Short-term mission trips: Sanctified vacations?

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.

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,
Mat 28:20  teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
  1. My scope here is limited to trips that are also known commonly as “summer missions” which typically last between 1 to 3 weeks. []
  2. Also translated “to teach” and “instruct”. []

26 responses to “Short-term mission trips: Sanctified vacations?

  1. This is great food for thought! I've often complained about the amount of money and time spent on what is essentially "voluntourism" while local ministries struggle financially. Thanks for sharing this!
    Joanne Brokaw, Rochester Christian Living Examiner

  2. Yes! Yes! Yes! as a youth minister for six years, the investment in such a small interaction is in many ways worse for the "heathen" than it is good. Two thoughts though. One, I think it can be done well if a church "adopts" another church and continues to minister to that church every time they "go on mission." This builds relationships and allows the churches to partner sending workers back and forth when needed. Two, you failed to mention the process by which the Holy Spirit solidifies a passion for missions in someone. Not to limit God, but many testimonies that I have heard from career missionaries have had short term missions in a prominent position.

    Thank You for your post.

  3. Excellent point Zane!

    I hadn't taken into account the budding long-term missionaries who do have their passions stirred up in such trips. However I wonder if these short-term trips are the only avenues whereby their passions may be stirred or whether the local soup kitchen or crisis care pregnancy center would have the same effect.

    I know it's hard to say, and I don't hold illusions of _all_ short-term trips being a waste of time and money, I think your idea of adopting a ministry or church for a long time is an excellent idea.

    In fact, my parents were a part of a United Methodist Church that went to the same region of Mississippi, the same people, stayed in the same dorms, etc. for almost 15 years. They grew up with these people, became a part of their lives, and were even invited to special events like the wedding of one of the young men whom they had a significant impact on.

    All of this from just one week out of every summer where we (I joined them for 4 or 5 trips) taught VBS and performed maintenance projects in the local community.

    The problem with such long-term commitment is that they are simply not glamorous enough for today's thrill-seeking Christian who, quite frankly, doesn't consider it a "real" missions trip unless they are required to get a passport and shots for exotic diseases.

  4. I am agonizing over the 'mission tripping' in my church. Asked a youth what she might be doing this summer. "O! I might go on a mission trip to Romania." I might go to the cinema or go swimming or I might go on a mission trip. I am an ex-mission tripper and ex-missionary myself. Why does my stomach turn each time someone announces he/she/the whole family are going on a mission trip?
    Do such short-term mission trips make mockery of long-term missionaries who train many years to do the work? Does going on such trips where a more established church gives and gives and gives of time, money, effort lead to a 'culture of dependency' which stymies the growth of a younger church? And when a church appears to ignore the mission field at our door step, the thousands of refugees and new immigrants who come to us, are we deluding ourselves that 'mission' must be somewhere else? My heart aches.

  5. I agree with the last poster. It does make your stomach turn. It has really turned into a vacation. Whats best though is that you can usually get someone else to foot the bill. The article makes a great point. Logisitcs should be considered. Why send 30 kids to build an amateur fence/house/shed for $90,000 when you could send the local church some money to have a professional in its congregation do it. What is comes down to is people like adventure, vacations and the prospect of spending a week with a member of the opposite sex that they might like.

  6. Agreed – tired of funding someone's vacation in the name of God. In general the incorporated church is a screwed up mess – no longer of real value and too afraid to stand up and tell people where/when they are wrong or off course – polluted gospel.

  7. Pingback: MUST-READ: Is Wes Widner right to oppose short-term mission trips? « Wintery Knight

  8. The whole cost issue misses a larger point. If you want to use the "it would be more efficient to ____" reasoning, then you would completely quit funding these expensive U.S. churches and send all your money overseas. I can have a church built for 100 people almost anywhere in the world for $7,000. Try that here in the U.S. We should always use discernment in giving, of course, but the "locals can do it cheaper" misses a whole lot of points.

    Our church pays for part of mission teams but the participants pay most of it.

    If your points are that it is wrong to go on trips with selfish motives or without careful planning then I’d put that in the “stating the obvious” category.

    But having just gotten back from a successful short-term mission trip I offer the following.

    Relationships are important. Successful short term missions aren’t one-time activities. Our conference sends multiple teams to the same area within the same year and from year to year so there is continuity and relationship building. It is great to re-connect with brothers and sisters in Christ. They truly appreciate the support and tell us that while they appreciate the money they desire the relationships as well.

    People who go on mission trips tend to write more and bigger checks to help these missions and they encourage others to do the same. There is nothing like a personal touch to help people get excited about missions.

