Short-Term Missions: Is the Price Tag Worth It?

by Laura Parker on October 12, 2012

Short term mission trips are a popular thing these days in Christian circles. In fact, estimates are that literally millions of individuals, mostly young people, serve on short term trips (1 week up to a year) every year worldwide. Now that’s a lot of people and a whole truckload of money. Here’s an article written last year asking some sobering questions about short term mission trips:

Consider this: a group of 15 high school students {with four adult leaders} want to go on a missions trip to Africa. They write support letters, hold spaghetti dinners, call up grandma across the state line. The cost of the trip is 8 days out of their summer vacation and $1800 USD out of somebody’s pocket. Per person.

The goal of the trip is to paint the outside of a church, do a VBS for an hour four evenings, and “love the orphans” at the local orphanage {a.k.a. play soccer and give lots of hugs, since they don’t speak the same language}. The group gets called to the front of the church for a send-off prayer before and produces a killer video that makes their mothers get teary after. There are lots of Facebook updates and instagram pictures of the trip– rich American teens hugging on dark African orphans– which become the profile pictures of the participants for a good six months post-travel.

The church got painted, which locals could have done for about 30 bucks maybe.

The orphans got hugged, and then had to say goodbye to people that they’ll never see again and who promise to write, but never really do.

The four days of VBS got delivered. And included the same bible stories which  the previous four short term teams had also told. Through the mud of translators and with songs and hand motions that didn’t really make cultural sense.

And the grand total of this particular missions trip: $34, 200 USD. Ouch.

In a country where the average wage might be $2USD a day. That would be the equivalent of 17,100 days of work for a local. At that rate, the money could have gone to give 46 single mothers honorable employment for an entire year.

In this part of the world in Asia, it could provide clean water filters for 1,700 homes in village communities or it could begin a business to give hundreds of future prostitutes another choice or it could fully fund several national pastors for a whole year.

Ouch, again.

And maybe I shouldn’t knock what I myself have tried, and tasted the benefits from. I went to Jamaica on my first summer missions trip as a jr. high kid, and I still remember the stories. My husband has led a half-dozen missions trips for teenagers during his work as a student pastor. And some of our ministry here in SE Asia has been based on the idea that there  is incredible value in the mentorship of young adults as they travel and volunteer internationally. {And we have seen that it has.}

I get it.

And I know that maybe that money wouldn’t have been given to support those other {more cost- effective} endeavors, anyway. I understand that  motivating a Westerner with an experience which could make him or her a financial supporter of missions for the rest of a career has value. I get that there is intrinsic value in letting the third world know that they are not forgotten by the first, and I can see that a missions experience for a teenager could translate into a lifetime of living overseas themselves.

Yet, yet. $34,000. For eight days? When people are starving and children are trafficked and pastors themselves don’t have access to Bibles?

It’s hard to swallow. Or justify sometimes.

Or, is it?

originally posted here:  LauraParkerBlog, former missionary to SE Asia. Twitter: @LauraParkerBlog

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Some other great resourcesJamie the Very Worst Missionary’s Series on STMs  |  Are STMs the Answer? by the Hendricks in Haiti  |  Rethinking Short Term Missions series by Desiring God

About Laura Parker

Living on three continents and moving 15 times in 15 years of marriage, Laura is no stranger to transition. Recently living in SE Asia with her family, Laura now serves as the VP of a counter-trafficking organization which her husband began, The Exodus Road. Laura is the co-founder and editor here at A Life Overseas and writes at her blog, http://www.LauraParkerWrites.com.
  • Scott

    I love your post and have often thought about the same things. It does seem wasteful, extravagent, and selfish and the impact and results are certainly questionable. But then there are many problems with this line of reasoning. For one, it echoes Judas Ischariot’s comments regarding wasting resources that could have been given to the poor “Why this waste?” Matt 26:8, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a
    year’s wages.” John 12:5. Sometimes God calls people to do extravagent and seemingly foolish things for reasons we may never fully understand.

    I think about international adoption, it can cost $25,000 or more to adopt one child internationally, considering the number of children that could be cared for in the countries children are being adopted from for that amount it seems extravagent and wasteful versus just supporting children in their home countries, but yet God calls people to do it. And typically those who have adopted internationally are also the same ones who are providing support for many children in the countries their kids are adopted from.

    Growing up I felt very strongly against short term missions. I believed they were typically an excuse for a vacation at other people’s expense. I believed they were a terrible example of the arrogance, pride, self centeredness, wastefullness, etc. of the American church. However, my viewpoint has changed. Now, I believe God uses short term missions for many reasons (not primary among them to get churches painted or to evangelize the world).

    God does not lack financial resources, He is not wringing his hands wondering where the next dollar to support a crucial ministry is going to come from (like we do). I believe God’s primary desire is to see hearts and minds changed to love and worship Him fully, to joyfully give, to have a heart for the poor and helpless and those in need. God wants true disciples who follow His own heart and who will build other disciples. Lack of money is not what is preventing these things from happening.

