Why I No Longer Hate Short-Term Mission Trips

If I had written this post two years ago, the title probably would have been, “Why Short-Term Mission Trips Are Of the Devil and You Should Never Ever Go On Them.” Catchy, right?

And also a little inaccurate, I think.

Me in Mexico. Interesting that there are lots of photos of me painting, cleaning, speaking, and performing dramas on mission trips, but none with me actually interacting with people.

Let me explain: I’ve been on short-term mission trips, four to an inner-city kids’ ministry every Spring Break during high school, one to Mexico to run a VBS and do work projects, and one to Indianapolis my sophomore year of college to help with another kids’ ministry.

That last one was where I broke a little. Here are these kids, who have lived a life of people leaving them, and you want us to go in, spend seven days getting to know them and telling them they’re special, and then leave?

No, thank you. I’ll be over here scrubbing mold out of the freezer, cleaning the toilets, and organizing the library. (That’s completely what I did pretty much the whole trip. No joke.)

I came back thinking that short-term mission trips did more harm than good. Jesus told us to love our neighbors, not to go somewhere else and love other Christians’ neighbors for a few days before leaving again. (This was very similar to my “TOMS shoes are evil and a terrible model for a charity” phase.)

Mission trip

On the back it says, “…and then I will leave you again and go back to the U.S.” (Just kidding. That would be the worst mission trip T-shirt ever.)

There are lots of reasons why I changed my mind, but the most important was that I realized who my neighbor was.

If the example story of the Good Samaritan teaches us anything, it should be that our neighbors aren’t limited to the people who moved into the brick, white-picketed houses next door and are planning on being there a while.

My neighbor is the receptionist and the hair stylist and the person on the other end of the customer service hotline when I’ve been on hold for twenty minutes listening to canned jazz. It’s the prospective student who stays with me for a night, the granddaughter visiting town who comes to one church service, the airport taxi driver who laughs too loud about things that aren’t funny.

You might not remember their names tomorrow. You probably won’t have deep spiritual conversations with them that change their lives. You might only get five minutes with your neighbor.

Use them.

Refuse to believe that those five minutes don’t matter. Do not accept the lie that only the relationships of a certain length are important, that only encouragement coming from close friends will be remembered, that how you treat someone just passing through doesn’t count. Don’t wait until you know someone is going to be a long-term part of your life to love them.

(Note that what I’m not saying is that you should form a deep emotional connection with every person who crosses your path. That would be unhealthy. What I mean by “love” is do whatever you can, even in little ways, to be considerate and respectful of others, to make them feel included and valuable.)

I know I often pull back from connecting with people, and I think it’s because I instinctively know that by loving someone, even for a brief time, I will miss them when they’re gone.

We weren’t meant to have temporary neighbors. Something in us rebels against the idea. That’s what I felt when coming back from that last short-term missions trip: anger at sin and separation for existing and making goodbyes a part of life.

I think one of the great spiritual crises faced by people in their twenties, whether college student or young adult, is “How can I love people when I feel so temporary?”

When I miss church for so many events and breaks that I don’t feel like I’m ever there at all. When all the married couples with kids are busy chatting about—I don’t know, diapers and family stuff—and they don’t seem to notice me. When I know as soon as the summer’s over, I’ll be moving on. When I might leave town as soon as I get that job I’ve been hoping for.

When I don’t know if “home” is where I grew up, where I am now, or some future location that I’ll find once I’m settled and secure…if I ever get to that point.

No one sets a welcome mat outside their guest bedroom. You don’t break out the “Home Sweet Home” needlepoint for your camper. Nor would you rearrange the furniture in a hotel room to get it “just right.”

We aren’t meant to be temporary.

Home Sweet Home

Really, though, all of us, no matter our age or stage, should have the vague feeling that we’re temporary, that this really isn’t our home. And we need to love people anyway, because people are not temporary. They are eternal. They are gardens and orchards and brick walls in a world of fast-food wrappers, plastic silverware, and disposable contact lenses. They matter, and they will last, even when our places and goals and accomplishments won’t.

That’s why we need to decide that loving others is worth it, even if it doesn’t feel like it all the time, even if it’s just for a little while.

Love your neighbor…and remember who your neighbor really is.

12 comments

  1. “How can I love people when I feel so temporary?” Wow. Very convicting. Also, have you read any of what Jamie the Very Worst Missionary has to say about short term missions trips?

  2. Ok sorry this will be super long, but my friend Danielle’s baby was born very premature, and they’ve been in hospital with him in ICU for the past 6 weeks. She just posted this story and I HAVE to share it. Even more inspiring because it’s the person we as Christians would consider the “stranger/other/person we need to help” who was actually helping and blessing them. Such a challenge to always love whoever is around us:

    “A Lesson for Today:
    Since Jedd’s birth, Ross and I have felt so overwhelmed by the love and support of our friends and family. (Thank you again, it has meant so so so much!) I find that hard times almost restore one’s faith in humanity; it refreshes the soul to know that people genuinely care for you and go through the feelings you experience with you. It’s a different kind of ‘special’ when such kindness is shown by someone you hardly know – and even more touching when it comes from someone worse off than you.

