A New Way to Think About Short Term Missions

Our typical way of thinking about short term mission trips can be unhelpful. Here’s another way.

If you’ve been reading my work for a while, you’ll know that I’ve had my concerns about the way we do short term mission trips.

Most of you would agree, mission is not something we can possibly do in a week. It’s a lifetime commitment for every Christian.

That’s why I’m not too keen on the short term model of parachuting in for a week to bring Jesus to a place where Jesus is already at work.

Unless you speak the language and understand the culture, your attempts to share the gospel are going to fall short.

If that’s hard to swallow, just imagine someone from Mongolia, who speaks only Mongolian (plus excited hand gestures), trying to communicate a life-changing message to you, in your country, while visiting for one week.

I’m convinced it’s much better for short termers to come with a learning posture—seeking God’s heart for the nations, and God’s heart for the poor—and to hopefully go back home with a renewed vision for everyday life and vocation.

[By the way, one of my most popular posts offers some alternative ideas on what to call these trips—names that better reflect what is happening when we go, such as “Vision Trip,” “Learning Exchange,” or perhaps even “Shopping Expedition?”]

Despite all my criticism and jokes, I’m still a big fan of getting folks out of their comfort zone, introducing them to another culture and connecting them with the poor and marginalized.

In fact, I reckon this can be life-changing. Seriously. Transformational.

So, I wanted to share a model for short term engagement that we’ve been developing at Alongsiders International, because it’s based on a set of principles that can be applied pretty much anywhere. And I hope this will be a blessing for you wherever you are serving.


Principle #1: Build on a Strong Local Foundation

This might sound like a contradiction, but I hope you will go to a thriving local ministry that doesn’t really need your short term team in order to function on a day to day basis. Local people have got to be central to God’s work of transformation in any healthy ministry.

Be careful of any ministry that relies too heavily on short term volunteers from outside—it may be unsustainable and poorly conceived. I hope I’m not being too cynical in pointing out that often these types of projects are designed around regularly welcoming short term teams, because those teams bring money.

This is not a short term visitor loving on a vulnerable child—this is a local Christian who is committed to walking alongside her “little sister” over the course of many years.

For Alongsiders here in Cambodia, we built a discipleship movement of hundreds of young Khmer Christians throughout the country, who walk alongside one vulnerable child each (their “little brother or sister”) in their own village or slum community. This is a movement of local young people transforming their own communities.

Just between you and me, nothing we do in the Alongsiders movement is particularly reliant on outsiders and we don’t need people to come in and play with local children or teach them—we have trained up local people to do that. And they do it really well.

Principle #2: Come With Your Vocation in Mind

Now, assuming that the foundations of the ministry are already in place and built around local people, there may be skills an outsider can bring to strengthen the work that is already happening.

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But here’s we we get mixed up: We recruit bankers to come paint an orphanage. We get teachers digging ditches. We get graphic designers building a thatch house. And we get dentists preaching a sermon.

All of these things are much better done by local people who know the language, know the locally appropriate methods of doing these things and frankly, could probably use the work.

At the same time, we’re missing a huge opportunity for these short termers to explore what their God-given vocation looks like in a global context—and how that might impact how they serve in their own home country. We miss out on the long-term learning implications of the trip.

For example one couple, who work at a camp in New Zealand, came for four months to help us set up our new Alongsiders campsite, Shalom Valley, in Cambodia. They brought expertise that was helpful for us, and back at home they hope to help their camp develop more of a global vision and connection with our camp. That’s what it looks like when people serve from their vocation, passions and skills—on a short-term basis, but with a long-term vision.

Principle #3: Commit to Mutuality

The third principle that underpins these Learning Exchanges is that of mutuality—both hosts and visitors will learn and teach.

When you come with good intentions to bless people, recognize that you are very often coming to a place where local people have historically been colonized and oppressed by outsiders. This history leaves scars—feelings of worthlessness and pain. And this is especially true amongst the poor.

