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Rethinking Mission Trips

Do short-term missions do any good in the long run?

On one hand, the day was a complete success.

Despite the no-show of the packing mules we had been promised, every person on our team of Paceñan translators and U.S. medical professionals had arrived at our Day 2 destination alive. The expectations of us all, concerning the steepness and duration of this segment of our 4-day jungle trek, had been a comical underestimation. It would have been brutal even with our packing mules.

Why were we here? Did the four residents of this mud hut we were staying in or the fifteen people in the village a few meters further up really need a toothbrush or ibuprofen that badly, at the cost of dehydration and extreme fatigue of our team members? Was it really necessary to pose risk to the well-being of our group simply to prescribe temporary solutions to a handful of people?

An exhausted mind does not lack honesty. It is not until these moments—the moments of diminished blood sugar and extreme fatigue, the moments exotic jungle sounds and sights fade to a new monotony, the moments cultural differences become "annoying,"—when the tough questions begin to surface. Using one's vacation time to "serve the needy" on a short-term medical missions trip appears on paper as a noble pursuit, but what is the mission? If the mission is to help those in need, why is $60,000 spent for 20 volunteers to go hand out ibuprofen in remote areas for a week when a permanent hospital could be built for a comparable price? Why are stereotypes of superiority allowed to be reinforced by people from rich countries walking into poor villages and taking charge for a day?

As we were gearing up to leave the next morning after our very un-heavenly hike, Felix gathered our group together to share a few words before our next day-hike across the valley. A leader in the community, Felix had translated for us during our clinic there. We encircled him, with curious ears. "We live way out here," he began. "You show God's love to us through your sacrifice. Not even our own people in the next village come to see us or help us up here. This day will make history--the day I forget your kindness will be because I have died."

And there was something in Felix's words that made it feel like our hike could be remembered, our sweat was not in vain, and our gifts to them extended beyond the temporary, though supplies would run out.

I like Jesus. Jesus was always talking about a “Kingdom.” Human tendency associates kingdoms with Big and Beautiful--Incan ruins, shiny skylines, the Seven Wonders. But I picture Jesus' disciples staggering from vertigo at the immensity of the Jerusalem temple while Jesus suddenly shouts to them "Hey! Come look at the Kingdom of God!" as he watches a poor widow put a penny in the temple offering. It seemed Jesus constantly drifted just below the surface, noticing a Kingdom that placed potential for nobility on the ordinary things in life.

His Kingdom marries the Ordinary to the Noble.


His Kingdom marries the Ordinary to the Noble. Suddenly, we discover a world below the surface, where maybe the rich are not the ones truly blessed, but rather those poor in spirit. Maybe those with plenty are not the ones truly satisfied, but rather those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Maybe the ambitious are not the ones truly strong, but rather those who are merciful and humble.

As I sit in air-conditioning, months after my jungle trek, and imagine the mud huts sprinkled along the cliffs, I cannot help but speculate that, by now, the ibuprofen is gone, the parasites are back, and without a doubt every one of the children's balloons have popped or been swept into the valley. I long to do more in those remote areas and am devoting my career to this very desire. But for now, as I sit here and imagine, it is easy to look back with my natural eyes. Those in the remote, resource-poor settings we visited remain there with scarce resources; those of us born in the States return to a culture of comfort and write about our crazy experiences in some remote jungle. Another short-term medical mission; more material for cool web articles; the end.

So often, my eyes search for high temple walls while the poor widow slowly shuffles to the offering box behind me. I believe it is the Kingdom of God for which our hearts search, and we must train our eyes to do the same.

The danger is to think a caring Creator is confined to a human business model.


Is it cost-effective? Is it sustainable? Does it empower the community? These are incredibly important questions that should not be ignored when investing in missions trips--in fact, ignoring these questions can actually bring harm to the communities in need. But the danger is to believe the rest is nothing. The danger is to think a caring Creator is confined to a human business model, where success is measured by a tangible cumulative outcome. It is tempting to allow the "Kingdom moments" to fall through our earthly sifter simply because the medical care is not sustainable or because potable water is still lacking. But God's Kingdom lives, in Felix's grateful words, in the compassionate touches, in the thankful sun-withered faces, in the fútbol games with rowdy village children. Jesus aimed to salvage the seemingly insignificant things in life.

