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The missions trip puzzle: Short-, long- or no-term?

For the last four years, I’ve generally disliked the idea of short-term mission trips. After studying abroad in Uganda, that opinion became even stronger. It got to the point where I had a knee-jerk response, verging on hatred, whenever I met someone who had been on, was planning to go on, or had ever entertained the idea of going on a short-term mission trip.

That’s when I realized that I had a problem. Hatred is not a Christian value.

I’ve calmed down a little bit on my position, but I still feel as though short-term missions are relied on too heavily as an evangelizing tool.

Let me give you some background information.

I grew up with missionary parents. They served on the field for about twenty years before we came back to the States. I have grown up seeing the great effect missions can have on people and communities.

Because I was in these places for years, I got to see short-term mission teams come and go, and the effect they had on the locals.

Before I get into too much trouble with the large percentage of Eastern students who have been involved in short-term missions, let me clarify some things. I don’t think short-term mission trips are all bad. Manual labor, like Katrina relief work, is a great example. It meets a tangible and immediate need.

On the other hand, going to Mexico to lead a VBS for street kids (which I did when I was in high school) causes a little bit of a problem. Attempting to teach the gospel in a week’s time to people who have never heard of Jesus rarely brings about the change that the “missionaries” are so excited about.

Sure, children may get a cross made out of yarn, and be familiar with the name of Jesus, but they will not become disciples without continued guidance.

Of course, there are great things to be gained by those trips, but from what I’ve seen, it is the people who go on the trips who usually gain the most from them, not the people who are being ministered to. This doesn’t mean that those gains aren’t valid–people frequently come back from mission trips closer to God and with a new interest in missions. There are probably hundreds of long-term missionaries who got their first taste of missions from a short-term trip.

However, I think it is important to understand that there are often detrimental effects for the people being ministered to.

While I was in Uganda, I did an internship at an orphanage. During that time, there was a flow of well-intentioned people who came to visit. The kids were thrilled when new people came, but when the team left, they would ask where their friends were and wonder why no one ever stayed long enough to learn their names. It was heart-breaking to see these orphans being abandoned over and over again. These children need constant love and discipline, not excited visitors.

Another problem I have with short-term missions is that it often ends up enabling communities instead of empowering them. If someone is always willing to go into a community for a week and give immunizations to starving babies, but doesn’t stay long enough to train local nurses to do it, the future doesn’t look much different than the present. We should be working ourselves out of a job!

At this point, it might seem like I think people who aren’t interested in long-term missions have no role to play in mission work. That’s not the case at all!

Doing a short-term trip to a place where there is already an established local Christian presence is a lot better than going just anywhere. And, if you are unable to commit your life to long-term missions, financially supporting those who can allows them to stay where they are and continue what they’ve started.

Here’s the bottom line: If our desire is really to change other people’s lives, then we have a long and hard road ahead of us. Little lasting change can happen overnight, over a few weeks, or even over a few years.

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