    There is nothing wrong with spending your own time and money to do what you want to do. What are you guys, socialists? If people like visiting remote areas to help meet physical needs and facilitate the spread of the Gospel, why be prideful about your personal preferences? Re-read Romans 14.

    Among other things, the trip I went on helps support a hospital which shares the Gospel with patients and their friends / families. It involves building homes for AIDS orphans which gets the church out in the community so they can share the Gospel.

    We took a Faith Comes by Hearing “Proclaimer” device which has the New Testament in Kiswahili. It can be charged via solar power so it can go to remote villages. We showed them how it works and plan to take more later. This will help get the word of God to patients at the hospital and to remote churches. I am really excited about that aspect of the trip.

    We did Vacation Bible School at a church / school in a Nairobi slum and did some token construction work. The interactions were great and this will help others get excited about supporting this church in a difficult mission field.

    I could go on, but you get the idea.

    And there is nothing wrong with helping with people’s physical needs.

    And worshiping with people in other cultures is a great experience.

    And people who go on short term missions may get a desire to do long term missions.

    Again, if people run ineffective trips or use bad motives then by definition they will be unproductive. But I wouldn’t be so judgmental about all short term mission trips. I’m all for discernment and wise giving, but please stay open to other perspectives.

    • The problem I have with short-term mission trips is that they are inherently against the whole model set forth in the NT. While I agree that it is every man's right to do as he sees fit with what he has been given (within certain guidelines of course), what I am arguing against most is the whole cultural milieu that also surrounds short term mission trips wherein those who go are seen as more holy than those who choose not to. I ams also against the prevailing notion that one is only a missionary if they go overseas or at least 100miles away from their home to serve someone else (preferably in a more economically challenged area).

      And yes, by and large local people are able to perform the services short term missionaries perform not only for less money, but in a more locally productive way. Yes, I do view a lot of what the church does in terms of short term mission trips as a modified version of socialism wherein we seem to think that the best way to help people in developing countries is to throw money and material at them rather.

      That said, I do think there are some limited cases where short term mission trips can be helpful. Specifically instances where the missionaries are highly skilled so as to warrant the exorbitant cost in transporting them. Doctors, philosophers, theologians (some of them anyway), and, I would argue, most importantly, skilled businessmen who can do far more to help villages fight poverty and improve their standard of living than almost anyone else.

      • i think you miss the point. i am a missionary and i do not see this negative side of short term missions. i think the problems you are talking about must be the exception not the rule.

        also i would like to add that the people i have worked with on short term mission trips are now the people "doing missions work" back home. the mission trip is what God used to inspire them to be missionaries at home.

      • What do you mean it goes against the whole model set forth in the NT? Jesus traveled and spent short time periods in many places. paul also traveled and was not always in one place for a long time. His longing to spend more time with his brothers and sisters in Christ is the same longing many people have when they have been on a short term mission trip.

    • AMEN!!! our chief end is not to end poverty or send as little $ as possible. our chief end needs to be to simply glorify God. do not tear down your brothers in Christ who simply want to glorify God.

  9. Good points bove.
    I would ask myself one question before going on a missions trip: what is my goal.
    If its to minister, then why not just send my money to the local church who can do a far better job than I can at reaching these people. They are permanent and know the culture.
    If its to help with quality of life, then again, I would not be most efficiant at doing that.
    In my head the bottom line is thi: you have to ignore the fact that its almost alwas better to support a local church than to go there yourself.
    In the end its your choice, but unless you are a doctor or businessman as stated above, its more likely you are in it for adventure more than anything.

  10. Pingback: A call for economic mission trips | Reason To Stand

  11. I think it's quite comical when the rich jesus kids think they're these epic, spiritual gifts to the Earth because they went to Ecuador for two weeks and hung out with their American buddies, all in the most brutal pursuit to convert impoverished people in 3rd world countries to believe their fairy tales. In all actuality, these poor 3rd-world inhabitants most likely are just hungry and in need of shelter, thus they are going to agree to anything the rich jesus kids try to make them believe in hopes of said 'luxuries.' What a giant cesspool of false martyrs bearing impeccably arrogant prophecies.

    "Sure! Jesus died for my…sins! … now um… can i have a cheesburger?!"

  12. I agree with Matt's comments. You need to dig deep and ask yourself what your true intentions are. Some times it is better to send money and allow the local church to reach their community. Speaking of financial backing, can I make a shameless plug for crowdfunding?

    Crowdfunding allows you to ask you family, friends, and even complete strangers for small donations to support your need. For example, if 25 of your family and friends donated $40 each, that is $1000 to cover your mission trip expenses.

