How to Make Missions Trips More Effective

Can short-term missions really make a difference?

You know what’s right in the world? Young adults are understanding the words of Jesus to “go and make disciples” to mean spending their time and resources helping those less fortunate.

You know what’s wrong in the world? As Paul Borthwick says in his book Western Christians in Global Missions, “although globally aware, these young people seem unclear on what the Gospel is beyond just ‘doing good.’”

Mission work has become synonymous with good deeds, and that is the heart of the current crisis in missiology. A good deed can be defined as a usually spur-of-the-moment act that is not expected to be replicated or establish any sort of long-term partnership. For example: holding the elevator for a guy with his hands full or lending change to the woman who is a little short at the cash register. They say “thanks,” you say “you’re welcome,” and you can walk away feeling good about what you just did.

Real mission work ... is a long-term commitment to preaching the Gospel while serving other children of God.

Missions is not that. Real mission work, what Jesus was really talking about when He said “go,” is a long-term commitment to preaching the Gospel while serving other children of God. It’s not quick; it’s not easy. The trouble begins when short-term projects try to mix the positive vibes of good deeds with ministry.

And boy, are these projects popular. In 2005, Princeton released a survey that found 1.6 million Americans participated in mission trips that were less than two weeks long, at a cost of $2.4 billion. The trend suggested those numbers will grow annually.

Americans see the world is hurting and want to help, but only in short bursts and with immediate results. They see poor people in Harlem, Guatemala, Libya, Houston, Russia and China, so they get 15 people from their church to go to those places and try to help.

The problem is those people often don’t need what is given. Roger Sandberg, who was the country director for Medair in Haiti, (think less-prominent UNICEF or Red Cross) says aid should be divided into the stages of relief, rehabilitation and development. Relief is only given for a few short months, and usually only after a crisis when basic needs have to be met. Rehabilitation is the process of turning aid-provision over into the hands of the community. Development is what most long-term missions are interested in, and that means creating self-sustaining outposts where missionaries hopefully work themselves out of the job.

Western Christians want to help so badly that they end up doing things for the people they are helping, even when the people could be doing it for themselves. As Robert Lupton, who has served in inner city Atlanta for 40 years, puts it in his book, Toxic Charity, “Giving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy people.”

As Americans, we look at the global masses and recognize they have things of value, but also acknowledge they lack certain resources. Americans often focus too much energy on what is lacking. Intelligent and affluent Christians come into the backwards and downtrodden places of the world with grand ideas of reform and change. But these projects hardly ever take into account what the community itself feels it needs.

Think of money that’s wasted on unneeded “gifts” by short-termers. It could have gone to roofing thatch houses or water purifying tablets—if only the teams had been patient enough to ask the people what they need. Is it not logical that we know our own strengths and weaknesses better than anyone else? It sounds so simple, but sometimes we only look at what the needs of a person are and don’t bother to ask them what they can offer.

Carrying out God’s mission is not about bringing our plans to the corners of the world; it requires defining the assets of a person and partnering with them so their gifts may be tapped for God’s glory. Once they are empowered, it is expected that the assets of a person can provide self-sustaining means.

So what does this mean for people (like myself) who are planning for upcoming short-term projects? What about the professionals who cannot commit to life-long missions like the saints of yesteryear or courageous souls of today? What about all the positives that come from being involved in these trips? I feel most of the positive outcomes of short-term mission trips (appreciation of new culture, relationships, feelings of accomplishment, new perspective on life, etc.) will not be compromised by some changes.

First, short-termers should only be doing projects that are in partnership with long-termers. A long-termer is someone who has made at least a two-year commitment to be in the thick of a situation. True missionaries are in it for the long haul, and it is both arrogant and ignorant not trust them and use their connections. God has ordained them with a task, and we should respect that.

Carrying out God’s mission is not about bringing our plans to the corners of the world.

Second, mission teams need to recognize the type of aid they are giving and if it is appropriate for the setting. Is there a time to hand out food and clothing without any questions being asked? Yes, but that is four days after a hurricane has hit the city (relief), not four years (development). If working with long-termers, it’s a safe bet that development is the stage of aid.

