Short Term Mission Sanity
Summer is over which mercifully means, the end of family and friends asking for money so they can go on a paid vacation — I mean, short-term mission trip.
Ok, there are short-term mission trips that are impactful and meaningful. But come on. I’ve seen the itineraries, looked at the pictures and videos, and listened to the stories reported back in church. Everyone had a great time, returned with killer tans, enjoyed trying new foods, felt bad about how other people are living, were glad they helped (with their project), and oh yeah, got to share a testimony or two.
Can you imagine if the short term mission trip organizers were to ask those they were going to serve, “What would help you more, a group of well meaning North Americans coming to your place to work for a week…or the cash equivalent?”
It is difficult to find a week long short term mission trip overseas for less than $1,200 per person with most costing upwards of $3,000 (which enables the trip organizers to go for “free”). Then, when you consider most short-term mission trips have a dozen or so travelers, the money spent on one weeklong short-term mission trip is more than most whom they are going to serve will earn in 10 years.
This past year I received roughly a dozen please-help-pay-for-my-short-term-mission-trip-and-or-vacation letters. The least expensive was $1,850 for one week and the most expensive was over $8,000 for the entire summer abroad. In my mind I’m saying, “Hey, I like exotic vacations too, but why are you asking me to pay for yours?” But of course, I bite my tongue, try to think positively, and sometimes even write a check. But I confess, in most of those circumstances when I write a check, I am not a joyful giver.
There is certainly a place for short-term mission trips. Medical missions will always be needed. Disaster relief and projects that need specialization are powerful. But should we really be sending a bunch of North Americans to run vacation Bible schools and music camps? I’ve talked to national pastors who watch well meaning North Americans build or fix up a church building while capable people in their congregations are desperate for that very work. “It’s the only way we can get it done,” they lament. I know of several churches whose single largest annual mission budget item is to send a group of their families to a lovely Caribbean island for a week or two to “help” with the local vacation Bible schools. The matching t-shirts are cute, too.
It’s time for some short term mission sanity. Can we really claim our short term mission trips are resulting in “making disciples of all nations?” Can we really “teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you” in our seven day trip less two days of travel? Can it happen? Sure. But if all you have is a few days, it’s a lot easier to help fix a roof or hand out food and clothing to those in need. Disciplemaking takes time…and a relationship.
Short term “mercy” trips to help meet physical needs are just fine. But call them what they are: mercy mission trips to do good deeds for our fellow man while helping our travelers see how good they’ve got it living in North America. Nothing wrong with that. But let’s also be honest and admit that few short term mission trips accomplish much in the way of fulfilling the Great Commission. For that, you need to empower “national missionaries:” men and women who love the Lord, already live there, understand their cultures, and see the spiritual need in others. They are the ones establishing relationships and doing the hard work of making disciples. They are the ones helping others in their communities discover the love, grace, and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Every time I receive one of those well meaning short term mission trip letters asking me to help cover the costs of their exotic vacation, I think of the thousands of national missionaries who are already there not only meeting physical needs but more importantly, making disciples. The cost to do that? $5 per month per national missionary (see FiveDollarMission.com).
If my math is right, for the cost of one $1,200 short term mission trip traveler, on-the-job Bible training, resources, and encouragement could be provided for 20 national missionaries focused on making disciples…all year long.
But of course, I could use a paid vacation.