Welcome to the 31 Days of Global Missions with Kids series! You can view all the posts in the series here. Please remember that the goal isn’t for you to do ALL these projects, but rather pick one or two. You can download a printable worksheet here to guide you through discerning which project is best for you and the young people in your life.
Mission Trips as a Family?
Have you ever been on a short-term mission trip? If you have children, have you ever considered taking them on a mission trip with you?
I’ve been on many mission trips through the years, to places like Peru, China, Poland, Hungary, and Mexico.
Though we plan to move overseas ourselves, we have not yet taken our kids (ages three and age one) on a mission trip… though we’re talking about a weekend trip to Mexico in a few months (just a few hours from home, we figure we can make an early exit if needed!)
I’ve been inspired by reading stories of families online who have taken their children with them, including:
- Marla Taviano took her kids to Cambodia, and they liked it so much they moved there as long-term missionaries!
- Crystal Paine from Money Saving Mom took her kids to South Africa (though I liked her point that it was not a mission trip but a relationship trip!)
- Tsh Oxenreider from the Art of Simple took her family on an around-the-world trip that was part vacation, part education, and part service to others.
I’m not sure that there are any hard-and-fast rules about taking your children on a mission trip… so much will depend on your particular children, where you are going, and what you’ll be doing.
If you have a specific question, feel free to leave a comment below and I’m happy to let you know my thoughts.
So, today I want to talk about just some general thoughts on short-term missions. I’ll warn you – this post is quite long. I’m intending it for those who might be very interested in thoughts about mission trips.
If you’re not interested, no problem! Check out some other ways to be involved in global missions with kids here.
Should We Go on Short-Term Mission Trips?
In recent years, some have criticized short-term mission trips, wondering their value and whether they cause more harm than good.
I’ve been one of those critics – during my final year of college, I did an extra project all about short-term missions, questioning whether we as Western Christians should keep doing them. Spoiler alert: I think we should still do short-term missions.
A fifteen year old girl, camera and bag of souvenirs in tow, walks out of the secure area of the airport and into the arms of her parents, anxious to see their daughter after her two-week mission trip to Africa.
They ask her about her experiences, and she describes, “It was wonderful! I held this little boy at an orphanage for two whole hours, and I can just tell that his life was totally changed because of me. It was kind of hard because I don’t speak their language, but my group and I learned how to say ‘Jesus loves you,’ in their language, so I’m sure that lots of people learned about Him from us.
Also, my group went on a safari, and we saw elephants and giraffes. I got to try eating ants, too. It was a great trip. I just feel so on fire for God now, and I really bonded with the other people on my team.”
Scenes like this occur at airports around the United States throughout the year, as short-term mission trip participants of all ages return home and tell others about their experiences. Their testimonies make short-term missions sound godly, adventurous, and fun, and partly based on their stories, people continue to participate in short-term mission trips.
Unfortunately, these reports of short-term missions frequently focus on or even overestimate the positives without considering some of the negatives. There are numerous reasons or goals for short-term missions, and it is not always clear if the goals are being accomplished. Some wonder whether short-term missions is truly as effective as many claim it is, while others question who should be the focus of short-term missions: the participants or the recipients.
Positives of Short-term Mission Trips
- The Bible indicates that God’s people are called to show His love and do His work cross-culturally, and short-term missions is one way (but not the only way!) that can be done.
- The Gospel of Jesus can be spread through mission trips. Through drama and puppet presentations, day camps, distributing hygiene kits, or operating a soup kitchen, teams can bring the message of Christ to the people they encounter.
- Mission trip participants can improve the welfare of people they meet. They may focus on housebuilding, medical missions, or food distribution. In many regions of the world there is a need for relief or poverty alleviation, and many short-term teams are able to help with poverty issues in powerful ways through their work.
- Christians of all ages can grow spiritually and emotionally through a short-term missions experience.
- Many long-term missionaries are recruited through short-term experiences.
