Short-term Missions as Wanderlust Adventure

This is a quote from Serving with Eyes Wide Open:

Read the letters and listen to the reports before and after mission trips, and those who go on trips tend to emphasize the so-called spiritual things: the number of souls saved, the lessons learned about prayer and materialism, and the impact made up the church visited. However, sit down for coffee with a friend who has just returned from a trip or eavesdrop on the picture party from a returning group, and the adventure of life in a new place seems to be the emphasis. Such conversations are filled with stories about who got stopped going through customs, what it was like to eat the food, bartering the shopkeeper down to a ridiculous price, and experiencing the driving habits of the locals.
Let’s be honest. Along with the seemingly more noble reasons for going on a short-term mission trip, many of us love the adventure of it all.

Now do a reality check for yourself: If you’ve ever been on a mission trip before, how true is this of you? I remember hearing a speaker when I went to YWAM, who talked at length about how he had been to 53 different countries, etc. I found myself both envious, and starkly aware of how easy it would be for me to fulfill my desire for travel under the guise of ‘missionary.’

Obviously, just because we have ulterior motives doesn’t mean no trip should ever happen, but I think it does call us to question seriously both who goes on trips, and how the trips are advertised, discussed and attended.
For one, I think the ‘fun’ day at the end of the trip (every mission trip I’ve ever been on had something like this) should be completely done away with. This is just my opinion, but I find it to be a terrible idea for a church to take people, especially young people, who’ve just had an eye opening experience into the world, and then encourage (even require) them to suddenly become materialistic, shopping consumerist a moment later.

I’ll leave you with some of the examples given in the book from well known missions organizations. Teen Mania, who have sent tens of thousands of short-term ‘missionaries’ send out full page brochures and advertisements with

“Missions Should Be Fun!” Below it was a picture featuring a group of American youth pushing a really cool-looking canoe down a tropical-like river with a few “natives” in tow.

Or this church bulletin advertising a mission trip to Mexico, including this line:

And this trip isn’t a “rough-roach-in-your-bed” kind of experience either-we’ll be housed in nice clean hotel roomes, eat lots of salsa, and have plenty of time to shop!
…If you’re remotely interested in this adventure-or if you’re just in the mood for Mexico after all this winter weather-call for more details about this fantastic outreach opportunity.

8 thoughts on “Short-term Missions as Wanderlust Adventure”

  1. I’ve just been catching up on your recent posts, and I also took a look at the discussion going on over at the forums from a few months ago. Basically, I’d really like to thank you for addressing this in the way that you have. This is something that’s bothered me for as long as I can remember, and it’s incredibly refreshing to hear your perspective. As with many things, we may not agree on every aspect, but I agree that it needs to be challenged. And unfortunately, people get incredibly protective of the things that make them feel they’re somehow more spiritual (whatever the heck that means) than everyone else.

    I was telling Morgan last night- Yours and Mindy’s presence and perspective is sorely missed.

  2. I both agree & disagree. I agree that there is often highly altruistic notion promoted with mission trips but I view mission trips sorta like CS Lewis views prayer – its not to change where I’m going, but to change ME. Yes, I can go to all sorts of places as a tourist, but as a short term missionary, you get a much different view of their world… and therefore, God’s world.

    As a participant and/or leader on several short-term trips over the years, there are definitely some that had far more impact on me and the kids on the trip than others. And it had more to do with the expectation-setting, preparation, and leadership of the trip than anything else. Really getting to see, interact with, and know some locals is key. “Why do I whine about not having the right shoes, when that girl with no shoes walked 2 miles to church and praised the Lord so deeply?”

    Regarding the “fun day” at the end… on some trips its been a much-needed “decompression” time for the team to work thru hard things – relationally and spiritually – before plunging back into our American “reality”. It also allows the team to see that a region is much more than poverty and squalor.

    I could go on a lot more, but hopefully this makes sense.

  3. having just come back from my hngr experience, i’m finding myself drawn into the whole world of short-term missions and the perceived effect and value of such trips.

    in some ways, i would be okay with the notion of short-term missions trips being expressed as what they are: vacations with some goodwill mixed in. sorting out there actual effectiveness might lead to a far different sort of language: feel-good tourism.

    the delusions of the whole thing are what strike me, that actual impact can be achieved outside of prolonged relationship and so on.

    also, i’m quite glad that i stumbled upon this entry while doing research for my social research class.


  4. great post, ariah. i like the idea of simply calling a trip what it is and not trying to make it look ultra spiritual. i also think your point about having a “fun day” which usually includes shopping is kind of sick. its kind of like feeding the homeless and then going to celebrate your hard work at an all you can eat buffet. most would agree that would feel wrong, but thats exactly what we do when we go to 3rd world countries to help the poor and needy and then spend our extra money on things that will collect dust and eventually end up in the american land fills.

  5. Well said. I hope and pray the veil distorting our view of the kingdom – how to live as Christ lived – be lifted sooner rather than later.

  6. Ariah, This is a pretty late comment and I wish I had more time, I had waited till I had more time and just realize, I better just do quick and dirty. I used to have great disdain for para church ministries and short term missions trips but have over many years done a 180. I do agree with your sour taste for the mixing of “fun-consumer-centered last days” but overall our fellowship has been very blessed by the missions trip experiences we have taken. For over 15 years we have done short term trips to build a house or be involved in evangelism through YWAM. The result has been much better than I ever would have imagined. The mission experience has helped us launch a church, started from one house we built, dozens of youth into ministry, leadership development, relationship building and missions giving. Was there downsides? Yes, because there were people involved and free will. Did we always have great relationships with the YWAM folks…no. Did we overcome those? YES, we became them. Our kids became the staff over a few years and then they went on to be very wanted staff in various churches. So did the sense of adventure work in favor of the kingdom? Well I can only speak for our fellowship…YEAH!!!! By the way, I went on one of these trips with my daughter. In the training she had reconfirmed a call for her to go to Israel. She came back from Israel a year ago having been a great blessing to many during her time there through the war and everything. My wife and I, not having much of an adventure-some spirit would have never gone there to visit, did so and have been so immensely enriched in our ministry because of it.

  7. Pastor Andy,

    Thanks for chiming in. I’m glad to know you’ve seen some of the fruits of the work you guys have done.

    My point in writing these posts wasn’t to throw out every single short term trip or others, but was to challenge the overwhelming amount of them that occur. So, to the degree that good has come from it, I say praise God.
    But, I also challenge the notion that any church with a handful of kids in their youth group needs to go on a week-long service trip to another country or continent every summer. I think the kids should be challenged, but I think we can think of other ways of doing that and still truly helping impact others.

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