    For free step-by-step information to setup your crowdfunding request, check out

  13. Pingback: On Short-Term Missions | The Contrarian Christian

  14. I am very weary of being asked by the same people over and over again for funds to cover the costs of their short-term mission trips. Having been a long-term missionary living in really tough, primitive conditions in West Africa with a young family for several years, I know personally that taking care of mission trippers was an aggravating, exhausting burden. It was maddening to see short-termers being carted all over the country to see the "sights", to places I never saw in seven years….petroleum products and food products were very precious and difficult to obtain. In my own adolescent short-term missions experience, I got really excited about missions through a cross-cultural summer-long service project within the continental US that was relatively inexpensive, yet life-changing. I am excited to give monetarily to young people going out for the first time to see what cross-cultural service is all about…..but it doesn't have to cost $3000 and require traveling half-way around the world. That's just irresponsible. I guess it's time I stop grudgingly giving to these multiple-trippers (even if it's family)…as I definitely no longer feel like a "cheerful giver"….and instead try to "diplomatically" explain why I want to use my missions giving money elsewhere (VERY tough to do, depending on the intensity of the guilt trip). The super-spirituality embedded in these requests to give and give and give is wearing thin on me….especially when I remember, even 20 years ago, my gut feeling that it was terrible stewardship to send people THAT far at THAT price for THAT short period of time.

  15. I am saddened by many of these comments who believe they can see into my heart as to my intentions when I go on short term mission trips. Where I have been going, Port au Prince Haiti is definitely not a vacation. I go every few months for a week at a time, no air conditioning, so hot, usually no power, you have to drink special water and eat special food. I receive no funding from my church. I don't mind spending the funds, God blessed me with adequate resources to do this, it is all God's money anyway. My goal while going there, to love the kids ( I go to an orphanage). The people in this country, even those who are Christians struggle with voodo that is entertwined into their live and society. It is such a poor country, trying to pull itself out of a history of corruption and despair. How can this not be God's work. Even our poorest in this country live better than those in Haiti. I find some people would love to go with me on my trips, but don't want to spend the funds, don't want to sleep in a bed where you will end up getting bit by bugs, go thru the heat and no power and on top of this struggle with the language. People on my team leave their families behind, remain out of town most of the time, but we are willing to go. I have formed loving relationships with several of the 61 kids that live there. I worship with them, love them, play games with them, put on devotions and sing with them, unfortunately, I am not one who can just walk away and not feel a connection and calling from the Lord. Yes, I deeply care about these kids, their futures, and their country. Yes, I receive spiritual fulfillment out of these trips, but I also get it from the numerous missional activities I am involved with in my own community, church . I work with a lot of volunteers on different projects and I am very careful not to question their passion or desire. I just thank the Lord that the volunteers/missionaries showed up. No doubt the pastor of the orphanage I travel to had his prayers answered when our team showed up. Besides loving the kids, we also do some painting and other work. One of our projects on ou4 next trip in October is to build a library and computer lab. Yes, I could do that here in the states, but most in our country have libraries and schools that have this things. I pray the Lord continues to call me into this work and I hope that by being there, one child may develop a closer relationship with the Lord, improve his identify and realize he has an identity in Christ, and that they have hope for their future.

  16. Pingback: On Short-Term Missions | You Have Heard It Said

  17. The idea behind the short term mission trip is not bad.

  18. Pingback: Do Christians have to do something extraordinary to make a difference? | Wintery Knight

  19. Pingback: Rebuttal to criticism of short-term missions | globalpassion

  20. i heard a missionary speak who stopped short term missions to his area. the americans helped with a vbs which went well but the problem was the next year no one would come because the locals didn't want to participate because the americans weren't there with their cool stuff. better to help financially with the missionary who is there and has a relationship with the people. everytime i have talked on this debate to a short termer they always say how much THEIR life was changed. should we spend up to $3000 to change us? send the money. the cost of your flight would change a person in a third world countries life. 1 ladies life was changed by a wheelbarrow that she could use and get more produce to market and then could feed her kids.

  21. Thanks so much for broaching this difficult topic. I have long felt that many teens and college students were just looking for free, paid vacations. I was often disappointed to find out these people never even bothered to learn the language of the country they were visiting, and were also very vocal about demanding money from their church for the trip. I honestly feel that if a young person wants to go on one of these mission trips, then they should work for the money to pay for it themselves. Or, if they really want to share their Christian faith, they could do it locally in their own city or neighborhood. It doesn't require money at all. I do not ever donate money towards mission trips.

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