- Even if they never return to the foreign mission field, short-term mission participants can be excellent informers and supporters of missions back home. Participants have seen first-hand what needs to be done, and their stories can often reach friends, family, and church members much more effectively than a long-term missionary who does not have the same direct connection to a congregation. They are able to tell their congregations how to pray, because they have specific names and needs rather than simply a vague, general prayer request for a career missionary on the church prayer list, and they are also able to encourage others to continue to support missionaries and their work financially.
- Short-term missions enables laypeople to be directly involved in carrying out the Great Commission. It does not require extensive training for participants. The short-term missions movement has been extremely empowering for laypeople by showing them their role in the priesthood of all believers, meaning that all Christians, not just professionally trained ones, are able to serve God’s kingdom. In short-term missions, nearly any Christian can be a participant in mission work.
- Short-term missionaries can encourage long-term missionaries and help meet a specific need. Short-term teams can meet a specific need for a long-term missionary, like providing the manpower and funding to build a new church fellowship hall or running a Vacation Bible School program. Long-term missionaries can also find great encouragement in simply having someone visit them from their country of origin and show that someone cares about the missionary’s work; in a ministry where discouragement and loneliness is prevalent, this can be a huge boost in energy and enthusiasm for the continued work of the long-term missionary.
- Mission trips carry out the “mutual encouragement of believers” described in Romans 1:11-12.
Concerns regarding Short-term Mission Trips
- Sometimes short-term mission trip participants overestimate their spiritual impact. They often don’t have language ability, they don’t have long-term commitment, and they may not know the culture of the people they are reaching. Cultural barriers can be hard to deal with in a lifetime of mission work, and infinitely more so in a short-term setting.
- Unfortunately, short-term teams do not always do necessary or effective work as they seek to improve the welfare of others. Sometimes, mission projects are initiated by the participants, rather than nationals within the country. Westerners think they know how to help, so they think they are bringing a valuable economic resource, like a new home, food, or toiletry items, when in truth, the people living there did not want or need that economic resource.
- Westerners can have a patronizing attitude, thinking we’re the great American saviors, without respecting the culture we’re meeting.
- Short-term missions experiences can result in a spiritual “mountain-top experience” where participants come home with aspirations of a changed life, but typically don’t end up making many changes.
- Short-term mission participants often are unequipped, receiving zero-training before their mission experience.
- Sometimes, mission trip participants go because they just want the adventure, rather than out of a sense of service to God. There is nothing wrong with travel and adventure, and Christians can be encouraged to go on vacations and see the world, but if the purpose is adventure, and not missions, then it should not be called a “mission trip.”
- Short-term mission teams likely mean more work for the long-term missionary hosts. Along with their encouragement and enthusiasm, short-term mission teams can bring grumbling first-time travelers, people naturally insensitive and unaware of cultural issues, and the need for the long-term missionaries’ time.
- Short-term missions can be too focused on the participants rather than the receivers.
- Some wonder whether the cost of a mission trip (flights, hotel rooms, food, passports) would be better donated directly to the people being served.
Practical Recommendations for Short-term Missions
1. Train short-term mission participants before their trip. Training should include education about culture in general and the destination culture in particular. Training can help participants nurture their spiritual growth and teaches people about missions.
Depending on the situation, training can take place in different formats, for example, as a weekly class for several months before the trip, or as a three day intensive training session at the beginning of the trip.
I recommend at least 10% of the length of your trip be spent in training beforehand. So, a 10 day trip should include at least one full day of training beforehand. A 10-hour day trip to Mexico should include at least an hour-long training ahead of time. Note: this is training, not just information about what to pack or what to expect.
2. Partner with nationals in the receiving country.
Some of the problems with short-term missions, like the existence of unnecessary work projects, stem from a lack of relationship between the short-term mission team and a national church in the country where the short-term mission is taking place.
There needs to be a partnership between the short-term mission team and national churches in order for effective short-term mission work to take place. Ideally, national churches should be at the forefront, and they should be the ones suggesting a short-term mission team be involved in some way.
3. Pursue meaningful missions experiences during the trip.
Rather than settling for repainting a freshly painted church, mission trip leaders should intentionally pursue missions experiences that are meaningful for both the recipients and the participants.
