There is a broad spectrum of responses when one hears the phrase short-term missions. “Why even bother?” “It’s a total waste of money that could be better spent somewhere else.” “It opens the eyes of the world to the needs around them.” “It will forever change your life.” “No short-termers ever become long-termers, so why waste the time and effort?”
There is a large and ever increasing gap between what churches and teams think is necessary or helpful and what actually provides a long-term sustainable impact for missionaries and nations. From personal experience, we could tell you stories of well-meaning groups coming into our town like a busload of tourists, complete with cameras, candy, gifts, etc. We also have equally positive stories of being truly encouraged by individuals and small teams who have genuinely put themselves into us in times of need and made lasting differences.
So if you are going to do/lead a short-term missions trip or you have one coming to your field that you’re not sure you want, here are some ways to do a short-term missions trip well:
1. Put yourself into the life of the missionary, not “the people.”
The most effective form of short-term ministry is to put your life into the local missionaries rather than in those benefitting from the missionaries. Yes, that might mean good-bye to VBS with kids climbing all over you and braiding your hair, holding great crusades with everyone coming to see the visiting bazungu (white people), doing mass evangelism and reaching “hundreds for Christ.” (Hum, Why can’t the missionary be as good a soulwinner as I am?)
You will not be able to solidly impact the local people in just a few days’ visit, but you can impact the missionary who will be able to impact the locals permanently. That means you probably don’t need a team of fifteen people, but rather a smaller, more intentional team.
Short-term missions in the Bible was relational and long term. Churches like Philippi would often send one or two missionaries from their church to support and encourage the work of long-term missionaries like Paul, but the intention was always to serve the long-term missionary so he could continue the work of serving people.
Philippians 2:25, 29–30 says: “Yet I supposed it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, and companion in labour, and fellowsoldier, but your messenger, and he that ministered to my wants. … Receive him therefore in the Lord with all gladness; and hold such in reputation: Because for the work of Christ he was nigh unto death, not regarding his life, to supply your lack of service toward me.”
Paul, calls him “my brother and companion in labour and fellow-soldier.” Those three terms speak volumes. He isn’t there to fulfill a self-serving need of holding babies or gaining experience; he is there in the trenches with Paul to encourage him and co-labour with him.
Many missionaries feel like they are always failing because they live in a constant state of people pulling on them with physical, emotional and spiritual needs. The missionary thinks he must entertain and prove his ministry by keeping the short-termer constantly busy or they will see him as lazy.
You can be a blessing to the missionary by being a “safe place” for him to open up and share his heart, his problems, and difficulties with without judgment or reproach. Offer grace and encouragement that he is doing a good job and help him see when he might want to take a break. Encouragement may be in the form of items brought: dvds of funny TV shows or American sports (find out who his favorite team is); good books; downloaded sermons; American food like chocolate, peanut butter, chocolate chips, pepperoni, etc.
Develop a connection that will remain long after the trip. A short-termer may be the lifeline of support the missionaries need, and you might learn a lot from them in the process.
2. Seek to serve, not to glorify yourself.
The missionaries you are visiting have a heart for their nation and have sacrificed everything to be there every day loving people and doing the hard stuff. See how you can be a blessing to them and build them up. Find out before you go how you can be that blessing.
When you arrive and hand out a bunch of soccer balls and candy to kids, it can undermine the bridges of trust built through time and relationships and instead send a message of easy “aid” and spread dependency. It makes it much harder on the missionary when you leave and the locals wonder why this friend, who has been staying with them for years, never “gives them stuff.” The missionary may not have the support to continue giving handouts when you leave. If you have gifts, only bring what the missionary has asked for or bring things the missionary can give out at a time he deems is appropriate. Never give gifts to the people without the missionary’s approval.
Make sure you pay your own way. Missionaries are giving people, and I am not complaining, but you can’t imagine how many times the missionary is stuck with the bill. Obviously, the group pays for their own tickets, but think with me. It takes money to feed ten people for a few weeks. It takes money to transport people within the country from village to village. This is money for which the missionary has not raised support. In my case it takes three hours to get to the airport. There is the hotel bill and extra food costs because the flights arrive and depart around midnight. With gas over four dollars a gallon, the cost is substantial. Now the missionary has to take the visitors back, so the cost doubles. Already four days have been taken out of the missionary’s schedule. If you have several groups a year, WOW! To be sure, most groups are not this way. However, there have been a few who have arrived disillusioned by the thought that the missionary has the support to fund their short-term missionary project.
