The narrative around short-term mission trips has evolved over the last few decades. A popular hot take—even among Christians—is that these trips may do more harm than good. And while many of the critiques make legitimate points, focusing on the positives that short-term missions accomplish can offer a more well-rounded perspective.
Here are three ways that short-term missions do real, lasting good.
1. They spread the gospel
The Great Commission sets out an expectation that Jesus’ followers will focus on creating disciples all over the world. Some short-term mission critics say that disciples can’t be made in a week or two. And while it’s true that discipleship requires a long-term investment into someone’s life, sharing the gospel is still critical to the process. Exposure to Jesus’ message is the first step in disciple-making—one that often needs to happen multiple times before someone is ready to embrace the gospel.
To argue that short-term mission trips aren’t discipleship is a little like arguing that a trip to the grocery store isn’t preparing dinner. While that might be technically accurate, a meal cannot be prepared without the necessary ingredients, and the person preparing the meal doesn’t necessarily need to be the shopper. In the same way, disciples are made out of followers of Jesus, and short-term missions can play an integral role in exposing people to the life-changing power of the gospel, allowing others to carry on where they left off.
2. They can have a significant impact on attendees
One criticism short-term missions receive is that some people treat it more like a mini-vacation or come back with an enthusiasm that doesn’t last. It’s helpful to keep the Parable of the Sower in mind when it comes to this criticism.
In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus talks about how different hearts (soil) respond to the good news (seed) of the gospel. Sometimes the seed doesn’t take root. Sometimes the seed is accepted quickly, but its roots are shallow, and it cannot survive. And sometimes, the soil is perfect, and the seed is received with joy and grows into a beautiful harvest.
In this context, the mission trip is the seed. Some people just aren’t going to go into it with the right mindset (but it still might have a lasting impact). Others might be moved by the experience, but it burns off quickly when they get back to their own communities.
But the truth is that many in full-time ministry and missions look back on a short-term mission trip as the place where they felt called to full-time service. It’s where they learned to see beyond their experience and culture. Others point back to their high-school mission trip as the point when they became serious about following Jesus. Some even went into it with the wrong motives, but the trip still profoundly impacted them.
It seems misguided to suggest that these kinds of mission trips aren’t valuable because not everyone takes them seriously enough or gets enough value out of them. It’s not much different than telling the farmer he’s wasting his time since not every seed becomes a plant.
3. They can significantly impact the recipients
It’s easy to paint short-term missions with too broad of a brush. They can take on several different forms depending upon who is doing the sending, who is doing the receiving, and the specific culture. Assuming they’re all the same is a huge misstep.
Still, some critics argue that the work done by these mission teams isn’t valuable to the hosts, pointing out that host churches and ministries work hard to find stuff for these teams to do. Some joke about the buildings where the paint is six inches thick because high school missions teams paint them every summer that they come through town.
But we need to be careful making these kinds of assumptions. Doing so discounts the fact that host teams know what they’re doing. The churches and ministries receiving these missions teams do a lot to facilitate these trips. They’re well aware of the costs and benefits associated with this work.
Dismissing all short-term mission work as painting buildings and putting on vacation Bible schools is simply inaccurate. These teams do all kinds of work and step into a variety of ministry needs. But the benefit these trips offer extends beyond the moment that mission teams are present. It solidifies the relationships between the sending churches and organizations and the receiving churches and ministries. It helps connect people to the work happening in these communities, helping to get folks to continue to pray, support, and advocate for these ministries when they get home.
In countries where resources are limited, partnerships are extremely valuable. And while local churches might try to raise awareness and encourage support for partners in other countries, it can be hard to get people to identify with the need. But when they can actually go, connect with these ministries, and truly experience the need first-hand, they’re more apt to become invested in serving these communities in other ways—and encourage their churches to do so as well.
Serving now and investing long term
Many of the criticisms of short-term ministries focus on the expectation that these trips should immediately produce long-term fruit. Evangelism cannot create disciples, but it isn’t intended to. It’s about giving people the opportunity to hear and respond to the story of Jesus. In ideal situations, there is an infrastructure for introducing new believers into discipling communities. But even when there isn’t, we have faith that God will create next-step opportunities for new believers.
The benefits of short-term missions extend beyond the obvious, helping to propel Christians into lifetime service and forging deeper relationships and committed support between sending churches and receiving ministries—and that’s incredibly important for both parties.
Check out our resources and mission trip opportunities
Going on a mission trip sometime soon? We’ve got resources to help your team. Explore ways you can partner with Jesus Film Project® or check out our library of films, available in languages from around the world.
Plus, if you’re interested in mission trips that will allow you to reach the unreached, check out mission trips through Jesus Film Project. You’ll discover opportunities to share the gospel with a world hungry for good news.