How to Rethink Your Short-Term Trips

Short-term trips have gotten a bit of a bad rap in recent years. With the publishing of books like When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, the church in North America was awakened to the reality that some trips can be ineffective or even harmful to ministries that receive short-term teams. For example:

• Churches spend huge amounts of money on short-term trips, amounts that could easily fund the workers and ministries they are going to help.

• Short-term team members often make cultural mistakes that set back the work of long-term missionaries.

• In an effort to make their trip feel like it’s “worth it,” trip participants may make paternalistic choices that fail to affirm the dignity of the people they are trying to reach.

• Churches sometimes carry out short-term trips as a way to “check the box” for missions engagement.

These are serious issues to consider and can be great reasons for a church to reassess their vision for short-term trips. Some churches may even decide to cut them out altogether, but I think there is hope for redeeming short-term trips. By reworking the training, implementation and follow-up of our short-term trips, we can redeem an existing structure that holds a special place in the hearts of many churchgoers. Here are a few ways short-term trips can be effective:

1. They can be an incredible blessing to the Sent-One.

2. When a Sent-One sees short-term trips as a part of their vision (beyond just getting more supporters), they can effectively use them to increase their ministry impact.

3. They can broaden the perspective of short-term trip participants.

Here are some ideas for avoiding the mistakes that are common to short-term trips and helping redeem short-term trips to be more effective. 

Consider Dropping ‘Mission’ From Your Trip Titles

Using “mission” in your trip title is not wrong; in fact, it’s an accurate description considering your people will be crossing cultures to engage in the mission of spreading the gospel. But inherent in the term “mission” is a paternalistic, “do something” mindset. The nationals we intend to love and serve may view being the object of a “mission” project as an indication that they are somehow inferior to the people coming to work with them. Communicating a sense of superiority, even unintentionally, wipes away the dignity and value of the nationals in the culture you are going to serve. North Americans generally think highly of our culture and our standing in the world, and while we hope our team members would never directly insult someone else’s culture, national pride is so built into our identity as Americans that it is bound to come out in cross-cultural settings. This subtle superiority is often expressed when we point out materialistic needs that are not being met or get frustrated by the lack of urgency or timeliness we encounter in other cultures.

The North American worldview, while containing some great biblical values, often produces judgmentalism and a sense of moral superiority. We are often guilty of elevating Western cultural values from preferences to universal standards, and our time-oriented culture, task-driven view of success and direct communication style are certain to clash with the more people-oriented culture, people-driven view of success and indirect communication style that is characteristic of most cultures we will minister to during short-term trips.

Alongside these cultural differences, short-term teams will often encounter standards of living that are different from what they are accustomed to. It’s natural for short-term trip goers to assume that what people need most is material, but if we were to ask the people we’re working among, they may tell us something very different. As Corbett and Fikkert point out, while many missions endeavors focus on addressing a lack of material needs, the brokenness we face in the world is much more complex. 

It is a brokenness with God, self, others and creation that primarily needs to be addressed, and that brokenness is universal. We experienced that same brokenness before God redeemed us, and it was only Christ—not our nationality or our cultural heritage—that made that redemption possible. Once we realize that the people we are working among have the same needs and desires we do, we’ll stop viewing short-term trips as projects to be completed and begin viewing them as opportunities to participate in God’s work of reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:18–20).

Describing short-term trips as “mission trips” isn’t wrong, but if your church views these trips primarily as projects to be completed, consider dropping “mission” from your trip titles as a way to redeem the short-term work your church is engaging in.

Categorize Your Trips

If you don’t call your short-term trips “mission trips,” then what do you call them? Instead of just calling your trips “short-term,” consider categorizing them by their purpose so your people know exactly what the nature of each trip will be. Here are four I would recommend:

1. Exposure Trips

2. Goer-Care Trips

3. Specialized Trips

4. Evangelism Trips

Short-Term Exposure Trips 

These trips are open to anyone in your church. They are primarily for the goer, not for the advancement of a particular mission or project. These trips are not “mission trips” in the traditional sense; their main goal is to expose church members to what is happening around the world and give them a vision and desire for being more involved in local and/or global missions efforts. Our church members need exposure to the nations, and dedicating certain trips solely for the purpose of providing exposure allows our people to experience cross-cultural ministry without laying an unnecessary burden on our overseas workers. At Cornerstone we believe these exposure trips are a key part of cultivating awareness in our church and leading our people to become globally-minded Christians, and we hope to see 50% of our members go on one of these trips over the next 10 years. 

