Those who have been blessed with going out of country on a mission trip have probably had the experience of being overwhelmed by the size of the work. This is especially true when you brush shoulders with those who are suffering. Many thoughts pop into the head and sometimes they can defeat us. Perhaps we get angry that there are not more people getting involved. Maybe we come back to our own country and feel discouraged about how wasteful we are with our resources. Sometimes we look at how expensive the trip was and think to ourselves that perhaps it would be more productive to just send money. My hope with this post is to put short term mission work into proper context, point out limitations and help those involved reflect on their experience.
1st: What counts as a short term trip?
In many people's minds a short term mission trip is anywhere from 1-2 weeks long. However, in the world of mission work a short term trip can be anything from 1 week to 1-2 years. Long term missionaries I have read and talked to will say that it takes at least 1-2 years to really learn the context.
2nd: Limitations of a short term trip
There are three main limitations I want to look at which are time, culture and language. Admittedly these categories overlap but each have points that need to be addressed separately. The love of God is experienced greatly in the context of relationships. Some of the most powerful ministry happens when we are willing to pour time into someone else's life and walk with them through the dullness of everyday life. However, deep relationships take time to develop and this is something that short term trips obviously don't have. Many times a short-term trip will also take place in one specific area. For instance, a work-site of a church building in progress or a youth camp. A problem can arise when we use these experiences to dictate how we understand the people we are working with. What we are really engaging in is only a slice of the people's culture. We haven't seen what they are like outside of this context and so our view of their culture is often partial. Finally there is the limitation of language. Language is much more than a list of words with definitions attached. Language has the power to carry with it entire world views and cultures. It is in a way an expression of a people's identity. The language barrier that is often talked about goes far beyond not being able to communicate. It can mean a barrier in understanding each other as people.
So, is it worth it?
With all this in light, it can be easy to become discouraged. One of the questions I've had to wrestle with is whether or not it is worth it and whether or not it is making a difference. To begin with we have to place short term mission trips within the right context. We cannot expect a trip anywhere from a week to two years to have the same affect as a long term stay of ten to fifteen years. Next limitations can turn into opportunities when we realign our reason for being there. If our goal is to change the entire landscape of the place we visit and convert everyone we come in contact with and all in one week, we are realistically going to be disappointed. This is not to say that God cannot do this but it is to lay a mindset that guards against selfish ambition.
I believe our reason for going is two fold: to be vessels of God's love and to partner with the body of Christ. God's love is trans-cultural and trans-temporal. It will be demonstrated and experienced no matter where the location or how long the visit. This is one reason actually going is so much more important than sending money, which is sadly a knee-jerk reaction for many Americans. We next have to realize that we are not in the role of power holding missionary but in the humble state of partnering Christian. We have to go with the intention of connecting with fellow Christians. This involves sharing our stories, learning theirs, empowering their work, teaching, learning (extremely important) and finally sharing communion which connects the body. We are not leaving home to preach the good news in far away lands. We are going to visit family and participate in God's work in their context. It is not a one time thing but a continual partnering relationship. People who go on short-term trips are in the unique position to connect Christians who would not have otherwise been connected and to broaden people's understanding of the body of Christ. When this is done a fuller understanding of the God we serve can be developed and this is truly a powerful ministry.
This is only a brief overview and much more can be said but I'll end here since this is just a blog. I hope that this can at least offer some thoughts for reflection, realign the place of short-term mission trips and convince the reader that these trips are not only worth it but are essential.