit us each year. They visit for a day or two. Their only priority is to sit in our living room and talk with us. Not a trip you can show pictures of back home. But it is a way by which they are a regular encouragement to us. That church has prioritized refreshing us, and so they have helped long-term ministry even if they themselves might not seem to do that much while here.
Prioritize Work that Folds into Long-term Work
If possible, work hard to connect the people you meet and with whom you share the gospel to Christians who will be there in the long run. Be willing to even sacrifice some of your own time with that new friend to make sure they meet a Christian who they can continue to talk with in person.
Nothing is more heartbreaking than to see short-term trips arrive, meet many people who seem spiritually interested, and then leave, sometimes leaving behind brand-new Christians disconnected from any church. Few things are more encouraging than short-term trips that cast their nets widely and help introduce long-term missionaries to people they might not have met.
Set Your Expectations Properly
Out of what I believe are sincerely good intentions, pastors and short-term trip organizers will measure success by describing how many conversions or how many kids came to the program on last year’s trip. Hopefully, the goal is to excite people with godly ambition. But the unintended consequence is that they can also build an expectation that a successful short-term trip will see many people saved while on the trip.
Lower Your Expectations
If we believe that the Holy Spirit is the one who causes people to be born again, then we should humbly realize he might not do that with the same speed in every situation. The Spirit is free to blow where he wills (John 3:8). Don’t expect to launch a revival on your short-term trip. Perhaps you might not see anyone saved during those weeks. That doesn’t mean the trip is a failure.
Keep Your Expectations High
Don’t allow humility to keep you from expecting anything, though. Rather, keep your eyes wide open for how the Lord may use your trip. Our God is wonderfully creative, and his ways are good. Who knows how your efforts on your trip might be used?
Perhaps God will allow you to see someone profess faith in Jesus Christ after you share the gospel. Maybe he’ll allow you to see many people come to Christ. Perhaps he’ll allow you to encourage a church to keep going, or a group of Christians to commit to a life together as a church.
Perhaps he’ll use you to spur on the local believers to greater boldness in their evangelism or to strive for unity with one another. He may even use it to stir your heart to move to that very place, or another like it. Perhaps he’ll build your own love for our Lord, his gospel, and his bride. Maybe he’ll do all those things and more. Expect great things. Keep your eyes open, and be ready to praise the Lord before the nations.