Five Questions to Ask When Looking for a Short-Term Missions Trip

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Sunshine Gospel Ministries saw hundreds of really well intentioned people come into our community—at the time, Cabrini Green in Chicago. Though completely demolished in the last decade, Cabrini was one of the most notorious housing projects in the country, a hive of criminal and gang activity, drug dealing, and broken families. It was a godforsaken place.

At least, that’s how it appeared to the short-term missions (STM) teams who would flood into the community every summer bringing the light of the gospel, subconsciously believing that Jesus was arriving there for the first time alongside of them as they stepped out of their shiny, 12-passenger vans.

Cabrini Green was a community that covered less than one square mile and housed numerous long-term missions organizations, including Sunshine. It sat half a mile away from Moody Bible Institute where every student is studying to go into fulltime ministry. Add in those well-intentioned short-term teams and Cabrini may have been the most evangelized place per-capita in the United States.

But to the folks in the neighborhood, it became a game. Many realized that if they “got saved” they usually got a free meal. The whole thing was a farce made possible because those well-intentioned outsiders had no real connection to the community. And this sort of story is actually really common.

At Urbana 15, 194 of the exhibiting organizations (including Sunshine Gospel Ministries) will be offering short-term missions opportunities. As you look through the Exhibit Hall for opportunities, here are five questions to keep in mind. (Also, consider taking a look at books like Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts.)

1. Is the opportunity mutual?

With most STM trips, there are at least three parties involved: those going on the STM trip, the organization partnered with, and the community receiving the trip. The “giving” and “receiving” between these parties must be mutual. If not, it’s an unhealthy relationship (see Romans 12:4 and 1 Corinthians 12:12).

2. Will you have the opportunity to listen?

It can be really easy to come into a STM thinking that we have the answers before we have even heard the questions, but it’s vitally important that we slow down and listen.

First, listen to local organization(s). If your STM trip isn’t connected to an established local organization the chances of the trip actually being helpful are significantly diminished. Local organizations can function as cultural interpreters to outsiders who have little context for what they see. They also have the long-term perspective needed to help your trip fit in with what God has been doing before you get there and what he will continue to do after you leave.

Second, there should be opportunities to listen to community members themselves. It is important to hear their stories, their experiences, their questions, and their solutions. If you listen carefully, you will begin to see that places that seem godforsaken are actually chalk full of beautiful people whose dignity needs to be recognized. You will quickly see that God is active in that place and that your role is to get on board with what he’s already up to.

3. Will you have the opportunity to learn?

A strong desire to help is not enough for effective ministry. In order to be effective on our STMs, we must first spend intentional time learning about and from the people we hope to serve. There are myriad ways this can happen—a formal time where local leadership teaches, a walk through the community narrated by a community member, or a story told by a senior resident of the community, just to name a few.

The local organization you’re connected to ought to play a critical role here as facilitators and cultural interpreters. They should be able to connect you to the community in a far more strategic way than outsiders can. They should be able to explain to you the history and current context of their community.

When you enter into another community with the expressed goal of learning, you enter with a significant degree of humility. If you’re a learner, you don’t have all the answers. If you’re a learner, you acknowledge that the community has valuable insight to give you. And when you listen to and learn from people in humility, they are far more open to receiving from you, as well.

When you enter into another community with the expressed goal of learning, you enter with a significant degree of humility. If you’re a learner, you don’t have all the answers. If you’re a learner, you acknowledge that the community has valuable insight to give you. And when you listen to and learn from people in humility, they are far more open to receiving from you, as well.

4. Will there be an opportunity to serve?

If you’re connected to a long-term organization they should be able to strategically place you into a service role that is both healthy and meaningful. Healthy service is that which doesn’t foster dependency in those being served. If you can be a catalyst to existing ministry rather than the sole arbiters of it, you’re in a much healthier place. Healthy service can also dismantle untrue stereotypes and decrease ethnocentrism. For this reason, opportunities where you’ll be able to work alongside local persons are more likely to be healthy.

Similarly, meaningful service is that in which you are actually providing real benefit to the community. This is where you need the discerning eye of an established missionary or local organization to help because it is often difficult to determine from the outside what is actually beneficial and what is merely busy work.

5. Will there be an emphasis on your re-entry?

Often, our egos would have us believe that in the span of a week, a month, or a year we have radically changed the community we came to serve. In reality, the community’s actual position probably will not have changed much from our short-term trip. Real, enduring change takes time; the impact God has through you will likely be greater the longer you stay in one place.

This shouldn’t invalidate your trip, though. It should contextualize it. Your STM trip will likely be a small part of a larger story that God is writing in that community. You will have come alongside an organization to be a blessing to them and their on-going work. And God is probably using the trip in your own heart and life to sanctify you and guide you as you continue surrendering to God wherever he places you long-term.

But do not forget: You can and ought to have a substantial life-changing impact where you reside permanently. Your STM trip should be a part of your long-term impact as you translate your newly acquired lessons and experiences into your own community. Whichever trip you choose should help to equip you to listen, learn, and serve right where you live your regular life. A good STM program will do a lot of this equipping while helping you re-enter your pre-STM context.

So, friends, as you give your whole life to God for his global mission, there’s a really good chance a short-term missions trip will have a part to play. As you go, go with great intentions and a deep desire to help. But make sure that you also have an effective, humility-filled strategy as you go. Asking these questions about the opportunities you consider will help.

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Comments

Well that blog starts with a negative story. It took me a long time to find out where that "Cabrini is located. Just as a short note. I grew up in Switzerland, attended a Bible College in Germany. We European do not call every little outreach a "Mission trip" A 1 week campaign in North Germany was not called "a mission trip to an unreached tribe, known for its occult practices", but that was it is essence. I DO have some problems with these five (wrong) questions. 30% of all "mission trips" from North America have its destination Mexico. In my mind key elements are: proper preparation, leadership, partnership with national churches and long term Christian workers, if possible be as multi-national as possible, sent by local churches, proper debrief. I am one of these exhibitors. We do international, multi-cultural mission trips for almost 60 years. It is not just for young people. Come to the OM booth! My friend will give you a free book. His name is George Verwer

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