It’s kind of a short-term mission trip mantra: “This trip shouldn’t be about you. It’s about the people you are serving.”
I’m here to flip that on its head: This trip isn’t mostly about the people you are serving. It actually should be primarily about you.
And that’s not a bad thing. Stick with me here; don’t write me off yet.
Let’s start with the second part: this trip is not about the people you are serving.
There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to come right out with it: if this trip were really about the people on the other side, then you would just take the $20,000 your team raised and send it to the missionaries or local pastors instead.
They could support the local economy by buying the supplies you are bringing. They could hire locals to build the house or paint the church – people who are likely desperate for work. They could pay for an expert to train the church members to run the VBS themselves (in the local language) and supplement the income of those church members who need to take time off of work to serve. And with the extra, they could support a local pastor. Or top up the deficit in their ministry account.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that your service is a waste of time. Certainly, God can use you to touch lives. But my point is this: it is unlikely that a team who doesn’t know the language or culture will be able to make a measurable impact in a foreign country in seven to ten days. Often, there are already people living in the country who could do the exact same ministry themselves if necessary. (I know there are exceptions, but that’s not what I’m talking about today.)
In spite of all this, I’m still a fan of short-term missions. This is not an anti-missions-trip article. Those are out there. This is not one of them.
So why do I still encourage these trips? Because I believe God can use them to transform lives. Not necessarily the lives of the people you are serving. But your life? Yes!
Because your short-term trip is actually about you.
Now, I need to clarify a couple of things here. You’ve all heard the horror stories of teams who complain, criticize, demand – the ones who make the trip about themselves in the nastiest of ways. We personally witnessed a team who thought it would be funny to make a bet as to who could go the most days without showering. (It was only funny to them.)
Your short-term missions trip isn’t camp or a vacation. You shouldn’t expect room service, predictable schedules, or familiar food. Expect to be uncomfortable. It’s not about your agenda. It’s not about your needs.
Most of us know this. Duh. Let’s move on. Most of us say, “That’s not me. I’m going to serve.”
That’s great, but there’s still a problem here. Sometimes, our attitude of serving can actually breed a different type of self-centeredness: the kind that feels really good and important with all the wonderful things we are doing. This kind of service puts me up here on this pedestal and the people I’m serving down there in the dust. They need me. They want me. They are so blessed by me.
This kind of serving can even masquerade as humility. It can say, “I need to do this for these people because they can’t possibly do it themselves. I wouldn’t want to ask them to help me, because this service is my gift to them.” Which is sort of a roundabout way of positioning myself as the hero of the story. Short-term missions trips, unfortunately, are really good at this.
As you can imagine, this kind of service usually does more harm than good (both for the servers and the recipients). So how do we avoid it?
Well, let’s reframe your trip.
Let’s make this trip less about you serving the local people and more about how God can use it to change you. Why would missionaries invite you to come if they know they don’t really need you for this ministry?
Because what they do need is your partnership. They need your encouragement, your fellowship, your questions, your interest in their host country. They need your financial support. They need you to go back home and champion their ministry to your church.
That last part is key. Maybe you thought you were interested in their ministry before, but once you see it for yourself, your perspective will be blasted wide open. It should be, if you let it.
Whether or not this happens is entirely dependent on your focus. Is this trip about you feeling good about yourself for serving? Or is it about humbly walking into a cross-cultural situation as a learner, with your hands and your heart open wide to how God wants to transform you?
Barna’s* study on short-term missions says this:
“As brothers and sisters in Christ, we are called to listen to each other, valuing and learning from the wisdom and experiences that God has given to each of us. Believers in the slums of Kenya understand God’s provision and sustaining presence in ways that many more affluent Christians do not. African-American brothers and sisters in Birmingham, Alabama, have much to teach Caucasian believers about suffering and forgiveness. But if short-term trips are built around ‘doing,’ accomplishing particular tasks and projects, they cannot create the time or safe space necessary for this type of listening and learning.”
So walk into a short-term trip with an open mind and an open heart, and ask yourself the following questions.
Will you allow God to use this trip to change the way you see those who live in poverty?
To challenge how sacrificially you give?
To reenergize how you pray?
To remodel how you spend your time?
To transform your priorities back home?
And finally, might God be calling you to fulfill the Great Commission overseas? If not, could He be calling you to personally advocate for these missionaries or their ministry?
Yes, one goal of your trip is to serve. By all means, go in with an attitude of dying to yourself and your comfort. Look for ways to love others well, and trust that God can use you to build His kingdom. But you must remember that the success of the long-term impact is entirely connected to your transformed life.
If you walk away from this trip and go back to your life and nothing changes, then this trip will be a waste. If you are not open to God transforming you, then don’t go – send the money instead. Because this trip is mainly about what God wants to do in you. Will you let Him?
* “A Field Guide to Better Short-Term Missions Trips,” a Barna Group Research Study
I highly recommend the Chalmers Center excellent book/video series “Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions” (the videos are free online!)