Managing Missions: Are Short-Term Missions a Good Investment?

chessgame.jpgThanks to Monday Morning Insight, I found this recent article in the Washington Post questioning the benefits of short-term mission trips.

Fairfax Community Church is repositioning its mission trips “to get away from the vacation-with-a-purpose, large groups going somewhere to build something” focus, said Alan MacDonald, the church’s pastor of global engagement.

The church is sending out smaller teams of experts to work on projects with partner churches. For example, it is sending information technology professionals who are fluent in Spanish to a church in the Dominican Republic to train members in computer skills so they can get better jobs, MacDonald said.

But research has found that the trips tend to have few long-term effects on the local people or on the mission travelers. Some projects take away work from local people, are unnecessary and sometimes dangerous.

…In Monrovia, Liberia, three years ago, tragedy occurred when visitors built a school to their standards instead of Liberian standards. During the monsoon season, the building collapsed, killing two children, Livermore said.

A 2006 study in Honduras found that short-term mission groups spent an average of $30,000 on their trips to build one home that a local group could construct for $2,000.

This reminded me of a 2005 article in Christianity Today I stumbled across a while back. The author cites research that shows that participating in short-term missions does not increase support for missions later in life.

In fact, there was a great series of articles that aired opposing views, strongly suggesting that we need to do these differently or invest in long-term missions instead.

Who Gets ‘Socially Rich’ from Short-Term Missions? | How communities feel about themselves after receiving a group may be more important than the number of latrines dug or homes built. (July 8, 2005)

Mission Trips or Exotic Youth Outings? | Not everything in your church’s missions budget may be about missions. (July 7, 2005)

Do Short-term Missions Change Anyone? | Or do one week’s good intentions fall flat without a concerted effort to follow through? (July 6, 2005)

Are Short-Term Missions Good Stewardship? | More than 2 million teens go on such trips ever year, and giving may exceed that given to long-term missionaries. But is short-term ministry built to last? (July 5, 2005)

Study Questions Whether Short-Term Missions Make a Difference | Missionaries don’t keep giving after they return; hosts prefer money to guests, Calvin sociologist finds. (June 20, 2005)

I make no claim to understanding missions or how to manage a missions program. But I do feel that our churches generally do a poor job of it. After all, who in a given congregation has any expertise or knows where to go for help? And so, purely for lack of training, we manage based on good intentions rather than experience, research, and actual need. We in the Churches of Christ aren’t alone. It appears that lots of churches struggle in this area.

But as I poke around in the area, I’m finding that there are actually quite a few resources and many experts in the field, although the expertise rarely makes it to the congregational level in the Churches of Christ. We’re so very focused on theological questions and on building the local church that precious little gets said in the religious press and books about how to do foreign or domestic missions.

And so, here are a few thoughts to consider asking about your short-term mission efforts —

* Ten years from now, will anything have been changed at the place we’re going to? If so, what?

* Could this be done as well or better by locals?

* Could this be done less expensively by locals?

* Would the money have a bigger impact if invested in long-term missionaries?

* Could we do something similar in our own communities, investing the travel cost in helping people here? I mean, painting houses and churches in a foreign land is truly a good thing, but isn’t painting houses and churches in our hometown or nearby more likely to build the kingdom? To change our community? To make converts? To build a unity that matters?

Now, we’ve at times sent people to the mission field to do Bible studies, often with the many resulting conversions. That’s a long-term impact! But other times, I think we’ve just felt better about ourselves.

Therefore, it’s hardly true that all short-term mission trips are suspect, but it seems wise to me that we think about what we’re doing in light of current research and ask whether we’re truly being the best possible stewards.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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12 Responses to Managing Missions: Are Short-Term Missions a Good Investment?

  1. Alan says:

    I like the idea of a strong church "adopting" a younger church as its mission (either domestic or foreign) and building a long-term relationship. That would include sending money for specific needs, sending some teachers / elders periodically, exchanging preachers, and maybe a traditional youth mission trip every now and then. It also includes the reverse — bringing people from the mission church to the adopting church periodically.

    Ideally, the relationship would begin as a church planting from the adopting congregation. But over time, congregational leadership needs to transition to the local folks, for a variety of reasons. Still, the ongoing relationship between the two congregations can be very valuable.

  2. Jay Guin says:

    A reader sent this email to me —

    Jay,
    I would agree that efforts can be accomplished better, faster, and less expensively by locals…but do not agree that it helps to hand out fists full of cash more than going on a short term mission trip. Yes it cost 10X's the amount to build a home, but how much did it help the faith of the 3 youth and single mom that worked on that project with their own two hands? House = $30,000…Experience = priceless

  3. Jay Guin says:

    Dear reader,

    That's the key question. Is it worth, in the example, 9 houses to gain that experience?

    The Christianity Today articles researched that very question, taking polls to determine if people who, as teens, had gone on short term mission trips were more supportive of foreign missions than those who had not.

    The answer is those who'd been on trips were more inclined to indicate support for missions on the form. But the the number who actually gave to missions was the same for those who'd gone and those who hadn't.

    Therefore, from a financial standpoint, people do not give more because they've been on short-term missions. Which means, as these teens get older, they won't give more money, which means the 9 houses won't get built.

    Now, I readily admit that giving to missions is not the only benefit that might be realized from short-term missions, but it is disappointing to learn that the trips don't build a better financial base for missions.

    My only point is that we should evaluate these things realistically, with the best information available. And while I don't think the research means we stop all short-term missions, I do think it should affect which short-term missions we do.