Third, the community that is being served must be included in the plans. This can be scary for people who have thought about policies, agendas and improvements. It requires a certain kind of Godly humility to ask a group of people for suggestions because it gives them governance, ownership and control. As Ron Blue, a professor in world missions and intercultural studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, says, “It appears to me that those of us in the North America empire are rather slow to yield control to others.” That loss of control is essential to effective mission work.

We should not be discouraged from taking these life-changing trips, but encouraged to do them smarter. I sincerely think a cross-cultural project of any kind is essential to gaining a wider perspective on the world, and my personal experience has seen dramatic shifts in how I view poverty. However, it is time that Christians no longer hang their hats on their intentions; it is time to look hard at the results and decide if we are tangibly making a difference in the world. Let us be the hands and feet of Christ to do that, but let us also do it correctly, efficiently, and lovingly to bring the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.


David Zirilli


David Zirilli commented…

Great article! It sums up nicely many of the pitfalls that our feel good missions trips lack. In my experience relationships are also often lacking, which you hint at with your main point. You rightly mention it as a positive aspect of short-term missions. But, usually the strongest relationships are made amongst the team members and not with those who we go to serve.

These relationships are crucial. It is how we do what you propose and it is the fulfillment of Christ's second greatest commandment.

First it is through these relationships that we can humbly ask for wisdom from and involve the people we are going to serve. These relationships become the foundation upon which the ministry is built. It builds trust and ownership. it is crucial to the lasting success of any ministry.

Second, it is what Christ commands us to do. We are to love those around and we can only do that by getting into their lives and letting them into ours. It is messy and doesn't fit well into our 2-week schedules, but it is what really matters in the big picture of the trip.

Thanks for the article and I hope this adds a little emphasis that might have been missed by some.

David Zirilli


David Zirilli replied to David Zirilli's comment

Here is a post I wrote regarding the 6 key relationships that we all need for spiritual growth.


Greg Damhorst


Greg Damhorst commented…

Thanks for this piece, a conversation that needs to happen more among congregations. Could you share a link to the Princeton survey results?

Michael Simmelink


Michael Simmelink replied to Greg Damhorst's comment

Sorry, but I do not have a link to that survey. I received that information from Toxic Charity. I happened to be captured by that stat in the book, but Princeton was the original source.

Daniel Laurence Sellers


Daniel Laurence Sellers commented…

Well said. I am a long-term missionary in Peru, and I definitely agree! I have seen first-hand how these principles, both negative and positive, have impacted needy people here. If you're interested in another fantastic book on this subject, We Are Not the Hero by Jean Johnson also covers this ground in a really fresh and knowledgeable way.



Maureen commented…

"Short-termers should only be doing projects that are in partnership with long-termers."

YES YES YES! You are spot on with this article and this observation in general. As a former "long-termer" there is nothing more frustrating and detrimental to spend so much time building up relationships with the people you are ministering to and then have a short-term team come in an say/do something not needed, culturally inappropriate, etc, and put your efforts back by several months. Also, those working in the field day to day know the people and know what is needed. We need to not be so arrogant to think that we know what is best for another country. Often, it can just be spending time with people and encouraging them. :)

Sarah Leybourne


Sarah Leybourne commented…

I find it interesting that long term is considered to be only 2 years! This may just be enough time to get a basic handle on the language and to build significant relationships with people. Times have certainly changed, like you say.
As someone who has been involved in helping to lead many short term trips for teenagers, we have found there is constant criticism about the effectiveness of short term mission trips and if the money is being used effectively. I agree that sending the money somewhere for local workers or missionaries to use would be extremely valuable. However, you can’t say that it isn’t worth it when you see the lives of many on the teams being transformed by the Holy Spirit. Many are deeply impacted by the power of the Gospel at work in people’s lives and we have seen many teens go on to study at Bible College and be actively involved in ministry and missions, some even full time.

Michael Simmelink


Michael Simmelink replied to Sarah Leybourne's comment

I agree that there are benefits with short-term missions. My point was not to discourage them, but rather suggest a more effective way to partner with long-termers. All of the valuable parts of short-term trips can be replicated using some ideas from the model I laid out. Because it can't just be about the group learning or having a good time; there has to be consideration on what the group is doing to positively impact the long-termers.
Hope you continue to see more growth in the next trip you're involved with!

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