Short-term mission trips are now part of the warp and woof of evangelical Christianity. Like so many other things, short-term trips have their pros and cons. Last week, I considered some of the virtues of taking a short-term missions trip. This week, I want to examine some of the challenges and difficulties. These issues are not deal breakers—they may not prohibit an individual or church from promoting a trip. But they may change the nature of the journey, its goals, and maybe even its location. In short, anyone considering such a venture should do a cost-benefit analysis of the proposed visit. Hard questions need to be asked when the Lord’s money is involved, because these trips are generally funded from the offerings of the Lord’s people. These visits are often quite costly, both in the funds required to travel and the hours involved in organizing, planning, and carrying them out. Are they worth the effort? This is an important question to probe before the trip is executed.
Among the most significant obstacles to an effective missions trip is the language barrier. Much of the world does not speak English. While this ought to be patently obvious, it is baffling to me that so many trips are taken to mission fields where language is a barrier to good ministry. In the mid-1970s, I considered a summer ministry in France, but I was firmly but kindly told by my college French teacher that my language skills would leave me frustrated, with very little real ministry to do. I had some French ability but not enough to minister effectively. That godly counsel ultimately became the catalyst that caused me to consider Canada as a place of summer ministry. I would go on to spend nineteen years there after college.
In the past fifteen years, I have made numerous trips to countries where a translator was essential for communication. This usually, though not always, means that the missionaries themselves had to facilitate the efforts of my ministry. Many a missionary is happy to have a supporting pastor visit his ministry and will gladly serve as a translator, believing that pastors will have a better vision for the missionary’s work after such a visit. But taking a group of visitors to a country where translators are needed presents a complex series of problems, especially for novice world travelers. What happens if part of the group gets separated on the metro and fails to get off at the right stop? Can they ask directions to reconnect with their group? Can they order a meal, check into a hotel, or secure a taxi? I tried to hail a taxi in Asia this summer but had a hard time with no language skills! The list of potential problems is endless. Language can be a real obstacle to a successful trip.
Logistics is another consideration. Some may be surprised to know that the world is in short supply of Motel 6s and McDonalds. Moving, housing, and feeding groups of any significant size is a real challenge. Who will coordinate this effort? Should the missionary be expected to do this? Can he suspend his regular ministry to facilitate a large group? Sleeping bags on the church floor may work for a youth excursion in the United States, but it may not be an option in countries with disease-carrying insects. The kids can rough it, but in many parts of the world the missionaries already labor under difficulties that may make the additional burden of a large team almost unbearable. Water and electricity are in short supply. Hotels are non-existent, so housing becomes the responsibility of the missionary. Transportation may be expensive, even if available.
This leads me to consider a broader question. Will our trip put an undue burden on the field missionaries? We may think that our trip will help them meet a significant need, but in the final analysis our attempt to help often costs the missionary significant time away from regular ministry. A missionary may feel obligated to accommodate a team from a supporting church because of the support given. But he really may not want or need the help being offered. I once had a friend suggest taking a mission trip to a country to help build a building. The team was not made up of skilled tradesmen. The country to which he considered going did not build with 2x4s and plywood, but with block and cement. The cost of one airline ticket would have hired 8–10 skilled workers for a month. And those workers would not have to be housed, fed, or transported. So if you were to add up the costs of these additional expenses, the field missionary could have hired 15–20 skilled workers to build his building if just one American sent the funds of the proposed trip! If ten people offered funds instead of going, the missionary could have bought the building materials and hired the workers! A simple cost-benefit analysis would suggest that the trip may not be the best use of the Lord’s money. Someone might protest that the trip is still worth the effort to raise awareness for world missions. Far be it from me to hinder such an effort. We simply need to ask if we might not accomplish the same thing in a better way.
Finally, something should be said of youth mission trips. I think that they can be an excellent way to expose our young people to the world of possibilities. But again, these need to be well thought out. To get maximal impact for all participants, these trips, in most cases, need to be limited to older, serious minded young people—at least juniors and seniors in high school. Again, we need to think in terms of a cost-benefit analysis. Older youth will need less supervision and can be counted on to be more mature and alert to the world around them. We must weigh the maturity of the young person with the expected goals of the trip. If the goal is to burden the youth with the Lord’s work, juniors and seniors and college students are ideal: they are thinking about their next step in life and a well-planned mission trip may be just the catalyst to encourage them to consider missions. The Lord used two trips taken as a college student to direct me to Canada!
My point here is not to dissuade churches from planning short term mission trips. On a practical level, though, I recommend that anyone planning such a trip should have a very frank conversation with the missionary on the field. Encourage him to be completely honest about the values and the drawbacks that the proposed visit might create. It is very likely that the missionary himself is on the field in part because of short-term trips that he took, so he will certainly understand the benefits of such ministry. But he will also have the firsthand knowledge to help your group avoid a well-intentioned but ultimately ineffective trip.
This essay is by Jeff Straub, Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Come, Let Us Join Our Cheerful Songs
Isaac Watts (1674–1748)
Come, let us join our cheerful songs
With angels round the throne.
Ten thousand thousand are their tongues,
But all their joys are one.
“Worthy the Lamb that died,” they cry,
“To be exalted thus!”
“Worthy the Lamb,” our hearts reply,
“For He was slain for us!”
Jesus is worthy to receive
Honor and power divine;
And blessings more than we can give,
Be, Lord, forever Thine.
Let all that dwell above the sky,
And air and earth and seas,
Conspire to lift Thy glories high,
And speak Thine endless praise!
The whole creation join in one,
To bless the sacred Name
Of Him Who sits upon the throne,
And to adore the Lamb.