ZU Magazine: Short term mission trips: the good, the bad, and what no one tells you
Short-term mission trips have the potential to do more harm than good if not executed properly
Photo courtesy of Paula May on Unsplash
The beautiful, green Amazon jungle was all around while thundering rain poured down in the hot, sticky weather as I helped paint new murals. Smiles shined bright and the importance of child-like faith spilled out of young hearts as we played on the tire swing. Servants’ hands cooked delicious native foods like arroz chaufa and lomo saltado while speaking life into each individual present. This was my experience in Pucallpa, Peru.
I served in Pucallpa, Peru for six weeks on a short-term mission trip, and I stepped into the beauty of the Peruvian culture. Cross-cultural short-term mission trips are great opportunities. They allow us to engage with diverse cultures, encounter new people and give us a unique way to be a part of God’s work. However, these short-term mission trips have the potential to do more harm than good if not executed properly.
Because of this potential harm, a negative stigma sometimes surrounds short-term missions. It’s the stigma that those going will only arrive to take pictures and leave. It’s the stigma of going for one’s own ego. The stigma of seeing those in foreign lands as people who are lesser than us and who are “poor.” The stigma that those going on these missions think they are the ultimate saviors.
This is alluded to by comedian John Crist in his YouTube videos. He pokes fun at the stigmas that surround short-term mission trips while alluding to the genuine truth they hold.
A line from the video “Honest Mission Trip Leader” says, “I understand things are going to be difficult. We’re gonna get tired, but we must never waver from our goal –– to get photos with minority children for our Facebook profiles.”
The fact that Crist is able to make a joke out of that situation and is able to make us laugh because of it reveals the truth within it. We have seen individuals go on short-term mission trips and solely post all over Instagram and Facebook. Crist’s line reveals the hidden reality of how we are handling mission work and something needs to change.
Individuals who go on these missions must choose to act responsibly and handle these opportunities with care, and some simple steps can alleviate so many potential harms.
1. Know your why
Before I decided to serve in Peru, I had a pressing need to go on a mission for about two years. I was taken aback by the thought and didn’t know why God had placed it on my heart. I’m a homebody who never leaves my family for more than a week and who sticks to what she knows –– but I knew it was God’s call. I didn’t know when, how or where but God’s divine appointment was inevitable. When a desire arises that is not our own but is rooted in God, we should take action.
Completely and entirely knowing that you are being called on a mission is the first step towards responsibly taking part in God’s global work. If the desire is stemming from selfish ambition, then it’s already rooted in the wrong place.
2. Partner with an ongoing organization
While in Peru, my team and I worked alongside an already established organization called Kids Alive International. Partnering with this organization put the situation into perspective: I was not a savior who came down from the U.S. to help everyone in Pucallpa, but rather I was just someone God chose to help a devoted ministry already in place. And when short-term mission teams partner with an already established organization, the work is guaranteed to continue. The work and service won’t start and end when the team comes and leaves but only helps to further promote an already sustaining ministry.
Ongoing organizations understand the people of the region far better than any foreigner ever could. The organization my team partnered with has ministry leaders who have been living among the Peruvian lands for decades and who work closely with the Peruvian people in all that they do. This allows for relationships to form and an understanding of the land to be cultivated. Omitting this vital step of partnership leaves room for miscommunication and confusion for both the short-term team and the locals.
No one understands the culture like those who are a part of it, so join someone who already is.
3. Your way is not the only way
Another key aspect of taking responsibility is understanding that short-term missions mean entering into a foreign space. Seems obvious, right? But this concept sometimes doesn’t stick because we easily become shocked by cultural differences. Of course, entering a new culture is exciting, new and beautiful but instead of adopting these new attributes, we sometimes see this as an opportunity to implement our own ways.
I first realized this after my team and I helped lead a VBS for the local kids. Lunch was up next on the schedule, and thank goodness because I was so ready for some food. But everyone started chatting instead. I had just been running around in the sun and was ready for some camu camu — a native drink of the jungle — and some yummy food, so I became frustrated. But then I realized I was implementing my own constructs of time and infringing on the beauty of their cultural decision to engage with one another before anything else.
Just because things aren’t done our way doesn’t make them wrong. We should be aware of how we act in culturally different situations. We shouldn’t try to change their ways and make them fit into our own molds, but we should instead embrace these cultural differences. We are guests in their country. As guests, we should be eager to ask questions, try new foods and learn parts of the language if the location permits.
4. It’s a two-way relationship
One of the most rewarding parts of my time in Peru was spending long days with five young girls. We pretended to cook outside with grass, oranges, mud and flowers; we played on the swings until we were nauseous; we worked on homework and encouraged one another.
That experience was a two-way relationship. We poured into each other and gave one another strength to persevere and smiles to wear. I was not someone who was there to fix them and their situation, and they were not inadequate and impotent. Instead, those five girls were powerful, independent and more than capable –– and my being there didn’t establish that.
Once one understands that vital contrast, a mutually beneficial connection forms and genuine fellowship emerges. Understanding that short-term mission trips allow for two-way relationships to form omits the false reality that the people being served are “needy” and “helpless.” When we capture that concept, an overflow of relationship is exchanged.
5. God is already there
Individuals going on short-term mission trips sometimes think they are the ones bringing Jesus to a community –– but that couldn’t be more false.
In the book “When Helping Hurts,” Steve Corbett writes about our role in short-term missions.
“We are not bringing Christ to poor communities,” Corbett says. “He has been active in these communities since the creation of the world, sustaining them, Hebrews 1:3 says, by His powerful Word.”
Wherever a team is going, God is already moving within those people and the land. God is solely inviting us to take part in what he is already doing and that’s an honor. To take the credit and say we are bringing them Jesus is untrue.
With the many responsibilities we need to account for, common objections such as “Just send money!” or “Just don’t go at all,” arise. Yet we were made for relationship. We were made for relationship because our creator is one of relation –– the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It’s this concept of connection that drives us to serve and inclines us to take action. For some people, this fellowship is right outside their doors but for others, it’s in a place only God can reveal. And just sending money or choosing to simply not go is not the answer.
Some of us have this special call and we shouldn’t be ashamed of it. It’s good to enter into new experiences, leave our bubble behind and become uncomfortable. However, it is important that we act responsibly, educate ourselves and consciously think about what we’re doing.
When such attributes are accounted for, God’s work is revealed in miraculous ways and beloved cultures and people can become united in a glimpse of heaven.