Revenge of the Short-Term Mission Trip

Stigma surrounds the words “mission trip”. Stories abound of jubilant teams returning home, unaware that they’ve left a trail of offended locals, useless half-finished projects, and further-disempowered communities in their wake.

These stories are real, and they are the spoiled fruit of ill conceived and poorly executed short-term trips. And they make my stomach turn.

But I have a different story to tell. I have just returned from leading my fourth team our church has sent to remote South-East Asia in the last few years. Each time I weigh up the pros and cons of such an endeavour—especially in light of said criticisms—and each year I go ahead and take another group.

“I have a different story to tell.”

Cross-cultural trips can be done extremely well. My evidence is anecdotal, but it is consistent. Year in, year out, the organisation we partner with welcomes us with open arms and sends us home with utmost thanks, asking us to come again. Past participants now make up the core of our young adults community, having stepped up into significant roles of leadership in the church following their return from overseas.

Our trips are far from perfect. We’re always learning: hoping to improve our preparations, our effectiveness on the ground, and our reintegration of members back home. But here are six reasons I believe our teams excel as they do; indeed six suggestions for any church considering a trip, or looking to improve their current practice.

Adopt a learning posture / I have lived in the region we visit for two years, and have become fluent in both the national and local languages. And on every visit, I learn more surprising realities about the place, its people and its culture, and without fail I add dozens of new words to my vocabulary. As our church prepares participants for the trip ahead, my single greatest aim is to make them as curious as I am so we all go with a posture of learning.

“I have lived there for two years but on every visit, I learn more surprising realities about the place, its people and its culture.”

Commission a quality team / Our church has been blessed now for many years with incredible unity and love amongst our leadership and those who call it home. As such, those we’ve sent overseas are spiritually healthy. We’re careful not to recruit people with questionable motives, we’ve developed a solid application process for those interested, and we provide intensive training in the months leading up. As such, when a team is prayed for and commissioned to go, we have great confidence in the group we send.

Serve a worthy organisation / So much credit for the success of our trips goes to the organisation we partner with. It began in 2002 with an Australian couple providing medical treatment and training in refugee camps after a conflict, and it has grown into a fully-fledged NGO led by a local board of directors and staffed by over 100 nationals. The few long-term westerners who remain serve in roles of consultation, strategy and empowerment. The organisation is well staffed to receive visiting teams and ensure our weeks of service among them are effective and responsive to genuine need. As a bonus, there’s been an outpouring of revival in the region for over a year: miracles and people coming to faith on a weekly (and sometimes daily) basis. Thousands of kilometres seperate our church and their patch of jungle, but the growing synergy between our communities is palpable.

“The long-term westerners who remain serve in roles of consultation, strategy and empowerment.”

Build a long-term partnership / Our history with this work traces its roots back over a decade. Several teams were sent then, and our trips have been more consistent in recent times, but spanning this era over 60 people from our church have made the journey. As such, when we arrive, we don’t start from scratch. Relationships, projects, and avenues of ministry that have existed for many years simply continue where they left off. The trust and rapport we have built translates into brand new friendships that feel years old, and progress that is seen in a context far greater than just the few weeks we are there.

Have a strategic purpose / Recent visa restrictions have put limits on how much our teams can work in the school and hospital. But they have also made us reshape our strategic involvement. This year I heard of huge progress being made by a paraplegic patient because of exercises that one of our past team members had taught his carers months ago. I saw a classroom teacher now excelling in behaviour management of her Year 1s because of curriculum we’d put together two years ago, the same week she first nervously stepped into the classroom untrained. Yes, we paint the occasional wall and and tidy the library shelves, but we also work with the nationals to be strategic in the support we give.

“When we arrive, relationships, projects, and avenues of ministry that have existed for many years simply continue where they left off.”

Embrace a supernatural worldview / Demons throw people to the ground screaming. Broken bones get healed instantly. Prophecies are given for a whole team and come to pass with eyebrow-raising accuracy. A class of eleven year olds pray for patients and the whole ward gets discharged in a day. Get used to this. It’s the worldview of the New Testament—and just about every place on earth but the West. Our teams prepare for this too, knowing it’s exactly what we can expect to encounter when we arrive. And on return, we’re better equipped to face uniquely Australian challenges that we never saw in that light.

This upturned worldview is just one of countless benefits of short-term mission trips. Visitors return with a deep compassion for the poor, a commitment to financial partnership at home and abroad, callings to long-term missionary work, and a new-found love for God. As a pastor, I can say without a hint of exaggeration that these trips are the greatest discipleship tool I have discovered.

Convince me to stop planning our next one.

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