    For example, if we are looking for faith building, rather than foreign mission support building, we can often do that in our home towns, which would also build our communities and build our congregation's reputation among the poor and social service agencies locally. I mean, I just see so many opportunities to serve Jesus in our home towns that we miss in order to travel across the world.

  4. Tim Archer says:

    I've been truly frustrated for a long time by what has happened to "mission trips" in our brotherhood. It's all about service projects, most of them in a total disconnect with anything evangelistic. If we are going to start calling everything "missions" (which I have heard proposed), we need to find a new term for evangelistic efforts… and new ways to expose our kids to those.

    It's my fear that our culture has influenced us by (1) making us focus on material things rather than spiritual; and (2) making us unwilling to share what we believe with others.

    "Lifestyle evangelism" only works when accompanied by teaching (Samuel Shoemaker's great Extraordinary Living for Ordinary Men still expresses it better than most). We need to teach our people service and evangelism, not one or the other.

    Back on the specific topic, the best short-term tool I've seen is Let's Start Talking. Speaking as a former missionary who received such groups, I can say that they truly had a lasting impact.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim

  5. Matthew says:

    Some times these short trips are a waste, but as for young people I believe it is a time of spiritual development which ends up helping the teen going more than the people he or she is working with.
    http://www.matthewsblog.waynesborochurchofchrist.org

    P.S. I really like your blog, even though you wrote me up once.

  6. Joe Baggett says:

    I too beleive that for youth it is great chance to get out of their little world and see that things are bigger than the little town they live in. I know it was exactly that for me.
    If you measure it by the methods we use to like baptims, restorations, members etecetera then I don't think they are very effective.

  7. Jay Guin says:

    Guys,

    If these trips are not effective for those we seek to serve, but are effective for those doing the serving, it would seem that we should do no more than is necessary for the edification of our children.

    For example, if our kids can receive similar edification close to home, leaving money available to do real mission work, we should do that.

    Or if we can get the same benefit sending the same kids but fewer times, we should do that.

    Or if we can get the same benefit waiting until the kids are older. For example, in my church, the college group does an annual mission trip for which they spend months in training. Not only do they gain many converts for Jesus, many of those kids have gone into full-time mission work. Now, that works at every level — it's the best kind of short-term mission there can be.

    But teenagers have never done genuine mission work. Their trips are service projects. Now, my kids have all gone on these trips and they've benefited from them. They've seen poverty far beyond anything that exists in the US, which has been good for them. But I don't know that they have to go on the same trip 4 times apiece to get that benefit.

    My own preference would be that for every foreign or even out-of-town service project they do, they do 3 or 4 projects right here in Tuscaloosa. I mean, as valuable as it is to see how people live in foreign lands, it would be even better to see how some people live 3 miles away.

    And I worry about the implied message that to do good we have to leave town, even the country.

    And wouldn't it make a huge impact on racial and economic division in this community if churches raised their children to serve the poor in their own community?

    Now, it's not strictly either-or. You can do both. I just think we have things far too heavily weighted toward exotic trips far away and not nearly enough toward our neighbors here in town.

    But that's just me.

  8. Jay Guin says:

    Matthew,

    I think I misjudged you, you know. But you have to understand my suspicion of anyone who (a) gets published in the Gospel Advocate and Firm Foundation and (b) is a Tennessee Vols football fan.

    You seem to be otherwise remarkably intelligent and thoughtful. But anyone who writes,

    "Here is the prediction. Here is the future. Tennessee will beat Alabama today."

    is no prophet. (See

    for reality)

    Readers,

    Matthew's blog is actually pretty good (for a Tennessee fan, you know).

  9. Pingback: The Kitchen of Half-Baked Thoughts » Blog Archive » Missions: Getting short-changed

  10. greg hoffmann says:

    Hello,
    Thanks for the blogs and the opportunity to reply.
    Overall I think that it is apercentage game. Short term missions have been around a long time, the new interest and explosion is a recent developement. I am glad to see more insight and interest regarding viability.
    But back to percentages. " You don't know until you go. "
    If people don't attend short term missions then it is difficult to convince them of the need. To see poverty, hunger, etc. first hand touches you in a way that words and photos cannot.
    As is the case with most things there is only a small percentage of people that will open their heart to the experieance and want to continue to contribute and even want to lead another short term mission. It is this percentage that ends up being of most value to the process. I think that is just human nature. So yes perhaps the monies invested in short term missions could be better spent on long term mission values. But in order to get peopel to contribute in a meaningful way they must experience the need first hand. It then becomes the responsibility of leaders to channel the monies and efforts of short term missions into a long term goal.
    Perhaps we are near that point now with the explosion of short term volunteers and missions that have gone wrong or not fulfilled the intended purpose and perhaps we are nearing the point where leaders can also become instructors to impart the values and goals and explain the consequences of actions for short term missions in a real sense explaining both positive and negative aspects of the behaivors of short term mission volunteers.
    Most benefit of missions seems to be in the end seems to be that of building relationships and trust.
    That is a two way street. We should be aware of what it really is that the communities we serve are in need of and how best we can help them or serve them. We can also become aware of how they can serve and teach us. This does not happen overnite, but the seeds may be best planted on short term missions
    Thanks, Greg

  11. Pingback: Church Plants and Missions: Putting a Congregational Vision Together, Part 1 « One In Jesus.info

  12. D.Samuelraj says:

    Dear brethren,
    Greetings. Kindly visit India to plant your work.
    God bless
    d.samuelraj

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