3 Quick Ways to Improve a Short Term Missions Trip

Got your t-shirts printed? Your passport up to date? Crowd-funding page all set? It’s almost time to go!

The Short Term Mission season is almost upon us, and very soon swarms of teams will converge on poor communities around the world.

They are ready to paint orphanages and hand out tracts in a language they don’t understand. They are equipped with Malaria tablets and smart phones – and this summer, they’re coming to a village near you.

There’s only one problem: the long-term benefit will be almost entirely for the team themselves.

True transformation among the poor, rarely takes place in a 14 day window. 

So why bother? These trips are expensive, time-consuming, and disruptive. They fill up our Facebook newsfeeds and they divert our funds.

Yet I remain convinced that what the eye has not seen, the heart cannot grieve.

One of the best ways to have our hearts stirred for the things of God, is to get out of our comfort zones and be shaken up. And time and time again, including in my own life, a short time of cross-cultural engagement has turned things upside-down.

But this must NOT be at the expense of the poor. We can do better.

So here are 3 easy tweaks you can make to your short term mission trip that will make a deep, ongoing, more positive impact.

1. Stop calling it a “Short Term Mission Trip”

It’s time we recognize that these short term missions trips are not “mission.”

If our mission is to go and make disciples of the nations (Mt 28:19), how can we make a single disciple if we can’t speak their language? With a tract?

How can we teach someone to follow Jesus in 5 days? With a handy flow-chart?

How do we transform a situation of poverty or trafficking? With a Christmas shoebox?

Nope. None of the above.

Jesus spent 30 YEARS immersed in one culture before launching his ministry. And he was the Son of God.

When he sent out his own disciples two by two, they went to places they spoke the language and understood the culture already. And they went empty-handed (Lk 9:3).

So, let’s get rid of this ridiculous, oxymoronic term, “Short Term Missions” and replace it with something that will better reflect what is going on. Here are 2 ideas, and you can read a couple more in my original post on this topic.

1. Vision Trips – By shifting the focus from what we are doing for the poor, to what God wants to teach us, we are in a better position to be transformed. When people find themselves face to face with poverty for the first time, something significant happens. A Vision Trip becomes a focused, intentional time where we ask God to open our hearts to the plight of the poor. And the rest of our lives will be irrevocably shaped by what we have witnessed.

2. Learning Exchanges – By shifting the focus from what we are teaching the poor, to instead be about what God wants to teach us through them, we are less likely to disempower and more likely to grow. We are also more likely to communicate to the receiving community that they have something to offer. When we travel as learners, eager to have our minds expanded and preconceptions challenged, we will not be disappointed. This category includes those who travel as part of their vocation – as a builder, surgeon or dentist for example – but are open to learning from others while they are passing on expertise to others in another country. That’s mutuality.

Let’s get our labels right, and our practice and understanding will follow.


2. Put away your wallet. 

After many years living in Cambodian slums, I have seen a lot of harm done by well-meaning do-gooders with big fat wallets. We arrive with our Western mindset that applies an economic solution to every problem. And we overwhelm the local community with our vast reserves of bling.

Don’t get me wrong — they are more than happy to receive your money. But here are 10 reasons that’s not always a great idea. And in case that doesn’t convince you, here are 4 more.

Funding is definitely needed. Redistribution from the wealthy to the poor is an important Biblical concept. But these things are not easily navigated while on a brief visit.

So, here’s a quick rule of thumb I’ve developed to help visitors who want to give to the financial needs of the community, but don’t want to screw up the dynamics: The Matching Principle (TM).

Yup. Brilliant name I know. Basically, the idea is this — however much local people can raise, that’s the limit to which you contribute as an outsider.

So, say the church roof has been blown off by a cyclone. Instead of opening your check book and saying, “What’ll it take? Daddy Warbucks will cover it!” — how about saying, “How much can you guys raise? We’ll match it.”

By matching what local people can raise, we never put ourselves in a position of power over them, because our contribution is equal. We allow them to participate in the solution, thus empowering rather than overwhelming.


3. Think beyond the short-term hit and run.

Let’s agree right up front that there is no such thing as a part-time Christian. There is no such thing as a follower of Jesus who is not in full-time service to God. You are not more engaged in serving God because you suddenly find yourself painting an orphanage in Guatemala. When we compartmentalize our service to God, we compartmentalize God.

Instead, consider this. As followers of Jesus, we are all called to a VOCATION — a lifelong call to serve Jesus in a particular field. Our vocation, whether in butchering, baking, or candlestick-making, is the primary means we have been given to serve God. A short-term vision trip should inform and shape your vocation.

So, some of us will have a vocation as an architect or a writer, as a parent or a nurse. And some of us will have a vocation in humanitarian work, Bible translation or social entrepreneurship. These are all just different variations on every Christian’s call to pursue a vocation that serves God and his upside-down kingdom.

When we see that each of us has a unique and important vocation, we’ll no longer single out some as more spiritual than others. We’ll support and pray for all equally. And we’ll develop a theology of work, that works.

So, ask yourself this key question as you plan your trip: How does this visit inform and shape my vocation in everyday life?  If you’re a student, allow the trip to inform what direction you go with your studies. If you’re a teacher, how will what you learn shape what you teach? If you’re a technical expert in something, how can you forge connections that will strengthen others in your field in more difficult circumstances?

This is how you begin to think globally while acting locally.

If you implement these three changes, they will result in a profound shift in your thinking and approach to your upcoming trip. When you stop thinking of this as a time of “doing mission” and realize that God is wanting you to learn deeply, your posture will change. When you limit yourself to giving in a responsible, empowering way, you allow room for the poor to grow stronger. And when you consider the place of this trip in the context of your everyday vocation at home, it will become more meaningful and strategic.

What are you waiting for?


Craig Greenfield is the founder and director of Alongsiders International and the author of the recently published Subversive Jesus. During more than 15 years living and ministering in slums and inner cities in Cambodia and Canada, Craig has established a number of initiatives to care for vulnerable kids and orphans, as well as formed Christian communities for those marginalized by society. His postgraduate research in International Development led to the publication of his first book, The Urban Halo: a story of hope for orphans of the poor which is currently available for free on Craig’s website. He loves God, the poor, and fish and chips. He’s on Twitter and Facebook too.

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