Do Short Term Mission Trips Really Help?

  • by Hayley Newsom

When I traveled to Honduras on a one-week mission trip, I’d been a full-time missionary for more than seven years.

I knew the value of sticking to a place for the long term, knowing the language and culture and trying to become an insider.

Having lived in Slovenia for 6 years, and receiving short-term teams, I knew they could be as much of a burden as a help. 

There has been lots of discussion about the effectiveness of short-term trips, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I would be more of a help than a hindrance.

But I signed up to travel to Honduras in a different kind of mission trip. My role was “small group facilitator” at a teachers’ training where Honduran teachers would learn teaching techniques and an overview of a morals and ethics curriculum. I was traveling with several retired teachers, many of whom had made this kind of trip dozens of times.

As I prepared to go, and even when I first arrived, the leaders talked about the word “facilitate” – it means “to make easier/possible/smoother, to help/encourage, to be a catalyst for.”

All I needed to do was facilitate. My role as facilitator meant I wasn’t there to teach, to criticize, or anything else. I was simply to be a temporary link to make the sharing of information easier.    

So over the 4 days of the training itself, I sat with my group of 8 teachers and listened to direction from the conference director, and through a translator, helped the teachers stay in step with the leader.

By the end of the week, they got it. I was hardly needed anymore because the teachers caught on to how the instructions flowed and how to discuss the questions they were given from up front.

By the end of the week, these Honduran teachers trusted each other and began helping each other think through solutions to the things they faced in their classroom every day. They depended on me less and less.

I realized that facilitating was part of the goal of the entire conference. We were helping these courageous men and women achieve what they wanted so badly for themselves, their students and their country. Not only could they take the lessons from the curriculum to their classrooms, but they could also take the role as small group facilitator to other groups of teachers in their country.

It can be the same for other types of mission trips. Greg Johnson, with Jesus Film Project, sees short-term missions like a three-layer cake. The top layer is the visiting missionaries, the middle layer is the local team, and the primary layer is the group they’re trying to reach.

He sees value in ministering to local teams. “When we can come in and come alongside them and help them to see fruit in their country and take new ground, whether it’s training them in new equipment, praying with them and worshipping with them, we’re letting them know they’re not alone,” says Greg.

Problems arise when the short-term missionary comes more for an experience than to come alongside the locals. The mission becomes top heavy, not helping the local team as it could.

Are you or your church heading out on a short-term mission trip this summer?

Here are some specific things to remember to help it be as effective as possible:

  1. Think About Leaving. You will leave. What will you leave behind? Are the tools, resources or structures going to be self-sustaining?
  2. Be A Learner. Although it’s impossible not to come to a new place without assumptions, try to take the posture of a learner. Ask questions and learn from the local team. Just because that’s the way you do it at home, it may not be the culturally or practically appropriate way to do it here.
  3. It’s Not About You. Yes, God will work in your life when you go. You’ll learn and grow, but don’t miss the growth that comes from forgetting about yourself.

 Want to go on a mission trip (short-term or long-term) with Cru? Check out these options.   

Additional thoughts on mission trips: