Let me begin by saying I am passionate about exposing teenagers to the work of God around the world, as well as to using their talents to help continue that work both where they live as well as other locations both near and far.

However, I am concerned about how most short-term mission trips are planned, administered and experienced in ways that demean and undermine the people and ministries we seek to serve, while impressing upon our teenagers “missions” is something you do (i.e. an event) rather than an attitude or lifestyle. I am concerned because for many years as a youth pastor, I was the problem.

I have served in youth ministry for over 28 years, leading multitudes on short-term mission trips locally, nationally, and internationally. As Mexico is a short two hour drive from where I live, I routinely mobilized my youth group to head south for the border. Whether it was leading VBS for a small church, building a medical clinic, or painting a church wall, I thought I was doing “good” for God’s kingdom as I took eager American teens to serve the needs of others. We would say, “we are going to show God’s love” as we built a house for someone. I should have recognized the warning signs early on, but I was slow to see the true impact of our efforts. Maybe these experiences feel eerily familiar to you:

  • Students who were overwhelmed by the financial realities and differences of the locale did not know how to respond so, as we left, they gave all their spending money to a small child, not knowing how that money would be spent or how it would undermine a parent’s hard work to scrape half of that amount of money in a week to live on.
  • Students who returned home with pictures of themselves (with kids, with exotic animals in exotic places) but had no meaningful means of continuing to be involved with those whom they met other than memories.
  • I began to sense there might be issues when a missionary we sought to serve had us re-paint the same wall three years in a row. These Mexican partners, not wanting to seem ungrateful, did not know how to utilize our limited skills in their plans. I then realized I was forcing myself and our ministry upon them.
  • Finally, I knew something was not right in our methods when I took a group of students to Mississippi after the Katrina hurricane to help with the recovery efforts. We were assigned to help repair a house in a neighborhood that was hit hard. As our eager group of students arrived to paint, clean up and do limited repairs, the “men” of the house sat around the front lawn and watched. These young men were able enough to help us, and my students sought to talk to them; but in the process we removed dignity and the opportunity for these men to help and lead their own families.

In their book, When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, identify the chief reason many well-intentioned efforts to serve those in poverty end up hurting the very groups of people we seek to help, is due to a misunderstanding of the type of aid that the situation calls for. Corbett and Fikkert (see chapter 4 of their book for in-depth summaries) identified the 3 levels of aid as:

  • Relief: the urgent and temporary provision of emergency aid to reduce immediate suffering from a natural or man-made crisis. The key identifier for this level of aid is this is often done FOR people who cannot help themselves. This is only needed for a short-period of time and then aid must move into long-term rehabilitation.
  • Rehabilitation: the focus of this aid seeks to restore people and their communities to the positive elements of their pre-crisis conditions. This may be long term, and seeks to utilize partners who live in the community.
  • Development: a process of ongoing change that moves all the people involved (both the helpers and the helped) closer to being in right relationship with God, self and others. Development is NOT done to people or for people but WITH people

If we were to try to identify the type of help many of our short-term mission trips seek to give, I believe most of our efforts would be classified as “relief” when the people we seek to serve need partnerships in “development”.

Take for example the popular task of “building a house” for an impoverished family: this is really “relief” work, but the context is not in crisis. Think of the impact beyond the new housing structure: our well-meaning efforts have taken jobs away from carpenters and other workers in need of employment. We make the issue even worse if we bring our own supplies and therefore do not even help their local economy by buying the large-ticket building supplies from their businessmen, taking away financial opportunities for industrious people to thrive long after we are gone. While we may try to justify our actions by saying we are being better stewards of God’s resources (using donated or cheap labor and supplies) the real stewardship is how we all grow as children of God. A final “hurt” is projects, like building a house for someone; if they don’t partner with us, it takes away dignity as people are reduced to a “child-like” receiving role. Even if we are seeking to serve with a church, we may inadvertently take pastors and missionaries away from their primary duties, as they must now care for and watch over a group of visitors so their funding does not dry up.

In many situations, we continue to give “relief” efforts long after the crisis has passed because it is the easiest form of short-term mission efforts we can give. Rehabilitation and development phases of aid are much more complex and time-consuming. There are no quick fixes that a two week short term mission trip can accomplish, so we often focus on small projects that can be accomplished with limited time and skills involved. As I have committed all these offenses and more, I have come to realize “You know you are serving in a hurtful way when:

  • Our short-term mission service is work that is done “for” someone instead of “with” someone.
  • We give those we seek to serve our plan instead of allowing them to invite us and set the agenda for what help we can offer.

While it may be too late for this latest round of short-term mission trips planning, here are some thoughts to help with future short-term mission trips to insure we lead compassion and mission projects that truly help & not hurt

  1. Understand the type of aid needed. This may require a “scouting trip” to discover what the issues of need really are. Perhaps the first year, the short-term missions trip is called a “Learning Experience” to meet with potential serving partners and gain a true understanding of how your ministry can work WITH them.
  2. Wait until you are invited to come – then ASK them what they need/want. This will be an outcome of your “scouting trip” as you develop a relationship with a missionary or local church from that area. Think about it: friends enjoy having friends visit, so seek to develop a friendship with an organization in the area you are passionate to serve through prayer, fundraising, and then waiting for them to tell you how you can be the biggest help through a friendly visit.

It is important to realize some organizations don’t want our physical help. My wife and I serve on the American board of directors for an orphanage in Johannesburg, South Africa. Our organization does NOT take mission teams because we don’t have the staff to host teams. However, the children’s home we adopted our son from in the Durban area of South Africa does take teams because they see it as part of their global mission and they have resources (housing/staff) to host teams from the United States. Both organizations want to partner with youth groups in America, but the type of aid they can take is very different.

  1. Seek to learn about their culture/values/strengths before you go. This involves training to make sure we are not trying to make the people we serve be like us. Our cultural values may lead to very different methods of cleaning, worshiping and even building – however we want to help the people and not offend them. Therefore, take the time to learn how “American” some of our expectations really are so we do not hurt the people as we interact with them.
  2. Seek to build and continue long-term relationships among local individuals, associations, churches, etc. If we spend equal amounts of time debriefing and serving AFTER the trip as we put into the training and the trip itself, then we are on the road to making the short-term mission trip more than just an “event”. Require participants to dedicate a full year after the mission trip to raise awareness and an equal amount of funds to send to the organization as the trip cost. One of the complaints against sending teams from the U.S. to other countries is the cost: could just sending the money travel requires do more “good”? I argue: NO. The long-term impact in the lives of people as they become partners and friends with those they serve with is invaluable. However, we should not allow people to cease their service just because they are home. I have witnessed teenagers, when short-term mission trips were done according to the principles I have outlined, motivate adults to donate thousands of dollars more than was spent on the original trip to continue partnership with the organization.
  3. Lastly, seek to learn from the people we seek to help as part of the process. Once again this comes from an attitude that we too are impoverished in some ways. As our short-term mission teams work WITH them – not for them – we will discover they are very rich in ways that we need their help to grow in.

May your future short-term mission trips be full of the joy of serving as you give and receive the love of God in meaningful ways that help and do not hurt all involved.