• • • Paradigm Shifts • • •

Short Term Missions

Is It Effective for Long Term Change?

Written by Gregg D. Garner

August 13, 2014


Answering this question reveals a person’s motive for going. Perhaps a more accurate question is, “are you going on this trip for you, or for the people you are serving?” It’s a sincere question that should be answered upfront. Unfortunately, few people are asking it.

In my experience of about 20 years, having led over 250 mission efforts in both hemispheres, north and south of the equator, short-term efforts have short-term effects on the person who goes and on the people who receive.

I can confidently say that short-term mission trips are more about the person going than the people they will serve.

On the one hand, the short term effects on the participant can be encouraging. For a time they seem a little less selfish, a little more grateful, a little kinder, and a little more aware. Even for the recipient of the service, they have a new roof to last a few years, or gauze on their wound, or antibiotics for their infection. They may even have a renewed sense of value because they were visited in their distress.

On the other hand, these benefits are short term in their effect. The participant again struggles with selfishness, and gets amnesia of those moments that caused them to be grateful, kind, and aware. The roof will leak. A new wound, new infection, and distress will re-emerge.

Many will be okay with this outcome. Taking a “realist” approach, they will be able to live with these results. They will dismiss the negative with wrongly interpreted Scriptures like “Jesus said the poor you’ll always have with you.” Compassion is redefined in terms of having suffered a temporary loss of comfort, rather than “suffering with” (the literal definition) those in need. Jesus said such people are professionals at justifying themselves.

There’s a booming industry in our country built around this rite of passage, and plenty of organizations are more than happy to facilitate short term experiences and embellish the results. We are an organization that facilitates short-term trips, but don’t confuse us for the aforementioned agency.

As I said above, I’ve facilitated hundreds of short-term teams, and efforts, but let me mark the distinction: we are making people ask the questions 1) are such efforts to primarily benefit themselves, or the recipients? and 2) are you comfortable with the effects of short-term efforts on the people you serve?

These aren’t just preferential questions, they are moral ones.

I tell participants on our short-term trips from the onset: “This trip is primarily about you. You will make a short-term impact on those you serve, and you'll be temporarily impacted as well.”

Some years ago I wrote a song about this frustration. While doing laundry I discovered the clay soil of Africa was embedded into my sock and the stain had outlasted the impact the trip had on my heart.

While facilitating short-term trips, I also challenge participants to consider whether or not they are comfortable with the short-term impact of their work, and whether or not such a trip could actually be classified as doing something enduring for Christ.

1 Cor. 3:13b ...the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

The above verse challenges us to recognize that the work we do is tested in terms of endurance. Can our work product withstand the fires of time, chance, circumstance, and inevitability?

Eph. 2:10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Rom. 5:3-5 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

The above verses make us aware that we both do good things, and become a good product ourselves. Note how the person who produces the character described in Romans is a person who lives amidst the suffering, has learned to navigate it (evidenced through their endurance), and has the capacity to produce hope amidst the challenges.

In order to see long-term change in both the participant and recipient, it’s going to take a long-term commitment. The labor and laborer that survives the fiery challenges of the 3rd world are those that have been prepared for the work, have been built up to endure the suffering of the hostile environment, and have the wisdom and vision to see a better world amidst the challenges; to hope a better world into existence.

For any adult, 18 and over (we take a slightly different approach with youth), after a short-term mission trip with us, they will be confronted with this challenge. They will be challenged to discern a calling. They will be challenged with the life and message of Jesus. “For the son of man came NOT to be served, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.” “Blessed is he who is not offended at me.” (Mark 10:45; Matt 11:6).