Another False Premise of Short-Term Missions

“It will Change Their Lives”

The book I recently read, Serving with Eyes Wide Open, discusses at length some of the shortcomings of short term missions (no pun intended), one of which is the false premise that our missions work will change the lives of the people we go to serve. The book highlights a lot of typical comments of short-termer’s expounding on the lofty benefits their work will be on the recipients. The comments consistently give the impression that without the help and service of the short-termer’s the people would be in utter despair, without God, poor and hopeless.

One example given is a study by Kurt VerBeek, one of the few researchers actually studying the impact of short-term missions upon the local communities. After Hurricane Mitch, a organization raised two million dollars to rebuild homes in Honduras. They used the money both by using Honduran partners who hired Honduran builders to rebuild the homes, and they mobilized 31 short-term teams from the USA. VerBeek studied and compared the impact of the Honduran builders and the short-term groups.

“Through the data collected, VerBeek found no lasting impact, positive or negative, on the Honduran families and communities whose homes were built by North Americans as compared to those who never saw a short-term mission team. In fact, in a moment of candidness, the Hondurans confided that if given the choice, they’d rather see the money raised by each team who traveled to Honduras channeled toward building twenty more homes and employing Hondurans.” -p. 57, Serving With Eyes Wide Open

The point here is not to try and make another case against Short-term missions, but rather to encourage us to again be honest and aware of both the motivation and impact of the work that we are doing. Speaking from a financial outlook, there is are far better ways to steward our resources for the good of the Body of Christ to meet the needs of people worldwide. From a gifts outlook, there are for more equipped followers of Christ (namely people indigenous to the culture) to spread the gospel, train leaders and plant churches.

God chose a stuttering Moses to lead God’s people out of Egypt, an old Abraham and Sarah to father the chosen people, and God used a carpenter to bring salvation to all people, so God might very well use a bunch of teenagers on an adventurous summer trip to further the kingdom. In the mean time, I think it would be wise for us to think long and hard about short term missions work and consider if there might be wiser options.

7 thoughts on “Another False Premise of Short-Term Missions”

  1. I am not surprised that short term trips don’t affect the locals, but I would argue that they do change the lives of those that go. Often, they find themselves drawn to missions for the rest of their lives, either by becoming a long termer or by supporting missionaries.

  2. as one who has participated & facilitated many short term missions experiences i could certainly agree with the economics of what you are talking about. working in tennessee appalachia for many years i often said that the only thing that was really going to make a difference was when some commercial business moved in and brought money, which, is starting to look like the case. that and a number of retiree people are moving into the area buying land and building homes.

    in small scales there are people who are not able to get the support they might need which is able to be facilitated through the missions groups. many people have social needs where going and doing some odd project at their house is actually secondary to being in relationship with them for a day or two, maybe more.

    there is also the change of the group members as mentioned in a prior comment. i have seen youth (my primary age group) be shaped in incredible ways by giving themselves over to service. i encourage that. we have also renamed our short term missions trips to ‘missions experiences.’ it is subtle, but we explain that missions or being missional is not a trip to be had, but a lifestyle and this is just an intensive experience in that lifestyle.

    i could go on, but i have places to be. thanks for the outlet ariah!

  3. Great post and great comments!
    We are finding ourselves in the heat of raising funds for the youth mission trip for this sumer. I agree that the trip is worthwhile for the people who go, but is that who the focus should be on? I really like the idea of calling them missions experiences and explaining that it is a lifestyle change instead of a one time quick fix. Sort of like the difference between a diet and removing excess from your daily intake of food.
    I was wondering what suggestions you might share that could be done instead of short-term missions, especially with the young?

  4. As a counterpoint:

    I don’t think the message of the gospel is effectiveness, nor do I think that we will be judged on how effective we are. I find that we are called to bear witness and serve our neighbor, not maximize our spending potential. If you take your point to the next step it would seem as Americans it is more important to make money and give it away than to give of ourselves.

    I often reflect on Christ, the Messiah, dying on the cross when I get too caught up in how successful I am in Kingdom work. The Messiah wasn’t meant to be betrayed by His people, everyone thought He was supposed to triumphantly overthrow the Romans, in this respect He was absolutely ineffective. But there was a bigger plan, it’s not the ends (how many of our friends are ‘saved’) that we will be judged by, but rather by the means (your own heart and how you love with it).

    I think the far greater temptation is to put the money first, not the Children. And seek to further disengage from relationship under the auspices of being more effective, when really it is more about avoiding the inconvenience or uncomfortableness of seeing the disparity. Is it easier to authentically pray for people you have met or for an address on an envelope? For that matter why involve church or God at all, perhaps secular humanitarian relief is “more effective.”
    Would that be wiser?

    Should our focus be alleviating as much poverty as we can (i.e. Utilitarianism) or in building relationships. I think the latter.

    I definitely jive with your comment, though, about guarding against short-term mission workers seeking a superior sense of accomplishment, as if to inflate their own egos on the work they do.

    I try to live by a code of: love as much as you can as actively as you can and expect to fail all the time in this fallen world because it is by God’s grace that people are saved not by my work. As for meeting physical needs, do that with your full heart too and expect to fail, you won’t fix it all, but then again if you could, what need of God?

    Thanks for the space to rant Ariah, I don’t mean any of these comments to be directed at you, personally, just the argument.

  5. Eric,

    Points well taken. I do have to say I agree with a lot of what you say, my last paragraph of my post tried to hit on the ‘effectiveness’ issue.

    I don’t intend to put money first, I intend to point to money as a resource, a tool, for us to use to further God’s kingdom, just like we should look at pretty much everything. That being said, I think when we think about the body of Christ and how best to use those resources, I think there is a lot that is to be questioned relating to short term missions.

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