I’d Probably Still Cancel Your Short-Term Mission Trip

I’d Probably Still Cancel Your Short-Term Mission Trip by Darren Carlson for The Gospel Coalition

I’ve been told I’m the guy who hates short-term missions.

Seven years ago I wrote a series of articles on short-term missions, but one in particular struck a chord: “Why You Should Consider Canceling Your Short-Term Mission Trips.” I sought to slay one of the golden calves of American evangelicalism, and quite a few folks weren’t happy about it.

Do I still believe it, seven years later? Yes—but 10,000 times more strongly. I’ve seen, experienced, and hosted trips, and I’ve watched the reporting back home (and not just from American teams) in the local church. If I had the power, I’d wipe out the majority of short-term mission trips with the wave of my hand.

What’s my rationale for this bold contention? Several things.

Research at the Mercy of Testimonies?

Our culture primarily communicates in images and stories. When many Americans see something sad, our response is, What can I do? This is honorable. We see pictures of malnourished children or orphanages that need repair or refugees that need help. So we go, and the stories seem to come to life.

We also hear stories from people who have gone on such trips. They report a renewed love for Jesus, a new passion for missions, even a call to long-term service. The impact seems enormous.

But it’s not.

Research by Robert PriestBrian FikkertDambisa Moyo, and Bob Lupton (among others) on short-term trips has shown three things:

  • They don’t change participants’ lives.
  • They don’t cause more people to commit to long-term missions.
  • They often harm both local economies and orphans.

But here’s the problem: research rarely trumps the anecdotes that participants recount after their cross-cultural experiences. With an outsider’s view of complex cultural dynamics, we’re left evaluating short-term cross-cultural experiences based on felt needs and personal testimonies. It’s like a pastor evaluating his sermon based on how he felt about it.

But Won’t We Send Fewer Missionaries?

One faulty assumption that often drives short-term missions is that people make long-term commitments as result of short trips. I’ve heard this anecdotally recounted in my friends’ lives. This is how we often recruit people, but it’s a poor approach to mobilizing missionaries. Statistics show that while short-term missions have exploded, the number of full-time missionaries has remained the same or even decreased.

Perhaps we should at least pump the breaks on our assumptions that short-term trips are needed to recruit missionaries. Let’s say 500 go on short-term trips and, out of them, one commits to a long-term calling. Is gaining one missionary worth the cost of sending that many on short trips?

There is a similar argument that says going on a short-term trip will instill in participants a lifelong interest in missions—even if they don’t go long-term, they’ll be more likely to support those who do. But again, despite the explosion in short-term missions, giving to missionaries has not increased.

Our presuppositions seem to be flawed.

Stealing Resources?

Imagine you’re a missionary. You’ve spent years getting trained. You’ve raised money and asked hundreds of friends for support in awkward face-to-face meetings. You move overseas and then spend two years learning the language. It’s hard work, but you and your spouse become conversational, and your kids are way ahead of you.

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