Short-term missions are a very big deal in the American church. One out of three churches will send a team internationally this year. Tens of thousands of people and many millions of dollars will be dedicated to these efforts. Why? Why do we as individuals, or a church body, put all of these resources into these trips? Sometimes it’s good to step back and just ask the simple, but important, question: Are short-term missions worth all the funds and resources dedicated to them?
A very common argument against short-term missions is that they are not a good use of money. Or, to put it more bluntly, short-term missions are a complete waste of money. “Why doesn’t the short-term team just take all of that money and send it to where it can do some good?” “Why are we spending thousands of dollars on sending unskilled teenagers so they can just do busywork, take up space, and paint the same wall over and over again?” At first glance, these might seem like valid arguments. Let’s take a look at this.
We all waste money, so why should missions be any different? I know this is an odd thing to say, but we as individuals and as a church spend money on an endless list of things that aren’t necessary but are considered beneficial. How much money do we spend on summer camps, all-nighters, amusement parks, etc. every year with our youth groups? Someone could easily argue that any one of these is a waste of money. Does a church “need” glossy color fliers for everything? Does a church really “need” the trendiest coffee house, or Edison style light bulbs on the stage to share the Gospel? If you say missions are a waste of money and are not holding the same standard to other areas, there might be some inconsistency in your argument.
“We should save the money on the trip and just send it to the mission or missionaries.” This comes up whenever the topic of money and short-term missions are discussed. On the surface, it’s very simple to understand this sentiment. The thousands of dollars spent on travel would have a profound impact on developing countries or underfunded missions worldwide. The flaw in this argument is that in the history of the church, I don’t believe this has ever happened. What youth group has ever done fundraising, asked for donations, and sacrificed for a foreign mission where they weren’t actively going and serving? It might happen, but not at the same level as if the youth group had skin in the game or if they were actually visiting the foreign country they were raising money for. Many churches have generous mission funds but nothing compared to the funding if they are actually sending teams into the field. Long-term, once a person has experienced a mission trip, they will frequently go on to fundraise and donate to the mission for years to come. Short-term trips do create long-term funding for missions work.
The expressed reasons for short-term missions usually come down to a combination of sharing the gospel, and meeting either emergency or ongoing physical needs. Sharing the gospel, and helping the needy are biblical principles, and we should use whatever resources we can. I used the term “expressed reasons” because so often there are reasons for short-term missions that are not expressed, but can be incredibly impactful and frequently the true reason for the trip. One area that can have a tremendous impact, but is hardly ever discussed, is the fact that short-term missions (when done right) can be an incredible education for the people going on the trips. A short-term mission changes the lives of the people participating.
Many people spend $20,000, $30,000, $40,000 a year to attend college and think it’s worth every penny. Almost nobody questions this expense because it’s seen as an investment in the student. People attend college to learn a trade, for a better career, but also to grow as individuals, to become well-rounded and get a bigger picture of how the world operates. These are valuable goals we should be seeking throughout our lives. The week or so someone spends in the mission field can accomplish more in the areas of personal growth, and expanding their world view, than a semester at a university. When you look at short-term missions from this standpoint, the money spent is money well invested in the maturity and education of the individual going on the trip.
There are many great churches where people can learn and grow, but nothing compares to experiencing the church in other parts of the world and putting the gospel into action. A person can read the DMV handbook, and maybe even drive a car in a video game, but until they get behind a wheel and drive on a real road, they won’t know what driving is like. There is something about traveling to another land for the Gospel that makes it more real to the person going. To walk in the example of the apostles, not just read about them. To spend time with people who have dedicated their lives to the service of others inspires and changes people. To meet and spend time with people from other cultures in their own homes broadens our worldview.
I have an obvious conflict of interest, the two organizations I lead specialize in hosting short-term missions. But I honestly believe these trips change lives. A week or so in the missions field frequently becomes a defining experience for many of the people participating. Not everyone on a mission trip will go into full-time missions, just as not everyone who walks into a church becomes a pastor, but I’ve never met a full-time missionary who didn’t start out in short-term missions.
Go on a trip, back a trip, and support those who are experiencing putting the Gospel into action. Missions are a wise use of funding and will change lives for the better.
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