Here are some ideas of things that might be helpful, but be sure to specifically ask your pastor and missionary what the needs are. Their ideas may not sound exciting, but it may be a thousand times more helpful than building a house they could have gotten locals to build better.
- Be a friend (offer counseling, support, and encouragement to the missionary).
- Bring fellowship to the missionary; they really miss it.
- Offer the missionary a retreat, a date night, or a babysitter. Do their nails, paint their house, or bring stuff over for them from America such as food supplies and vitamins.
- Be willing to help around the office with administrative/technical issues.
- Host a teaching conference (men’s or women’s conference) - something of lasting value (pay for it). Give away the training you have received. Most nationals don’t have access to the resources and materials that you have.
- Train the nationals in a vocational skill.
- Raise money at home for the missionary project.
- Ask what their needs are and where you can best serve. Listen to the missionary’s guidance and don’t suggest doing things they haven’t suggested.
- Develop long-term relationships with the missionary.
- Don’t judge them; they know they have holes. Encourage them and see where you can volunteer to fill the holes.
- Mow the missionary’s lawn, change the oil in their car, install a screen door, fix meals, babysit, give the couple a few hours to just sit together and talk.
Which leads to….
3. Think about why you are going on this trip in the first place.
Let God purify the motives of your heart. Is it for approval? Is it so you can have some cute African kids on your Facebook feed and say you have been to a foreign country?
Some people do need to visit a mission field for God to speak to their heart through their eye. Some want to contribute by ministering and some by building. Some simply want to encourage. There is a purpose for everyone, but make sure you know, understand, and are able to fulfill your purpose. Make sure the missionary is on board and knows your purpose and goals.
Ask God to reveal to you why He wants you to go. Remember that good intentions are not enough.
4. Actually have a specific, needed skill to offer (video game skills are not real skills).
The worst thing for the missionary and for you is for you to end up feeling useless. Before you plan a trip, have an open conversation with the missionary about what their actual needs are (not ones they made up to keep you occupied, but the holes they truly need filled). Projects need much more preparation on the field than in the states. Most missionaries don’t have a Lowes or Walmart to run to for supplies. They may not get cement or iron bars for several months, so these things have to be bought ahead of time and stored. Wood has to be bought and dried for a couple of months so that it is ready to build furniture, roof trusses, etc. So whatever money is needed must be in the missionary’s hands months before the short-term missionaries arrive.
Ask them to be truly honest. If you can’t find people to fill those specific needs, then perhaps rethink the timing or intention of your trip.
Here are some helpful skills on the mission field:
- Nursing (limited)
- Counseling (marriage and family or trauma)
- Parenting skills (take time with the missionary kids)
- Marriage reconciliation/conflict resolution
- Computer/website genius
- Vocational (seamstress, carpentry, plumbing, baking, etc.)
- Graphic design
- Ask yourself, what will be your sustainable impact?
5. Be a learner, a disciple; not a know-it-all.
You’re not going to save the world in the five days you have on the ground, so don’t try. You’re probably not going to come up with some incredible solution to a majorly complex problem like poverty. You don’t have the same information or context as the missionaries on the ground, so don’t assume you know how to do it better than them. Many think the missionary is too harsh with the nationals, but your soft heart could cause a setback of months of work and counseling. Remember, you don’t know the people and their backgrounds.
Don’t go with answers, but go searching for answers. Be willing to recognize that there might not be any simple answers, and there might not be a happy ending. Listen more and talk less. Don’t ask questions such as, “When are we going to eat next?” or “Is it possible for us to get hot water?” Ask thoughtful, critical questions.
Don’t go with HUGE expectations. Be humble and see how you can partner with what God’s Spirit is already doing in that place, through the people already there.
6. Ask about cultural and social norms before you go… and then respect them.
Just because you are a Westerner doesn’t mean you are superior or that you have all the answers. In fact, you probably don’t. The answers you think of have probably been tried a hundred times already. Wear the long skirts. Leave the shorts behind. Eat the strange food. Learn a few words of their local language. Build relationships by not offending people. Follow the rules of your hosts and the national’s culture even if you don’t understand them.
Don’t look down on the nationals as “less educated” or not as knowledgeable if they don’t carry your same degree or accolades. Remember, the missionaries and locals are experts on their own nation. Respect the national staff and follow their recommendations.
This article was adapted by permission from a blog by Sarita Hartz: www.saritahartz.com/10-steps-for-doing-short-term-missions-trips-well/
This is part one of this article. Click here to read part two.