The Benefits of Short-Term Mission Trips
George Barna has just published the results of research done about Americans involved in short-term mission trips. He came to the conclusion that, despite benefits, few Americans have taken part in short-term mission trips. The full report can be read here.
Having hosted scores of short-term mission trips in Swaziland, I have found one common response in almost every single group that we hosted. When they leave they tell me that they had come with the intention to do something of value for other people and when they left it felt as if they were acrually the people who had benefited the most. This corresponds with the result of Barna’s research. He writes: “Only one-quarter of those who have participated on such a trip said it was “just an experience,” while a majority said it changed their life in some way.”
Much can be said against short-term mission trips. The question will always be asked whether the money that had been spent on the trip could not have been put to better use if it had merely been donated to some mission. Theoretically this could be the truth. If all the groups that had come to Swaziland through the 24 years that I have been there had donated all the money spent on short-term mission trips to us, we would have had a huge amount of money. But I am of the opinion that there is more at stake here than the money. Going on a short-term mission trip can change people for life. Barna found in his research that “(t)he most common areas of personal growth that people recall – even years later – include becoming more aware of other people’s struggles (25%), learning more about poverty, justice, or the world (16%), increasing compassion (11%), deepening or enriching their faith (9%), broadening their spiritual understanding (9%), and boosting their financial generosity (5%).”
These are things that happen when you are confronted with the reality of other people’s lives. You can hardly pray for someone dying of AIDS without this somehow having an everlasting effect on your personal life. I still have regular contact with the group of students from PBA (Palm Beach Atlantic University) that had been on a short-term outreach to Swaziland during May of this year, and what I hear from them is that they will never be able to read or hear anything about HIV or AIDS without thinking of Swaziland and what they had experienced while there. And this is not something which, for most people at least, will come by reading a newsletter of a magazine article. You have to see and feel and smell the situation before your heart will really change. And the effects of this cannot be calculated in terms of money.
Short-term mission trips is a multi-million dollar industry in the USA. Obviously there are travel companies which are exploiting students, churches and other Christian organisations to entice them to travel to distant countries with the promise to have the experience of a life-time. But with proper planning and good communication between the church hosting the team, an outreach need not be that expensive. In fact, it should be much cheaper than a normal overseas vacation, because everything, including accommodation and food, should be much cheaper than when going on a vacation. And frankly, most people are not going to get involved in mission without somehow personally experiencing the needs of the people.
On my way back from the USA in August, my wife and I spent the last night at the home of one of the PBA students that had been to us in May. Their family had just returned the previous day from a short-term outreach to New Orleans, where they had been helping local residents to repair damage which had been suffered during hurricane Katrina in 2005. As we spent time with this family, I just realised what an impact a short-term outreach could have on a family. To see Mom and Dad sacrificing personal time and comfort and money in order to help others, must have an everlasting impact on a child. Or to think back to a time when you yourself had been on a mission trip and to expose your own children to such an experience has value that cannot be measured in cash. And I can’t even begin to imagine the positive effect it has on a church that regularly sends out short-term mission teams. On the long run this must bring a change in the attitude of people and Christian communities, knowing that they had been part of a team that helped impacting the lives of other people. And isn’t that what God sent us to do?
PS. My latest newsletter has just been posted. You can read it here.