    So if short term missions accomplishes some of those goals (breaks people’s heart for the things that break God’s heart, wake people up to a world in need, create a burning passion to share the gospel, etc…) then they are effective. Many short term missions fall short of changing the hearts of those involved, but for the ones that do I don’t think the resources spent will be wasted.

    A key in most ministry work, I think, is realizing that our problem is not a lack of resources, it’s a lack of passionate Christ followers. There are plenty of resources within the church, but we lack the love, desire, passion and compassion to unlock those resources for a higher purpose. Maybe short term missions is one small component of unlocking some of those resources?

    • http://www.lauraparkerblog.com/ Laura Parker

      Scott, thanks for this response. I think it is a good one, with lots of weight and truth in it. I especially loved your point about God not lacking resources, like you said here:

      A key in most ministry work, I think, is realizing that our problem is not a lack of resources, it’s a lack of passionate Christ followers. There are plenty of resources within the church, but we lack the love, desire, passion and compassion to unlock those resources for a higher purpose. Maybe short term missions is one small component of unlocking some of those resources?

      Ouch. This was a perfect insight. Thanks for sharing it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=527087281 Seth Barnes

    Good questions and definitely an issue we need to wrestle with. The
    answer is not a blanket prohibition, nor is it an “anything done with
    good motives is valid” approach. We need stewardship. Capacity does not
    equal calling. Just because we can raise the money doesn’t mean we go.
    That youth group should start with a local mission trip. They should
    study Matt. 10 and emulate the disciples’ experiment in dependence. They
    should fast and pray about their lives in the light of God’s
    kingdom-building mandate. And, if after demonstrating their stewardship
    in other ways, God calls them to go deeper by committing to the trip you
    described, then they need to respond.

    A caveat: The
    organization I run offers these trips to youth groups. You can’t do much
    in 8 days. If you’re going to invest that kind of money, something
    along the lines of 8 weeks of ministry and 8 months of preparation is
    more appropriate.

    • http://www.lauraparkerblog.com/ Laura Parker

      Hi Seth,

      Loved that you said this:
      The
      answer is not a blanket prohibition, nor is it an “anything done with good motives is valid” approach. We need stewardship. Capacity does not equal calling. Just because we can raise the money doesn’t mean we go. That youth group should start with a local mission trip.

      There is wisdom here, for sure. Love the idea of starting locally, first. I’ve heard of one group (maybe the Navigators? Pioneers?) who actually stage a mission trip for youth groups! Its on the east coast and they have re created a third world country . . .. It’s super cheap and kids get the feeling of being overseas. An interesting idea that I hadn’t heard of until last year.

      I also agree that short, short term trips are largely for the go-er, and that much more can be accomplished in longer term, short term trips.

      Thanks, Seth– love your voice in this conversation!

      Laura

  • goodmud.wordpress.com

    I have a love/hate relationship with short-term missions (and I work for a short-term mission org). I hate them for all kinds of reasons including the price tag and how they don’t really help the recipients as much as they do the trip participants. BUT – I love them because without them, I never would have gotten involved with missions, and I know that’s true for a lot of people that got connected during a short-term mission trip and now it’s a big part of their lives.

    There has to be a new way to frame short-term trips emphasizing that we are brothers and sisters, not givers and receivers.

  • Pingback: Short Term Missions and a Church in Haiti

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=507671053 Calvin Sun

    I very much enjoy this blog entry as you risk your calling and positions with your sharing on this subject. I myself sit in favor of the STM / LTM side as I believed missions also helps bring the universal church together. Whether it is through VBS, aids, skills, these interactions helps in building spiritual connections and formations in additions to the benefits you have listed in your entry. What concerns me is not the amount of money spend, but more importantly the quality of the missional work. I believe in serving with excellence, the giving of the very best each church body can offer. Some maybe in children ministries, others maybe in medical or trades, and yet others maybe finance. In any event, due diligence and great care should be given to its planning’s (long term as well as short term) and spiritual preparations. Missions should never be treated, advertised, or prepared like an oversea vacation, not in its execution nor in the heart.

    In terms of the money spend, I am always careful with our own “what if” questions. What if I buy a McChicken combo for dinner but in a moment of clarity realized it can also equate to one or two meal for a family in a 3rd world country. Does that mean I should never buy a McChicken combo? What if that $34,200 USD was not spend on STM teams but were just given to local organizations and local missionaries? Would that satisfy all our questions on cost effectiveness and measurable goals? Or would we instead be wondering where are the workers in the field because we now lack human resource to share the gospel? Or MAYBE the problem will REMAIN the same with the lack of donations and money because there aren’t enough people on the ground to convey the immediate needs of the poor, orphaned and the destitute? Our “What If” questions will only lead us down a rabbit hole of many more opinionated, unfounded, and unmeasurable theories. Instead should we view the result (or ROI) from the Kingdom perspective? The people reached, relationships built, Christ’ love in action, oppressions lifted, hunger fed, lives changed. If we start seeing the impact from the Kingdom perspective should we not instead celebrate the missional movement that the Holy Spirit has instilled in our faith communities and hope that that number will increase even more?

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