When are Short Term Mission Trips Most Effective?

I recently read a blog post from a number of years ago that was entitled “Why You Should Consider Canceling Your Short-Term Mission Trips.” In the post, the author began by quoting Robert Lupton from his book Toxic Charity,  “Contrary to popular belief, most missions trips and service projects do not: empower those being served, engender healthy cross-cultural relationships, improve quality of life, relieve poverty, change the lives of participants [or] increase support for long-term missions work.” 

If you’ve been around youth ministry for even a short amount of time, you no doubt, have heard horror stories of mission trips that have gone horribly wrong. If you’ve led one of these trips you might still wake up in the middle of the night with cold sweats wondering what you were ever thinking. Although Lupton has some legit concerns (yet I’m not sure he could back up his claim that this is the case for “most” mission trips), my experience, and that of many of my colleagues, has been that well planned and executed short-term trips and service opportunities can be some of the best, most productive disciple-making experiences that our churches can engage in. 

Over the last 25 years, Josiah Venture (www.josiahventure.com), the organization that my wife and I serve with, has hosted well over 1,000 short-term mission teams on trips throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Thousands of students and young adults have had a cross-cultural experience that benefit those they are serving, benefit the churches that send them, and often greatly benefit their own spiritual lives. When it comes to joining God in His global mission of making disciples who make disciples, I would suggest that instead of promoting the idea of cancelling your short-term mission trips, we should encourage church leaders to prayerfully and carefully plan and engage in more short-term mission trips and experiences that benefit everyone involved.

What can happen as a result of a mission trip that won’t necessarily happen through normal church activities?

  • Bonds built between peers, team members, and leaders. You can grow closer on a two-week trip than during a whole year of church activities.
  • Extended quality and quantity time to form relationships.
  • Opportunities to model Christian responses and lifestyle.
  • Trips encourage a serving mindset.
  • Develop a heart for those less fortunate.
  • Automatically takes team members out of their comfort zone.
  • Some lessons learned in a different culture can’t be learned at home.

When are mission trips most effective?

Over the years we have witnessed and experienced differences between mission trips that are considered to be effective and those that are not. Josiah Venture has come up with a good list of “Best Practices” for short-term teams. https://www.josiahventure.ca/assets/upload/opportunities/Best-Practices.pdf

Let me highlight three easily overlooked practices that I believe can make a huge difference between effective and non-effective disciple-making trips: 

1. Effective disciple-making mission trips are saturated with prayer.

As a leader of a mission team or an individual participating in a short-term, cross-cultural mission, prayer needs to be an essential component. We see how prayer was a significant part of Christ’s life and that it needs to be central in all disciple-making. When it comes to engaging in a mission trip, it is best that the experience is covered in prayer from long before anyone ever steps onto a plane, until long after they return back into their home culture. Specifically, it would be wise to listen and talk to God concerning the following:

  • Where is God inviting us to go? There are so many needs and opportunities.
  • Who is God asking us to partner with? What country, peoples group, mission organization?
  • Who should be on the team?
  • What should my role be on the team?
  • What do our team and I have to offer those we serve?
  • How best can we raise the resources needed for the trip?
  • How can I build a support team around me?
  • How can I best join God in what he is doing in the lives we are going to serve?

2. Effective mission trips are intentional.

Intentionality in our spiritual lives and ministry sometimes proves to be a complicated concept. On one hand, intentionality can become so much about strategizing, planning, expectations, and agendas that we leave no room for the work of the Holy Spirit and the fulfilling of His purposes. On the other hand, the lack of intentionality and purpose, “let’s just go with the flow”, can result in a mission trip looking more like a glorified, spiritualized vacation than being on mission. Often we find ourselves in a prison of two ideas. It seems like it’s one or the other. You are either living with intentionality or following the Holy Spirit’s lead. The truth is, it needs to be both. In the disciple-making life, it’s not either/or it’s both/and at the same time. Relating this to cross-cultural mission trips means that as we pray and discern the Holy Spirit’s leading, we also take intentional steps to join Him on the mission. Just like the need for discerning prayer, there also needs to be intentional planning and execution. We would be wise to be intentional as we listen to the Spirit’s leading and join God in His mission.

Some good questions to ask are:

  • What is the purpose of this mission trip?
  • When the trip is over, what will have made it successful?
  • How is this trip contributing to Christ’s commission of making disciples?

3. Effective mission trips incorporate training, debriefing, and following-up as essential components of the experience.

Training: I think we’d all agree that pre-trip training is an important aspect of any cross-cultural missions trip. To be trained in some basic cross-cultural competencies and skills that will be used during the trip is an important part of making any short-term mission a positive experience for all involved. Beginning the training of your team long before the trip takes place is key to a successful trip.

Debriefing: Leading team members in processing and debriefing their experience will help them discern what God has taught or is teaching them through it, enable them to communicate with others about their experience, and prepare them to re-enter their home culture well and with grace. Often, once a team member has returned home, they also return to the busyness of life, and within weeks have slipped back into the same routines and habits of pre-trip, forgetting those experiences and lessons that God taught them while away. Taking time to debrief before returning home can allow for healthy processing that can result in true transformation.

Following Up:  Depending on team dynamics, most mission trips cultivate strong relationships between team members. Often, they share intense experiences, both positive and negative, that cause them to grow closer to God and each other. Once back home, regular check-ins and reminders of how they had seen God’s Spirit work in and through their lives during the trip will assist in cultivating continued growth.

Some helpful questions might be:

  • What competencies and skills are important for individuals on the team to have?
  • How can we best provide the training that is necessary pre-trip?
  • When, where, and how will time be given for the team to debrief the experience together?
  • What should follow-up of team members look like? 

Finally, we at Sonlife and Josiah Venture believe and have witnessed that God can use well planned and executed mission trips as a significant tool for transforming lives. 

“It’s going to be hard to find anything that does this much good for your people in such a short amount of time. It’s a great investment in your people and in God’s kingdom around the world. You’re doing both.”

-Matt, a short-term team leader from one of our Josiah Venture trips

*During this unusual season of Covid, many churches are trying to figure out how they can best meet the needs of the members of their congregations and neighbors. I realize that planning for global mission trips doesn’t seem strategic or on top of any to-do list at a time when it’s difficult to even meet together locally. At the same time, Christ’s commission calls us to engage in making disciples throughout the world. We have creative ideas on how this can be done.

We’d love to hear from you if interested!

Gord Nickerson- gnickerson@josiahventure.com
Jay Fast-   jay.fast@sonlife.com