Trip organizers should work with their national church partners to develop projects that will benefit the receivers, rather than simply inventing something that may or may not actually help them. This not only serves the recipients, but the participants as well, as they see that their presence is truly making an impact in the lives of others.
4. Implement an ongoing missions ministry rather than simply taking once-a-year trips.
Some churches label a two-week section of the annual church calendar “short-term mission trip,” and ignore missions the rest of the year. Churches should pursue an ongoing missions emphasis throughout the year through Bible classes, missions presentations, debriefing sessions for past trips, and support of missions through church ministries.
Likewise, as a family, participating in missions year-round, rather than just during a mission trip, is key. I know of some great ideas for how to get involved in missions wherever you are!
5. Participate in missions wherever you are, both in your own community and overseas on a mission trip.
While there are certainly people in need, both economically and spiritually, all over the world, there are also people in virtually every community in the United States that need to hear the Word of Christ and need to experience His love.
In order to truly serve missions as a whole, Christians should be involved in missions both far away and close to home.
6. Debrief after the missions experience. The same 10% rule can be applied here – a 10 day trip should result in at least one day of debriefing… not just a rest or vacation day, but a time specifically devoted to thinking through the mission trip and praying about changes to make back home.
7. Seek excellence in short-term missions.
In order to improve the quality of short-term missions, the people involved need to continue to aim for improvement. This involves diligence and dedication to doing short-term missions well.
Seeking excellence requires time, and trial and error. It might mean writing goals for the short-term missions experience. It means evaluating motives.
Before they begin, participants can ask themselves why they are going on this trip, and leaders can ask themselves why they are leading. They can evaluate if it is because of a sense of adventure, or because everyone else is doing it, or if it is because they want to serve God and others through their experience.
Yes, We Should Continue Short-term Mission Trips!
In an “updated” version of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters concerning short-term missions, Frampton Fox speculates about a conversation between two demons, in which Wormwood, one of the demons, says, “We must inspire more indigenous scholars to criticize [short-term] missionaries for their colonialism to the exclusion of the considerable damage that their sacrifice has done to our interests.”
The demons go on to discuss how enough criticism might stop short-term missions altogether (something they view as positive, of course).
The demons’ comments provide an important reminder to those that closely examine short-term missions: the negatives of short-term missions should not cause people to become discouraged and disillusioned and give up.
Yes, there are flaws in short-term missions. Inexperienced trip leaders go without the right preparation, and participants join the team for the wrong motivations.
Short-term mission teams make cultural blunders, complete unnecessary construction projects, and do not speak enough of the native language to say much more than “Where is the bathroom?”
Teams embarrass their long-term missionary hosts and exhaust the national churches trying to work with the short-term participants.
Participants spend far too much time thinking about their own needs – including needs for photos and souvenirs – than they do thinking about the people they are trying to serve. Although they return back home vowing to change their lives as the result of their short-term mission experiences, their lives are back to normal within a few months.
Yes, there are flaws in short-term missions, but in spite of all the mistakes that are made, God works anyway. Participants have the wrong motivations, but God uses them.
Someone goes on a trip primarily because she wants to see the Great Wall of China, and God changes her heart to love the Chinese people. Leaders are unprepared to lead a short-term mission trip, but the team arrives home safely and happily at the end of the trip.
As God’s people, let us strive to do His will with diligence and in a way that glorifies Him as we do short-term missions. Let us use our knowledge and intellect to study short-term missions and develop ways to touch people, using the knowledge He has given us. But in the meantime, let us not stop doing short-term missions.
Let us not throw our hands up in the air and think, “If I can’t do it well, I shouldn’t do it at all.” Instead, let us continue to seek improvement, but let us remember when we do not do short-term missions well, that God “chose the foolish things of the world” and “the weak things of the world” to serve Him.
For further reading…
- In case you’re interested, my college paper can be viewed in its entirety here: Go and Make Disciples… in Two Weeks? Much of this post was gleaned from that paper.
- I highly recommend the work of David Livermore (he is heavily quoted in my paper) – he has many posts on his blog about “cultural intelligence,” a key factor in serving cross-culturally in any capacity.