32. When is a Missions Trip REALLY Missions?

A team of Canadian youth was involved with young people from another culture for an intense two weeks of ministry in children’s camps.  They came back excited and impacted, but apart from relief at their safe return home, the church and parents showed little interest in the effect that experience had on the lives of the participants.  As a result many of the young people fell into a spiritual depression that lasted over half a year.

A youth pastor expressed his perspective on short term missions, “It is 100% an opportunity to have a time of intensive discipleship with those participating.  Whatever they are involved in, including the people they are serving, is a secondary consideration.”

Both of these anecdotes indicate a narrow and truncated view of missions that needs correcting.  Important elements of spiritual development in people’s lives are undermined when crucial aspects of missions are neglected.  In the first case, completing and affirming the experience through appropriate debriefing was required.  In the second case, the extreme statement of the youth pastor bypassed the primary reason for any missions effort: the needs of the receptor community.

Short term missions trips have several positive aspects, not the least of which is hands on exposure to cross-cultural missions work which increases the desire to be involved in what God is doing worldwide.  Nonetheless, there are negative aspects that can result in more harm than good.  This article features advice from FEBInternational personnel about short term missions presented with the desire that our churches’ efforts in short term missions be legitimate, effective and rewarding.

I.  Support missions, not simply cross-cultural experiences. 

The aim of Missions is gospel transformation in the lives of individuals and communities.  Cross-cultural experiences that are legitimately “missions” will maintain this as the central goal.  This demands a high level of spiritual commitment and maturity on the part of the participants that will ensure true spiritual love and concern when relating to others. When Jesus sent out his short term mission teams (Luke 9:1-6 and 10:1-12), they were given tasks that demanded a high level of commitment in representing Christ and his message and they were expected to minister in significant ways.

For those who are not yet ready to represent Christ cross-culturally, there are steps that can be taken to prepare for a cross-cultural encounter.  For example, a good test for young people is to be involved in the SEMP program (Students Equipped to minister to their Peers).  Once that has been successfully completed, involvement in a local or inner city ministry will stretch and prepare the individual for ministry and demonstrate their desire to serve.  Such a process proves the sincerity of the participant and can weed out those who may have ulterior motives of experiencing another culture that outweighs their desire to be involved in missions.

II. Fewer is better.

Besides the pragmatic aspects of providing for a large number of people, there are a number of other advantages to limiting the number of those involved.  When people travel individually or in pairs in order to be involved in missions, they fit much more easily into existing missions work.  They are more likely to develop relationships across cultural barriers because they do not have a large “safe” group shielding them from uncomfortable situations.  Individuals who are willing to travel abroad are more likely to consider career missions since they tend to be more open to experiencing the unfamiliar.

There is a common misunderstanding that all Christians should have cross-cultural missions experience.  Although all are chosen by God to bring about gospel transformation in and through their lives, not all are equipped for or capable of handling the adjustments, stresses and complications of cross-cultural life and ministry.  A goal of the church that wishes to be effective in missions is to discover those few gifted for such relationships and lifestyles and expose them to short term missions so that their ministry skills and passion can be developed.

It is more feasible for fewer people to stay longer, thus increasing their exposure and effectiveness.  When the focus is on impact in missions rather than on experiencing another culture, those who are less gifted in cross-cultural ministry have an opportunity to sacrifice by remaining home so that others can have a more impacting ministry.

III. Training and debriefing are Crucial

If a person merely wants to experience the excitement of a hospital operating room, their presence is sufficient.  However if that person would also like to operate and take a scalpel in their hand, they better have some training first!  Similarly, representing the Lord Jesus Christ cross-culturally is serious business.  Great harm can be done to the gospel through insensitive and incautious comments and actions.  Appropriate training can lead to experiences that not only advance the kingdom, but result in a positive and developing vision of what God can accomplish.  Moreover, an evaluation of the experience from the perspective of those with more insight and understanding can lead to greater personal growth and enhanced ability to serve in the future.

IV.  Keep Career Missions the preferred option.

Short term missions continues to play an effective role in the global effort of spreading the gospel worldwide.  However, the cultural and linguistic demands of cross-cultural ministry require the church to maintain a focus on career.  It takes years for missionaries to function effectively in another language and to learn how gospel transformation will result in contextualized churches and theology.  Thus organizers of short term mission trips must ensure that their efforts both promote and enhance career missions efforts. Such an emphasis keeps the challenge of missions at the forefront and contributes to the development of those individuals who may be called to devote their lives to such a task.

When done right, short term missions trips are not viewed as an end in themselves, but an integral part of the God’s mission to the world.  Lives are changed on both sides of the cultural divide and those called by Christ are encouraged towards further development and missions commitment

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Author: Mark Naylor DTh (missiology)

I have been with Fellowship International since 1984. Karen and I served in Pakistan for 14 years and returned to Canada in 1999. I have continued to be involved in Bible translation traveling twice a year to Pakistan. My current role with Fellowship International and Northwest Baptist Seminary is as Coordinator of International Leadership Development