June 13, 2021

Just Call Them “Visits”

Ending the Fight Over Short-Term Missions

Throughout my years in ministry, I’ve had many conversations about the advisability of “short-term missions trips.” They cost a lot and seem to leave little impact on the people they’re intended to bless.  In the worst case, they’re little more than vacations to exotic places funded by fellow congregants, friends and relatives.

Much of this argument resonates with me, but there’s always been one entailment of such a view that I can’t quite embrace: taken to its logical conclusion, none but the most committed missionaries would ever have the chance to visit their brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.

Something doesn’t sit right with me about that.  After all, aren’t we family?

Having just returned from a “short-term missions trip ” to Germany and Rwanda, I’ve come to a few conclusions. First, short-term trips are certainly ill-advised when some conditions are present, namely, when the motives are wrong, when there’s no ongoing relationship with an indigenous Christian host who wants the “missionaries” present, and when there is no follow up plan for consolidating any gains made during the visit.  It’s also particularly unhealthy when “missionaries” arrive with a “we know what’s best attitude.”  This should be pretty obvious and I was so thankful over these past weeks to be on a trip that bore none of these marks.

Nevertheless, I’m not sure that even these parameters are quite enough to get us where we need to be on the issue.  The idea that we need to have a pre-determined “mission” before we head off to see our brothers and sisters in another country may be more American than biblical.

We Americans love to have a measurable task to accomplish when we go overseas. It helps us write good reports when we return home and it gives our supporters the impression that their money has been “put to good use.”  Contrast that to Paul’s reasoning with Barnabas before the second missionary journey: “Let us return and visit the brothers [and sisters] in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.”  See how they are?  Imagine writing that in a support letter for a trip.  “I’m going to Africa to see how they are.”  How the money would flow!

One of the things I’m learning is that life is a lot more about relationship than I realized.  I have brothers and sisters in Germany and Rwanda to thank for this insight.  It may not be American, but it’s certainly biblical to visit our sibling Christians in other countries to build relationship and seek some sort of mutual encouragement from one another.  Of course, the gospel is a missionary venture so we WILL end up doing something once we build relationships and once God captures our hearts together.  But, as one of my mentors said, instead of launching out with “my idea” or “your idea,” why don’t we get to know each other and come up with “our idea”?  There’s a great deal of learning and joy that comes from this process.

So I propose we do away with “short-term missions trips” and simply go on “visits.”  Our motives will be purer, our approach will be more humble, we’ll be more open to learning from others, and we might just discover some revolutionary ways to carry out our calling.    Besides,what else would we do with the money we’d have used for such trips? Send it disembodied to random ministries around the globe to create unhealthy dependencies that are absent any relationship at all?  Stay home and spend it on more gadgets and vacations?

I prefer the picture still bright in my mind of Americans and Rwandans joyfully embracing in the airport as they begin yet another of what has become numerous visits together on both Rwandan and American soil.  These brothers and sisters are now also friends.

It is easy to see who benefits most from these friendships.  It has to be God, for it brings him glory when his children dwell together in unity.

Have you been on a “short-term missions trip?”  What are your thoughts?

3 thoughts on “Just Call Them “Visits”

  1. I came across this article today, and I love thinking of “short-term missions trips” as visits. I often undervalue love and relationships in missions and focus on action, helping others, and results (which aren’t inherently bad). I’ve gone on several missions trips to Mexico. Sometimes we built houses for the poor, but each year we would build a new house for a different family, without much follow-up afterwards. However, we consistently go to an orphanage at the Santa Marta Ranch every year, and most of the time we spend with the kids and the house “parents,” eating, playing soccer, praying, and just talking. Since it is more feasible for us to go to Mexico than it is for them to come to the US, we go down to “see how they are,” and they get to “see how we are” too.

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