Why Short-Term Mission Trips?

The following is adapted from a recent post at my site The Haiti Orphan Project. The subject concerned the validity of short-term trips to Haiti. The principles apply to short-term mission trips to any location.

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Some have asked, “Wouldn’t the money spent on these trips be better spent by just sending it to Haiti and giving it to the people there?” That’s a good and valid question. We have previously posted on this in a piece titled Do Short-Term Trips to Haiti Really Help?

The Gospel Coalition has two recent articles on this very subject. Darren Carlson wrote Why You Should Consider Canceling Your Short-Term Mission Trips and a follow-up Toward Better Short-Term Missions. They are worth a read.

We are glad Darren wrote these pieces. We agree with what he has to say. Let me summarize his main points.

Short-term missions is fraught with problems, and many wish such trips did not exist, at least in the common form today. Writing in his book Toxic Charity, Robert Lupton says, “Contrary to popular belief, most missions trips and service projects do not: empower those being served, engender healthy cross-cultural relationships, improve quality of live, relieve poverty, change the lives of participants [or] increase support for long-term missions work.”

We wholeheartedly agree. In fact, one of the books we recommend to our team members is Toxic Charity. Excellent book. Other books we recommend are noted here.

Carlson’s treatment of Money, Power and Dependency are spot on. We are not perfect at this. We know that. But by God’s grace we are trying to actually help and not hurt the Haitian people we have grown to love so much. We do not do construction. That is for the locals. We take limited supplies such as clothing and food. Giving too much can hurt local entrepreneurs. We are constantly asking of the local leadership, “How can we best serve you?”

In Carlson’s second piece, Toward Better Short-Term Missions, he helpfully lays out some tips for doing these trips better. Here’s a summary:

Change The Name.

This may be a personal preference, but I think it would be helpful to rename “short-term missions” and instead call it “short-term ministry.”

He likes Short-Term Cross Cultural Ministry. That’s fine. We refer to our trips as Vision Trips.

Short-Term Cross Cultural Ministry Should Be an Extension of a Local Ministry.

At this risk of stating the obvious, your short-term cross-cultural ministry should be an extension of your local ministry.

Agree. Our partner in Haiti is the Philadelphia Evangelical Church.

Ask the Missionaries.

To protect against doing unintentional harm, go directly to the missionaries your church supports and trusts to find out whether they would like a team to come and partner with them.

In our case, we ask the pastor.

Focus on Long-Term Partnerships With Local Churches.

The next step is to work primarily through local churches with a long view in mind. When your short-term ministry team leaves a particular setting, Christians will still live and work where you visited. Your desire should be to serve at the request of and under local church leadership.

Totally agree.

Move Away From Relief When Appropriate.

One of the problems with short-term missions is that we are stuck in relief work. We paint and build houses, hold babies, and give presents. We do this because almost anyone in our churches can get involved. This type of work makes us feel good but sometimes harms people. Relief is appropriate for short periods, but if you want to get involved in alleviating physical poverty and use that platform to share the gospel and relieve spiritual poverty, you must move toward development work. It’s harder, takes longer, but is certainly a better form of mercy and justice ministry.

We were not very far into our ventures in Haiti when we began moving in this direction. Self-sustainability is our goal for the Haitians.

We especially liked his summary from Toxic Charity:

  1. Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.
  2. Limit one-way giving to emergency situations.
  3. Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.
  4. Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.
  5. Listen closely to those who seek to help, especially to what is not being said—unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.
  6. Above all, do no harm.

In summary, we appreciate Carlson’s articles and are in substantial agreement. Everyone here and all who go on our trips are seeking to help provide care for orphans in Haiti in the best possible way, which respects the Haitian people and leads to self-sustainability.

One question remains. Some have asked, “Wouldn’t the money spent on these trips be better spent by just sending it to Haiti and giving it to the people there?” Read what Arthur wrote last year after he went. I think you’ll see. And for a missionary perspective, read this.

What do you think? Are short-term mission trips worth the money and time?

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2 comments

  1. Ken Hamrick

    Thanks for posting this, Les. It is informative and thought-provoking. My daughter is majoring in Intercultural Studies and hopes to go into missions. She is planning to go to Brasil on a college mission trip. She also has been invited by a lady in our church to go with her to Haiti over the Thanksgiving holiday. How would you say the transportation costs stack up against straight donations? What I mean is, if it costs $1000 for her to go to Haiti for a few days, would that money be put to better use by merely donating it? What are your thoughts?

    Edited to add: Going back over the article, I see that my question cannot be answered without investigating every detail of the mission trip, the organization, the purpose, etc., etc.

  2. Les

    @1Ken, Yes your edit is right. There are variables to each org, trip, etc. I would say in general that I can fully see the concern that some have regarding the costs to go on a trip overseas. A lot of $$ is spent on travel, etc. and people often ask, “For what?” In addition, some missionaries report that having these groups over is often more trouble than it’s worth. Taking care of a group for a week, often youth, can be taxing. And some missionaries have many groups coming over one week after another.

    Add to that in some cases where for example a building is painted multiple times in a summer so the youth will have something to do. I don’t think these kinds of things are the norm. But in general groups can be somewhat of a headache, and then there is the cost to do all this.

    But I have a link above to a missionary extolling the virtues of ST trips. There is and can be value to all involved.

    Our approach is to have as much as possible done in country by our partners and people they hire. Ours are more of “vision” trips. We want people to capture a vision for what God is doing in Haiti. We pray for these people to have truly life changing experiences and pray they will come back to the US with hearts full of love for the Haitian people and be eager to share with others and encourage support. We have seen multiplied financial support from the $$ spent to get there and back. God has over and over expanded and multiplied the $1200 typically spent to go to Haiti.

    I really do think the books I have recommended have changed my view of missions and are changing the face of missions for many others. I highly recommend them.

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