Evangelicals are discovering the downside to short-term foreign mission trips. Will we?
This article from a few months ago in The Christian Post highlighted some disadvantages to short-term trips. The main points were limited effectiveness and expense.
For purposes of disclosure, let me mention that I was a frequent campaigner in college, with an additional trip I led in 1981. I’m familiar with mission trips and campaigns.
From inside and from both sides of the fence, as both a campaigner and campaign leader, and as a missionary who has worked with campaigns and short-termers, such efforts are very limited in the good they can do. Today, that limit is even greater. When I was in college, our trips lasted for six weeks. Today, it’s one or two weeks at most. The expense makes such trips of questionable usefulness.
I’m not saying don’t do them, but our churches today are focusing much if not most of their mission budgets on short-term trips. That emphasis is wrong-headed in the extreme, because it puts our resources where they are least effective.
In the story linked to above, one missions expert recommends investing more heavily in long-term missions. That is definitely the way to go.
1. Long-term missions is more cost effective. First impression is that more money is being spent on long-term missions, but when the millions are added up that are spent on short-term trips, being doled out one-time to dozens of individuals, for specific projects that may or may not have lasting impact, the difference becomes clear that long-term commitments are the better deal.
2. Long-term missions is more culturally sensitive. I’m not even going to belabor this point, except to say that even for long-term missions, this is not a given. But it has the possibility of being more culturally sensitive than could ever be possible in a two-week trek into some foreign country.
3. Long-term missions is more spiritually effective. People tend to think of missions like they do the Iraq war: get in, get out, get back to your own business. Without going into the merits of that thinking for Iraq, it’s deadly for missions. Missions is not a business deal that can be closed in a matter of days, nor a service project to be wrapped up with an hourly countdown. The investment in people’s lives, the forming of spiritual character, the shaping of Christian service are processes that require years of effort.
4. Long-term missions does better follow-up. Short-term efforts are seriously hampered in that follow-up usually fails to take advantage of the good done. Just because a full-time missionary may be present doesn’t mean he is able to pick up after the campaigners or short-term workers. Dumping a large number of contacts or increasing his work load is not an effective long-term strategy.
Economic conditions (until lately, at least) made short-term missions more feasible and since they fit well into American cultural patterns of the pratical “get’er done” mentality, churches of all stripes began to emphasize and finance them to the detriment of a more culturally appropriate approach with long-term commitments and spiritual results. (Short-term missions today also often emphasize physical activities like building and painting buildings and medical clinics.)
Churches, therefore, should review their missions approach in order to give proper emphasis and funding where it can best be used on the mission field.