Whether we see our short-term mission trip as primarily an educational experience or mainly an evangelistic outreach, we should try to help participants process what they’ve seen and done. Research has shown that intentional debriefing of short-term workers helps them experience long-term changes based on the trip. (See Gary Green’s Now What for insights into this)
This doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are some basic questions to ask:
- What was the best thing about the trip for you?
- What was the hardest thing about your short-term experience?
- What would you have changed to improve this trip?
- What did you learn…
- …about yourself?
- …about the people you visited?
- …about the church overseas?
- …about God
- What do you plan to do about the things that you have learned?
Taking time to process questions like these and make specific plans about what to do with what was learned can make a short-term trip have long-term effects.
An e-mail comment reminded me of something that needs to be discussed as regards short-term missions: relationships. What happens to the contacts we make while on these trips?
First off, if your short-term mission trip doesn’t involve contact with people in the host culture, it’s really hard to consider it a mission trip. If such contact doesn’t come naturally, it needs to be planned for.
Secondly, we need to recognize cultural differences when it comes to friendships and relationships. Americans tend to be quick to make friends and often expect little of those relationships. In Argentina, for example, people were more particular about who they called friend; if someone was your friend, you would communicate with them regularly, visit them with possible, and treat them pretty much as a family member. Can you see how that would create conflict when an American would come for two weeks and make fifty “friends”?
When dealing with relationships in the church, this can be a critical issue. After many mission trips, the main church contact that some new Christians have is someone from another country. (NOTE: This is one of the BIG reasons why I do my best not to baptize when in another country; they need ties to the local church, not to me) If that contact is someone who doesn’t stay in touch with them, that doesn’t concern themselves with discipling the new Christian, the effect can be devastating.
There is an implied commitment when we go on a short-term trip. If we aren’t willing to invest in people long-term, we might do better to consider another form of ministry.
The other day I mentioned the problems that arise when mission teams bring in materials and resources that aren’t available to the Christians in their host church.
This is especially true with kids classes. We want to shower them with candy and gifts. We want to wow them with slick presentations and elaborate classes.
But what happens when we leave? What about the Bible teacher the following Sunday who has no candy to give, no toys to distribute, no videos to show, and no costumes for acting out Bible stories? Is it really fair to them?
To me, the solution is fairly simple and not too expensive. Whatever materials you bring, bring at least three times more than what you will use. Or only use a quarter of what you bring. Leave the rest with the local church to be used at a future date.
Now the wow factor can last longer, the local teachers gain credibility, and your mission team is solving problems rather than creating them.
This doesn’t just go for Bible class materials. We need to think of creative ways to share the credit with our hosts, edifying the church we visit, creating further opportunities for ministry after we’re gone.
One of the great controversies regarding short-term missions is the impact they have on the funding of long-term works. As the amount of money given to short-term missions grows, that given to long-term works shrinks. But coincidence doesn’t mean causality; just because two things happen at the same time doesn’t mean one causes the other.
Churches that do short-term missions need to make a special effort to make certain those funds aren’t taken from support that would go to long-term works. In her famous article “Short Term Missions: Are they worth the cost?“, Jo Ann Van Engen suggests:
One good rule of thumb for short-term missions is to spend at least as much money supporting the projects you visit as you spend on your trip. Invest your money people and organizations working on long-term solutions. If you are interested in evangelism, support nationals who want to share the gospel. If you are concerned about the health issues, support programs that are seeking to address those problems. Better yet, find programs that minister to people wholistically by meeting their spiritual, physical, social, emotional, and economic needs.
I think the one-to-one rule is great. I’d put it this way: spend as much money on the long-term work in the place you’re going as you do on sending short-term workers. If you are spending $20,000 to take a team to Buenos Aires, give $20,000 to the long-term workers there.
“But that makes short-term missions too expensive!” Well, that’s kind of the point. Not to make those trips more expensive, but to make sure that the funding for those trips isn’t coming from funds that would be available to long-term workers. If your mission trip is that important, take the funds from your building maintenance funds, from your Sunday doughnut budget, or some other part of the budget.
Let’s make sure that short-term works and long-term works aren’t competing with one another for funding. The one-to-one rule will do just that.
One common mistake that churches make with short-term groups is to send them out without any training. This is especially true when the focus of the trip is physical labor. The thinking is: we know how to paint, we know how to build, we know how to fix a bus, etc. Also, many churches feel that because the project is of short duration, there’s no point spending much time preparing for it.
To my thinking, if a project is worth doing, it’s worth preparing for. And if it’s being presented as a “mission trip,” it should be treated as such. Here’s the kind of training we should be offering those going out:
- Cultural sensitivity: Workers need a general knowledge of how to deal with cultural differences. Above all, they need to learn to not show disdain or rejection toward things that are different. If people greet with a kiss, the workers need to accept it without recoiling. The food should be eaten as the locals eat it; Americans are famous for traveling the world with salsa, ketchup, and peanut butter. What is often communicated is: your food isn’t as good as ours.
- Cultural specifics: Short-term participants need to learn some basic concepts of what is done and not done in the host culture. How do people greet one another? (There was a great book a few years ago called Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands) Do people regularly touch one another? (Latin America = yes, much of the Orient = no) What are the basic concepts of modesty? (One missionary wrote of how in her host culture it was acceptable for a woman to show her breasts in public, but never her knees)
- Language: While short-term workers shouldn’t be expected to be fluent in the language of their host culture, they should make the effort to learn some basic phrases, especially those used when meeting new people. They should also go with the intention of building on this basic vocabulary.
- Sharing their faith: Every short-term worker should know how to tell others how to become a Christian. Doesn’t matter if they’re on a medical mission or going to paint a church building. If you are on a mission trip, you should be able to tell the good news of the Kingdom.