Sent-One Care Trips 

As I’ve talked to sent-ones, the trips that they’ve loved and been helped by the most are often those where a church sends over one of their close friends or a key member of the church, not as much to join in the mission, but simply to be a friend, to observe their life and to love on them. These trips often involve: going out to eat with sent-ones; seeing the places where they live, work and play; watching their kids so they can go on a date; listening to their needs as an individual, as a married couple, as parents and as sent-ones; meeting some of the people they are ministering to; and just being present in their culture. These trips not only serve as an encouragement to the sent-ones, but they also help the trip participants better represent the long-term workers back in their home church. For all these reasons and more, this type of trip is often one of the most effective ways to use a short-term team.

Specialized Trips 

This third type of trip is for those who have gone on an exposure trip, asked great questions of the long-term goers and the nationals, and discovered a direct need that they could help meet. Perhaps they have the skills to assist with pastor training, agricultural training, medical training, business consulting, micro-finance, etc. These people have seen the location, the partner and the people. They have asked the nationals and the long-term sent-ones about the needs in their area and have a particular skill or passion that will help meet them. They may not feel led to live in that location long term, but they have a strong desire to be a part of the ministry there. 

At Cornerstone we call these people shareholders. They have gone on a trip to one of our focus areas, caught a particular passion for the work there and decided to take some personal ownership and make an investment in that location. Serving as a shareholder might involve: joining the board of the organization they are partnering with; taking regular trips to use their expertise to meet a need of the people; advocating for the work in that location to other church members and/or financially investing in the work of the organization or partner.

One example of a shareholder from our church is Marlin Rice, who started an agricultural work in Zambia. He holds a Ph.D. in entomology and has extensive experience working in the agriculture business, and his work has literally changed the landscape of northern Zambia. Marlin regularly goes to Zambia to hold agricultural trainings with villages and with groups of pastors and leaders in the community. He teaches how to use fertilizer, hybridize seeds and plant with proper spacing, depth and landscaping. 

Marlin has also taught them the value of planting on flat ground, since traditional African farming involves planting on ridges, a practice that generally doesn’t produce a great yield. Traveling around Northern Zambia, you can literally see a change in the landscape as more and more Zambians have adopted this method of farming. If you stop and ask these farmers where they learned this method, they will often trace back to Marlin’s training. Marlin didn’t have to live in Zambia to make this difference. In fact it may have been a waste of his time to do so. Marlin has had an incredible impact in Zambia by making regular, strategic visits, and his efforts have been a blessing to the Zambian church and its witness to the world. By showing them how to sow seed in the ground, he is helping provide for their work of sowing the seeds of the gospel in the unbelieving world around them. 

Not everyone is a Marlin Rice. We don’t have hundreds of people at our church who can do the type of work Marlin does in Zambia. But when we strategically send our people on short-term trips, we regularly get one or two people who come back excited to become a shareholder in the overseas partnership. Offering specialized short-term trips is a great way to give your church members a vision for how they can meaningfully and personally invest in the people and organizations you partner with.

Evangelism Trips 

There are many places in the world where the cultural differences are too great for a short-term trip member to effectively share the gospel with the people there. It takes long-term workers years to learn the nuances of sharing their faith with the people they are trying to reach. As missions leaders we need to ask our sent-ones whether they think team members will be able to cross the cultural distance and share the gospel effectively on a short-term trip. Listen to your sent-ones and do not force short-term evangelistic trips on them if they don’t believe they will be effective in their setting. Consider exposure trips or sent-one care trips for these partners. 

There are, however, many places in the world where evangelistic trips can be very effective. Working in countries with a similar culture to ours, in university settings and in areas where the people already speak English are all great options for evangelistic trips. Our church regularly sends students on evangelistic summer trips, and they always come back with a greater desire to see their campus reached for Christ and a greater heart for internationals in our city.

These trips can be particularly effective when they are part of the long-term vision and missions strategy of your church. I spent a few years overseas in East Asia, and during my time there we hosted over 100 people on short-term evangelistic trips. The East Asian students on campus spoke English quite well, so it gave the American students from my sending church the opportunity to share the gospel in English and have great conversations with those who did not know Christ.

Over the course of those two years, those 100 students were able to share the gospel with over 5,000 people. There is no chance my wife and I could have shared the gospel with that many students on our own in that same amount of time. We were able to filter through those 5,000 students and follow up with the ones who were really interested in the gospel or who had committed their lives to Christ. We had further gospel conversations with those who wanted to learn more, and we discipled new believers and were a