The Idea and the Ideal Seventeen Years in the Making
There are always questions that need to be answered. One such question was how can short term missionaries partner with long term missionaries and be an effective force in the community? Like most long-term missionaries, I got my first taste of missions on a short term mission trip. Four years later I began recruiting short term missionaries for a large ministry in Georgia. Since then I have spent the past 17 years either running or housing short term mission teams. I estimate that I have observed over 20,000 people on short term mission trips. In reading some great books such as, When Helping Hurts, Toxic Charity, and We Are Not the Hero, I find my experience either affirms what the authors are saying or they affirm what I am thinking. There are some serious concerns with short term mission trips.
The idea of getting people away from home, routine, and distractions is good. The fellowship of believers living together for a week focused on service, worship, prayer and teaching is wonderful. One benefit is believers have a chance to see what missions are all about and encourage them to consider being a full-time missionary. A second benefit is learning what God is doing in other parts of the country or the world. The third benefit is increased giving to struggling full-time missionaries or their organizations. I can testify to all three of these benefits being realized, but not to the degree you might expect.
The fourth benefit is meeting the needs of families and communities who lack the resources to rise above their poverty. Again, this happens but not to the level you might imagine. In 17 years we have had more short-term missionaries come to the county than we have citizens. Are the residents of McDowell County better off than they were 17 years ago? Most measures of health and well-being continue to decline. Any overall improvement would be hard to attribute to short-term mission trips.
Over the years we have talked about what would be the ideal mission trip. Here is a small sampling of what we feel is important.
Strong relationships. Our best mission trips tend to be with teams we have a strong trusting relationship with them. In turn, the short-term mission (STM) team develops a strong relationship with the family or families they work with.
The STM team has the skills needed to do the work efficiently and effectively.
Ideally the STM team has a core membership who has been together for a while and work well together.
The STM team is paired with homes that are in true need and the work matches their skill level but is challenging and results in significant impact for the family. God shows up when He is needed and the team is stretched.
Long-term missionaries (LTM) need encouragement and fellowship that STM teams provide. Having fresh eyes and new blood helps the LTM assess areas of strength and weakness.
STM need to see LTM are real people and that if God were to call them into the field they can trust God will provide as He has demonstrated that in the lives of the LTM staff.
There has to be real purpose and urgent need. We have done a good job at that but we also have had to create a lot of projects as well. The order of the trip is important. We have a need and a team responds is better than a team is coming and we respond by finding work.
A real vital part is that the LTM has a good relationship with the family long before the trip and long time after. Every mission organization in the world say they do good follow-up but it is far more rare than anybody wants to admit.
The STM supports the LTM monthly. Where your treasure is, there is your heart. LTM cannot build long term relationships and continue following up on the work of the STM if they cannot afford to fund the ministry.
Ultimately, it’s all about the Gospel. Our job as STM and LTM is to come alongside people doing what we can while we wait for the Holy Spirit to do what the Holy Spirit does.
He said to me: "It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life." Rev 21:6
Amen and amen.
Here are a couple of must-read articles to add to this conversation:
Why You Should Consider Canceling Your Short-Term Mission Trips
Toward Better Short-Term Missions