    Last week, Ross and I met an amazing Muslim couple. Their baby was in the neonatal unit too – a pretty little girl named Maria. We soon learnt that Maria was born with half a heart and that they were waiting for test results to help make the decision whether to operate or not. Despite the severity of their situation, they smiled warmly whenever they saw us and the first words out of their mouths were ‘How’s Jedd?’ As the days wore on, we saw their expressions grow more pained and worried – and on Friday night we saw the doctors talking with worried expressions to Maria’s parents at her bedside. When we walked into the unit on Saturday morning, we noticed a big empty space where Maria’s cot had been.

    We were pretty sure we knew what had happened, but Maria’s dad confirmed it when I saw him a bit later in the corridor. I started crying as he spoke to me and eventually couldn’t even get anything out. I’m not sure if he was comfortable with me hugging him but I did anyway. He just kept saying ‘Don’t cry – you have a healthy boy! He is going to make you very proud.’

    This evening I walked into the unit and the receptionist stopped me. Maria’s dad had dropped off a present for us from his family – such a beautiful decor piece. Well that started the tears again! This family has lost so much and yet is so willing to give. I feel thoroughly humbled – I want to be more like them!”

  3. Thanks for sharing Amy. I’ve always struggled with short term missions; are they helping or hurting, are they enabling or are they really making any difference. You made some good points. I often try to connect with those “temporary” people in my daily life (bus drivers, mailmen, hair stylists, etc…), even though those might only be 5 minute interactions. So why couldn’t spending 4 days with a person on a mission trip possibly make an impact for God’s glory? Why should we limit what God can do just because we think it’s a small amount of time.

  4. My greatest objection to short term missions trips isn’t how, well, short they are. It’s how they require a great financial investment to make very little lasting impact.

    A person might pay a thousand dollars to spend a week painting walls or performing puppet shows in Kenya. The impact of such a trip is probably minimal. For the same investment, dozens of lives could be saved through humanitarian agencies providing food, medicine or clean water. A thousand dollars could also support a long term missionary for much more than a week — a missionary who spends long enough in one place to build relationships.

    My parents are long term missionaries, and I’ve seen the impact God has used them to make over years of ministry. I’ve also seen short term missionaries come and go. Guess which kind of missionary made more of a difference!

    Can short term missions help people? Yes, of course! God can use even a few days of ministry to accomplish good. However, that doesn’t justify pouring money into ventures that (typically) have little impact. Long term missions makes a greater impact. Humanitarian work makes a greater impact. By comparison, short term missions — particularly expensive overseas trips — don’t seem like a sensible investment of God’s money.

    1. This. This is wonderful. Adam, I actually agree with pretty much everything you’re saying. At one point, I had something like this in the post, but deleted it because it was too darn long. All that to say there’s a reason the title is “Why I No Longer Hate Short Term Mission Trips” instead of “Why I Enthusiastically Approve of Short Term Mission Trips.”

      I do think that there are benefits to such trips…but mostly for the person going on them. I think it gives them a greater understanding of the concept of the global church, and, in some cases, is what God uses to call them to be a long term missionary.

      This seems kinda…selfish to use as justification for really expensive overseas trips. But I’m not sure other experiences will do the same thing. Your thoughts?

      1. In all honesty, I think short term missions trips generally have a far greater impact on those serving than on those served. I’ve heard stories of people whose lives were changed by their participation in short term missions, and I believe them! I have no doubt it’s beneficial for people from affluent areas to visit impoverished ones. It’s hard to be compassionate toward the poor and broken if one has never seen poverty or brokenness!

        Does this justify spending all that money? I’m honestly not sure. I’d feel better about missions trips if, instead of making brief and superficial attempts at ministry, they focused on educating participants about God, missions, poverty, compassion or the international community. I think short term missions should be neither kept nor eliminated, but rather refocused.

        Can other experiences have the same effect as short term missions trips? I don’t know. Perhaps we should emphasize less expensive missions trips — e.g. Chicago or New Orleans instead of Nairobi or Dublin — and donate the remaining money to more effective ministries.

      2. I agree with you 100% Adam, two other things:
        I now work with short term missions (which I never thought I’d do because I hated them and my parents are long-term missionaries, ha ha), but I’ve learnt that even though I think it’d be much better for groups to just donate the cost of their plane ticket to our ministry in South Africa (or another ministry)…they won’t. They won’t give financially until they’ve seen it themselves and been a part of it. — but if you say “Don’t come, just send your money” they won’t.(Sorry if this sounds harsh or mercenary, but i think that sometimes.) But if you say, “Come, join us and learn for 2 weeks” then their first-hand experience will motivate them to want to see the work they were a part of for 2 weeks continuing, and become long-term partners of the work. I also have seen how having short-term teams here re-energizes the staff doing long-term work. They have tough jobs, but when you have 7 college students who have tons of energy who come for 3 weeks and are like, “WOW! You guys have the best job in the world! You’re making such a difference!!” then all of a sudden everyone is like..oh yeah! That’s why we do this job!
        What I don’t think should ever happen, though, is that short-term trips are done at the expense of long-term missions. So if a church is not supporting long-term missionaries because they only do short-term missions…that’s dumb. 🙂 Steph

      3. Thank you, Adam and Stephanie. Sometimes I read comments on blogs and despair for humanity. The Internet is jealous of this discussion. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

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