We All Want To Change The World…With Short-Term Missions

There is a long and raging battle in the church and missions world regarding the value of short-term missions trips. Since we’re in the middle of mission team high season here in Kenya, I get to watch a lot of teams come and go. Some are genteel and some are pushy. Some are question-askers and some are solution-speakers. All are thoroughly convinced that the time, effort, and money they are spending is not only worth it, but is accomplishing good.

And some of them are right about that.

Extreme Teams

What I’ve learned over the years is that short-term teams are typically either a profound blessing or a hair-on-fire curse to the local people and cause. In the best of cases, these teams join in with a work-in-progress, bring added skill and value, invest in budding (and continuing) relationships, and begin a multi-year, cross-cultural education which will bring them back many times, with each trip deepening their understanding of this beautiful place and people.

In the worst of cases, a busload of entitled visitors turns up in the middle of town, a village in the bush, or someone’s home in the slum, pointing, talking loudly, and spouting their ill-conceived solutions to fix complex problems.

Anyone who lives in a missionary-infused culture can tell you horror stories about visiting teams. Unfortunately, they tend to outweigh the good stories.

A Few Pointers

As outsiders coming into a different culture, there are a few things to keep in mind.

1. You don’t see the whole picture.

It is impossible, over the course of a few days or weeks, to get a real understanding of the people and culture in which you find yourself. Having lived in Kenya now for two years, I’ve barely begun to scratch that surface of understanding.

Friends who have lived here for decades tell me that the more they’ve learned, the more they’ve discovered they don’t know. Cross-cultural education is a life-long endeavor. Thinking you’ve got it figured out after a long weekend is the beginning of your ineffectiveness as a missionary.

2. Normal doesn’t mean right.

It is human nature to equate our normal with what is right or proper. As the joke goes, Americans drive on the right side of the road, so Brits must drive on the wrong side. (Kenyans, of course, drive on the good side.) But let me encourage you to resist the urge to see your normal life as the stick against which to measure the culture you’re visiting.

This has been an ongoing struggle, even among academics and officials who should know better. Here in Kenya (and in many places around the world), not only are the social dynamics and traditions different, but so are the economic drivers and principles, the ethics, the business practices, and the societal pressures. Different doesn’t mean wrong. Likewise, just because it’s normal to you doesn’t make it right or mean it’s better.

3. You don’t have all the answers.

This is probably the greatest source of tension between short-term teams and residents. Short-termers always seem to be full of answers to problems they’ve only just learned of. “Why are people hungry,” they ask, “when all we need to do is to teach them to grow their own food!” (If only someone had thought of that at some point over the last 200 years of missions in East Africa!) Just because you can raise chickens and grow beautiful tomatoes in your suburban American back yard does not make you an expert on subsistence farming.

The truth is, not only are the solutions much more complex than you realize, so are the problems themselves. Lying beneath the surface of every seemingly simple problem are layers and layers of troubling factors tied to everything from social conflict to government corruption to historical oppression to weather patterns.

If you’re in a place for two weeks, you shouldn’t even attempt to offer solutions. Instead, take your time to listen to the locals and to people who have a long history of working in that place. Commit yourself to understanding what has worked and what hasn’t, and to investing yourself in encouraging local solutions to local problems.

4. Your “free labor” comes at a great cost.

It almost always comes up when people talk to me about bringing short-term teams to Kenya. “We could come and paint buildings or build fences or plant flowers or hold babies.” And it’s a nice gesture. I appreciate that people want to use whatever skills they have to improve the facilities and services being offered here. It’s just that doing so doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Kenya is a country with high unemployment. Walk down the street and over half the people you encounter probably don’t have jobs. Many of them will gladly come with you on the spur of the moment and do very hard manual labor in return for a small wage. They need these jobs to feed themselves and their families.

When your team shows up to paint a fence, you are actually competing for those jobs. And how can a local worker compete if you are doing the job for free? To add insult to injury, you’ve actually paid a huge sum of money in order to come and do that free job.

Look, I am a firm believer in the value of short-term missions and humanitarian trips, but you should also be informed. In many places, the cost for one person to take that trip would pay the salary of 1 or 2 locals for an entire year. So, when you bring 10 people to Kenya to build a fence, you should remember that you are taking jobs away from 4 or 5 locals, and you are spending 15x their annual salary to do it.

So, what is the value of short-term teams?

In my book, Missions Unmasked, I devote an entire chapter to this very question. The short answer is this: short-term trips are most beneficial for the team members themselves. The goal of any short-term trip should be to plant some seeds inside of those visiting team members. If someone visits us in Kenya for 10 days, my hope and prayer is that they leave here changed.

I want them to go home different than they came. I want their heart to be stirred. And if it is, then they might just engage long-term in an encouraging, mutually-beneficial relationship with some people and organizations doing good work here. They might become advocates for a group of people often ignored by western civilization. They might help bring perspective to conversations in their home country.

A good short-term trip can be the beginning of a personal journey, but is not the culmination of one.

From the book:

“Short-term teams who recognize the realities of their mission – that they aren’t going to have that great of an impact on a culture in two weeks, and that the greater impact will be felt by the people in their group – these teams can experience incredible benefits from short-term trips.

“Additionally, short-term teams who are committed to visiting the same place multiple times and building relationships with locals will see an even greater impact on their own understanding and heart for the people. Through enough visits, they might even find opportunities to make a real difference in the lives of their new-found friends.”

So, be encouraged! There is value in this. But also be informed, be realistic, and use your ears a lot more than your mouth. You just might be forever changed.

2 responses to We All Want To Change The World…With Short-Term Missions

  1. Good thoughts, thanks for the post. In your mind what are some mission trips that are done well? I’ve heard of mission trips recently where the whole plan is to dialogue (with long term missionaries and national staff/ministers/leaders), encourage them in their work, and pray for them, as well as learning from them. It’s a lot of money for something that seems small, but it avoids a lot of the harm that some trips cause, and everyone leaves mutually encouraged. I’ve heard some Ugandans responding to trips like this saying that they appreciate them to the point that they are better then people sending money.

    • Adam Mosley – Author

      Yes, Anthony, relationship is huge. One of the major failures of most short-term trips is that organizers try to pack so many projects into one trip that they simply bounce from one place to another and don’t get to know anyone. I honestly think the best short-term trips are the 3rd or 4th time you visit the same place and people. Every time you visit a place, you understand it more. The longer you maintain connection with someone, the more perspective you gain. I encourage churches to first send a very small team of committed staff and leaders – maybe a couple of times – before sending a bigger team. Those leaders can build relationships with people on the ground, get to know the needs of the community, ask questions about the best ways short-term teams can help, and then, in concert with locals and others on the ground, develop a long-term plan to address those needs. Often, they discover that a group of 5 talented business professionals is more needed than 25 enthusiastic college students (sometimes it’s the other way around). But you never know the answer to “How can we help?” until you actually spend time with people and ask them. And even then, “truth in advertising” is important. Don’t get people to come on a two week trip to “change the world.” Tell them it will be two weeks that will change their world. And once their world – their perspective – is changed, then they will begin a lifelong journey to make a real difference in the world.

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