When there is a steady stream of outside trainers who aren’t willing to learn, we send the message that local people have nothing to offer. We reinforce their sense of inferiority, while patting ourselves on the back—emotionally boosted by the high status role of expert.

So, here is how we have been framing these learning exchanges with mutuality instead, at Alongsiders:

The visiting group is organized around some common skill or passion. Everyone who comes will have something to contribute in that area. They may be a group of entrepreneurs, horticulturalists, basket weavers or candlestick makers. Honestly, they could be anything.

Mutuality means we all have something to offer—something to teach and something to learn. Also, it’s more fun.

Then we gather young people from the Alongsiders movement who have an interest in growing their skills in that area. Maybe they are hopeful entrepreneurs or fledgling basket-weavers. They may even be experts themselves.

These two groups will come together at Shalom Valley for a retreat, to take turns teaching and learning. The visiting team teach some things, and the young Alongsiders teach something.

For example, when a team of worship leaders and musicians came from a Singapore church, we had a retreat together with all the Alongsiders interested in developing their music and worship skills.

The Singaporeans taught some workshops on various aspects of worship, and the Alongsiders taught the Singaporeans about traditional Khmer dance. Both groups had an opportunity to be experts and learners. In the evening they shared the stage for a worship concert in both Khmer and English. It was an epic finale to a mutually dignifying camp.

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Principle #4: Commit to Going Deep Into Issues of Justice

When you come to engage with people who live in poverty (like most of the world), you will come face to face with issues of justice. Don’t miss the opportunity to be deeply impacted.

I’ve noticed that most short term teams do quite well at training their team members on cross-cultural understanding, team dynamics, having a servant attitude, etc. But there is a serious lack of teaching on the implications of the gospel as “good news for the poor” (Luke 4:18).

Yes, I guess I am suggesting that Jesus overturning the tables should be required reading for short term teams.

What does the kingdom of God look like for those of us who have all we need? (Luke 1:53)

Why did John the Baptist describe repentance as sharing one of your two coats with the poor? (Luke 3:11)

Why did an encounter with Jesus result in Zachaeus giving away most of his wealth? (Luke 19:8—prompting Jesus to declare that “Today, salvation has come to this house.”)

What do all these things mean in the context of a world of poverty?

When we welcome short term groups to Alongsiders we ask them to grapple with these issues (often by going through the first few chapters of Luke), and we provide Bible teaching on issues of justice and poverty.

Those who engage with these biblical themes are much more likely to see long-term change in their lives, especially if they continue to meet monthly with the same team to talk through the changes they are implementing.

Principle #5: Child Protection

Finally, a word of caution. Your short term team should place a high priority on the protection of children. Do no harm.

Your visit to an orphanage makes this situation more likely.

You might be surprised to hear that Australia has now passed legislation to discourage Aussies from volunteering overseas at orphanages—and for good reason.

(These types of trips to orphanages are harmful to the children, who are exposed to a revolving door of unscreened visitors. Studies show that more than 80 percent of children in orphanages today have one or both parents alive who could care for them if supported appropriately.)

At Alongsiders, we ask every short termer to undertake a criminal record check—crucial for any work with children.

And now that we have built a campsite, we are better able to gather for these types of retreats in a safe environment. We are pretty cautious about allowing short termers to visit or stay in slum communities or rural villages because it raises unhelpful expectations among the neighbors and places an unhealthy spotlight on the children we are working with. Those problems are avoided by gathering at a neutral location, like a camp, away from home.

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Craig Greenfield (@craigasauros) is the founder of Alongsiders International and author of Subversive Jesus: An Adventure in Justice, Mercy, and Faithfulness in a Broken World (Zondervan, 2016). A storyteller and activist living in urban slum communities for the past 15 years, Craig’s passion is to communicate God’s heart for the marginalized around the world. This article was originally published on Craig’s blog.