6 Principles for Highly Effective Short-Term Mission Trips

Short-term mission trips have come under fire in recent years. Do they help or hurt? Is the investment worth the return? These are important questions. As a former youth and college pastor, I’ve wrestled with their value and impact.

I’m not ready to say they’re worthless. I believe short-term mission trips have value. I’ve seen it firsthand.

But if you don’t have the right perspective, you will do more harm than good. Your perspective frames your behavior and your actions.

So, before you jump on a plane or bus, here are a few thoughts to help you frame a proper perspective and make your week successful.

1. You’re not a hero.

The first time I went on a foreign mission trip, I stepped off the bus in Mexico with a Superman cape and spandex pants.

“Here I am, guys. An American is here, ready to fix your problems.”

That’s not true.

But I did feel like a hero. The truth is I’m not a hero. Neither are you. Heroes are superior to the rest of humanity. They find their identity in saving people from an otherwise dreadful existence.

Poor people aren’t lesser humans. They don’t need rescuing. So, let go of this idea that you hold special powers because you have resources.

2. Poverty is more than lack of money or resources.

I was introduced to this reading When Helping Hurts. This book should be a required read, especially for pastors and leaders coordinating mission trips. In it, the authors challenge you to re-think poverty because how you define poverty determines how you attack it.

Here’s their definition:

“Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.”

Poverty, in other words, is more than material possessions. It’s broken relationships, both with God and others. It’s our bent toward selfish and narcissistic behavior. Poverty is anything that doesn’t promote “shalom,” wholeness of mind and heart, healing of relationships, and peace among all people.

We’re just as broken as the people we’re going to serve. They aren’t more broken because they own less stuff. They need to feel love and acceptance as much as they need a new home or clean water to drink.

3. Don’t impose American values on them.

Worldviews and cultures are unique. American values are great, but they aren’t gospel. Not all cultures view time as a valuable and finite resource. Not all cultures see organization as essential to growth and progress. Not all countries value progress, for that matter.

If you don’t understand this going in, you will do more harm than good.

4. You have as much to learn from them as they have from you.

The first time I went on a mission trip, I took notice of the slower pace. Locals didn’t stress over unfinished projects. They weren’t enslaved to schedules and clocks. This perplexed me.

After dinner, when the kids went to bed, I wanted to prep for the next day. The leaders at this school wanted to talk about Jesus. They wanted to know about my family. We can talk later, I thought. There’s work to do.

I remember leaving that place wondering if I had something wrong. As the week progressed, I felt my spirit calm. I smiled more. A strange ease and peace blanketed my heart. To this day, I don’t see time the same way. I realize much of my anxiety and worry hinges on a false correlation between production and faithfulness.

It’s true, you can learn much about God, life and family from the people you serve. But you must be open to it.

5. Mission trips can change your life. But that’s not the point.

I’ve wrestled with this one, mostly because I’ve heard so many stories about people traveling to a foreign country and having their world turn upside-down.

When you touch poverty, look into its eyes and give it a name, you’re changed.

But when you become the point, things can go bad.

I remember a pastor describing his experience as a full-time missionary. Every summer, he said, American groups traveled overseas to work at an orphanage. For several years, right before summer, teachers and leaders at the orphanage asked students to throw mud on all the buildings so the Americans would have something to do when they arrived.

Maybe this is an outlier, I don’t know, but his point stuck. Mission trips aren’t about me. If you’re going to feel good about yourself or check a box, you’re missing the point.

I’m not against matching shirts or selfies, but this week isn’t about you.

6. Mission trips aren’t something you do “over there.”

As a former youth pastor, I struggled with driving past our hurting neighbor on the way to the airport and serve people overseas. Right or wrong, I decided not to take foreign mission trips the first two years. Instead, I wanted to establish an inside-out approach to serving. We invested in our city and surrounding areas first.

Out-of-country mission trips are valuable. But mission work starts with your next door neighbor. Let’s not bypass the brokenness next door because we’re signed up for a mission trip next month.

I pray your week helps those you will serve as well as helps you see Jesus in a deeper way.

I love you all. To God be the glory forever. Amen!

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Frank Powell
Frank lives in Jackson, TN with his amazing wife and two boys. He loves black coffee and doing stuff outside like golf and running.

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