My challenge is for those of us seeking a life in Jesus' steps to go deeper into this Kingdom mindset--and not simply in order to feel good about short-term medical missions trips. There is Life to be sought in our own individual Ordinary. The Kingdom of God can be sought in tomorrow morning—in the mundane gray shades of our routine life, our routine desk job, our routine church service, our routine grocery shopping. This is it. The Kingdom of God is at hand.

"When the eyes of the soul looking out meet the eyes of God looking in, heaven has begun right here on this earth." - A.W. Tozer

16 Comments

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Solidroque commented…

Thank you for such a well thought out article. Short term missions can certainly reinforce the errors of some Western stereotypes (cavalry riding in to save the helpless peasants, etc). The way our church has handled STM has helped us avoid some of them. 15 years ago, we began a partnership with a church in Merida, Mexico. Our youth pastor had gone to seminary with one of the leaders of the church, and we have sent a team every other year since then, some large (30) and some small (9). It no longer seems like STM; it seems like I was able to be a part of and to continue the work of all the other groups that had gone before me and that they were just as much a part of my trip as I was of theirs.
Over the years, we (along with many other STM groups) have helped them build a sanctuary, a school, and a seminary. One of the greatest benefits of our long term relationship, however, has been to see them become a mission-minded church in a culture that sees itself as a recipient rather than a participant. Because they have seen how God has worked though our long term partnership, they are making strides into the rest of the Yucatan.
God is a God of relationships, and therein lies one of the dangers of some people's attitudes about STM: We could accomplish so much more if we sent the money instead of the people. The problem is that, once we have given the money, we often are tempted to think that we have done our part, that we "gave at the office." As Joy said with the Wilberforce quote, "you can look away, but you will never be able to have not seen." Matt. 9:38 says, "Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. God doesn't mean we shouldn't send money, but that's not what He was asking for.
This was my daughter's 3rd trip and my first, and it was a blessing to me to see the joy on her face as she was able to greet and work alongside friends that she had made on her previous trips and to get to know for myself the brothers and sisters who had had such an impact on her life.
We have had several students who went on these trips who have gone on to full time or long term missions. One student just got back from 2 years in Belgium to go to seminary in hopes of going back, and my daughter is trying to finish a teaching degree with thoughts of going to South America to teach and minister there. While there can certainly be problems with STM, I think finding a church to partner with over the long haul can help alleviate most of them.

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Anonymous commented…

This is fantastic. I've been trying to communicate this very thing for a long time.

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Tolibaga commented…

Lots of great comments....... Clearly, it is Christ in you, both 'your' and 'their' hope of "glory" in every way this can be experienced. We can bring many goodies to the table, but ultimately it is 'by His Spirit' that ongoing blessings are realized - both in short term as well as long term missions. He in us and we in Him: blessings!

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Sharryn commented…

The question every christian should ask is 'what would Jesus do?'. Go back to the gospels. He is our example. We always think we need to modernise the gospel, but he is the same yesterday, today and forever and he was clear what our 'mission' was/is..
Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well. THAT is the Kingdom of God.

After more than 20 years, after going through the average mission trips and waiting to see real life changes, I can honestly say, Jesus's way is the most true, effective and life changing. Preach the gospel, love everyone, pray for the sick, cast out demons - that is the real mission. If it was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me!

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Alan commented…

There is so much going on within yourself on going on a mission trip, within the people supporting you from home and even those who only observe you, but more importantly its what happens to the people you are helping/serving whether it be in a practical way or an emotional way. So many stories of small acts or gifts that make massive improvements in peoples lives.
Its the unfortunate state of our society that looks at finances with such priority that it can impact missions so greatly.
I know of many people including myself that have pulled out of full time missions due to financial pressures in the western society. Some have persevered for years and God has kept them going others have returned to their families with debts.
Think the heart of missions is that when we are called to go out, we go. If its within Gods Will He will provide.

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