One of the biggest elephants in the evangelical, missiological, soul-winning room is the lingering question of just how much good short-term mission trips1 are and whether or not they merely amount to sanctified vacations taken at the expense of others.
Now, to be fair, I’m not claiming that either the missionaries or those who fund them are intentionally nefarious. On the contrary; I believe that for the most part, those who go on short term mission trips and those who support them financially have honest evangelistic intentions. I am simply wondering whether we’ve fostered this “super spiritual” mindset around something we call “the mission field” and, as a result, neglect to ask the burdensome and unpopular questions of stewardship and effectiveness.
How did we get here?
Before we continue, however, I think it would be helpful to stop and examine the origins and history of the short-term mission trips.
Modern technology has recently made travel possible in ways that have not been heard of before. Where it used to take a month or more to cross seas, let alone oceans, now only takes a matter of hours. Where it took a significant investment of funds, logistics, and time, we are now endowed with the ability to decide to travel half way around the world on a whim provided you have your passport and appropriate shots.
While rapid travel is excellent for taking vacations in exciting new foreign locales, it was only widely incorporated into the evangelical arsenal within the last 100 years. By many accounts, YWAM pioneered this phenomenon less than 50 years ago.
A closer look at the problem
For I do not want to see you now just in passing. I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits. -Paul in 1 Cor 16:11
Discipleship requires more than a passing visit. Sure, it’s great to visit with people and make new connections, but when we talk about missions we need to step back and examine what our goals are in order to evaluate how we are going about them.
With that in mind, let’s look at “the great commission” which is often used as a foundation for missionary endeavors.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. Matthew 28:19-20
This text is often exegeted to make “Go” the focus of this passage so that the imperative is for us to go out into “the mission field” and proselytize new converts. However, a more accurate exegesis would be “as you are going” since, in the Greek, the emphasis is on the making of disciples as you are going (i.e. wherever you go).
Unfortunately, if we place the emphasis on the going we end up thinking that we are lessened as followers of Christ if we don’t physically go on “mission trips”. This often leads to a false sense of super spirituality among those who do go whom we, in turn, call “missionaries”.
I need to point out here that not all missionaries have this tendency and that I am not claiming that those who do go are wholly unnecessary, on the contrary, we are each called to different work. I am merely pointing out that every follower of Christ is both called to be a missionary and is, in fact, “on a mission” wherever they are and that wherever our mission field is, we are called to make disciples2.
So whats wrong with short term mission trips?
So what’s wrong with taking a week out of your busy week and traveling overseas to make disciples? Well, nothing per se, but the problem comes in with how these short term mission trips are both seen; as an imperative of the great commission and a spiritual measuring stick, as well as how they are carried out; in many cases, without much thought to stewardship or logistics.
We’ve already seen how the great commission does not imply a need to go to foreign lands in order to be obedient to Christ’s command to make disciples, but because this is the prevalent view, we often see a person’s willingness to go as well as their having been as badges of honor to show others how spiritual we are. This is, of course, wholly unbiblical, but when teachers of the Word give the impression that “go” is the emphasis of the great commission, how can we blame them?
Have we really counted the cost?
Because of this misunderstanding of the great commission and what it truly means to make disciples of those around us, we tend to overlook questions of stewardship and logistics. In fact, since we think the imperative is to go we tend to start to think that any cost is acceptable and questions of logistics are a mere nuisance.
How much does a round-trip plane ticket usually cost to travel overseas? $1,000, $2,000? More? Once you count the cost of food, lodging, transportation, etc. you can often approach figures well over $3,000 just to send a single person overseas. Is this really the best way to reach the lost?
What about the logistics? Have we thought about the continued training of the people we minister to? How much good are we doing if we merely succeed in piquing a person’s interest and do not arrange for the perpetual spiritual nourishment that comes from sound teaching and training? Worse yet; How much more of a child of hell do we make those whom we merely seek to have “make a decision” just so that we can add another notch in our spiritual belt?
I am not advocating that we abandon our brothers and sisters in need who live across the ocean, but the biggest question here is one of efficiency and what would be the best way to accomplish what we seek.
What is it we really want to accomplish?
So now we come to the elephant, the sticky question of why we go on short term mission trips that cost inordinate amounts of money and whose impact for the kingdom is often left unquestioned.
Why do we go? Why do we really go? If our real aim is to make disciples as we are commanded to, then we will gladly step back and examine the questions raised above (and many will come to the conclusion that short-term, long-distance mission trips are simply not a good idea) but I believe the main reason most Christians go is to satisfy a desire for an emotional experience which they equate with “being close to God”. And therein lies the heart of our dilemma.
In the end, what’s the difference?
When we take vacations, we are expecting experiential reward. We don’t expect to leave a lasting impact on the lands we travel to, and we expect to receive a euphoric high from our experiences. Sadly, most testimonies I hear from short-term missionaries are wholly self-centered (though they are couched in a plethora of “Jesus speak”) with the focus being on the person as opposed to the message and often with little thought as to the lasting impact and cost vs. benefit to the congregation that helped send them.
In closing, I’m sure some short-term trips are worthwhile, that is certainly a matter for individual mission councils. I simply wish the Body of Christ would stop pretending that short-term mission trips are commanded or are anything like what we read about in the New Testament and start putting serious thought into the resources we are spending and the attitudes we are fostering and promoting.
It’s great to say we are “missional people”, but that becomes a completely nonsensical term if we fail to step back and carefully and Biblically define it.