As a missions leader in my church, my first priority in organizing and executing short-term trips is to come alongside our missions partners and assist them in the work they are doing, to offer a team of people who can help them do to a greater degree what they are already doing week in and week out to reach the people in their community. If a team can’t return from a trip and list concrete ways in which they were a blessing to our partner and to the people they worked among, then we need to reconsider our approach to missions and our aim in taking mission trips.
But along with this goal of helping our missions partners, one of my great hopes is that our members who participate in short-term trips come back changed in some way. Those of us who have participated in missions efforts know that, even when our only aim in going is to bless and serve the workers and nationals in our host country, we often come back feeling more blessed and served than the people to whom we sought to minister. This mutual benefit is a gift from God. It is a fulfillment of Jesus’s statement that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), and we should thank God that he is faithful to bless those who are seeking to bless others. Truly, he works all things for good (Rom 8:28).
I’m not sure some of our responses to these trips go far enough in producing the change God wants to work in and through each of us.
In my experience hosting, participating in, and leading short-term trips, however, I’ve found that the responses to time spent in a foreign context, particularly in developing nations, are often incomplete. I don’t mean to say they are wrong; there is legitimacy to each of the responses we'll look at below. But I’m not sure some of our responses to these trips go far enough in producing the change God wants to work in and through each of us, and I hope being aware of how these responses fall short will encourage us to respond in ways that meaningfully benefit those who go, the churches that send them, and the people we serve.
Below are three incomplete responses to short-term missions in developing nations. Again, I’m calling them “incomplete,” not “incorrect,” because I believe they don’t take us quite far enough. While these three responses may not be unique to ministry in developing nations, they are more likely to show up on trips to these parts of the world because of the poverty we often encounter there. I’m sure many others could be added to this article—my list of incomplete responses is, no doubt, incomplete—but the responses of guilt, grumbling, and gratitude are three that are quick to surface among those who participate in these trips.
We have so much, and they have so little.
I feel bad for having (fill in the blank).
As an American, it’s hard to come back from a trip to a poverty-stricken area and not feel guilty for all the stuff in my life. I own a ton of stuff, and I live in a country that is filled with and fueled by the acquisition of stuff. Along with that, I live in an incredibly wealthy country, where even the poorest among us are better off than most people in the world. I recently led a trip to Cuba, and I realized during the week that the cash I had on me to cover our team’s expenses was more than the average Cuban will make in ten years.
Making myself feel bad about my station in life doesn’t help me or the people to whom I’m ministering.
Realizations like these are humbling, and they often create a sense of guilt in us. Is some of that guilt warranted? I think so. It is very easy to get comfortable living with a lot, even when we know there are so many living with so little. And if we’ve allowed our own comfort to take priority over exhibiting gospel generosity toward people in need, then some Spirit-prompted conviction is in order. At the same time, however, I shouldn’t feel guilty simply because I was born in a prosperous country and the people I’m trying to minister to were not. Making myself feel bad about my station in life doesn’t help me or the people to whom I’m ministering.
Rather than just weighing ourselves down with guilt, perhaps God is using our experience in these contexts to grow our gratitude and remind us that he has blessed us so we might be a blessing to others (more on that below; see Gen 12:1–3). Those with much are expected to be good stewards of what God has given them (Luke 12:48), and while our knee-jerk reaction of throwing money at problems is not always the right solution, God may be leading us to leverage our position or possessions to advance his kingdom and build his church in a less-developed part of the world.
These believers are so committed.
Our people would never be willing to do what they do.
If you’re a missions leader, then you’re used to encouraging people not to grumble on short-term trips. We devote entire pre-trip meetings to preparing our people for the inconveniences they might face and underscoring the importance of maintaining flexibility and grace. We don’t want people grumbling because the trip doesn’t meet their expectations in some way, but that’s not the kind of grumbling I have in mind here. The grumbling I'm targeting takes the form of complaining about our churches back home. “Wow, their young people are so committed. We can’t even get ours to wake up in time for church.” “They rode a bus for an hour to get here? Our people won’t show up if it’s raining outside.” “Look at how well-behaved the children are. Our kids won’t sit still for five minutes during the service.”
What if God is using believers in another part of the world to inspire us toward greater faithfulness to him and greater devotion to his church?
Any of that sound familiar? I know I’ve had those thoughts, especially when I’ve seen believers in other countries sit through a two-hour service without complaining knowing there are churchgoers back home who get up and walk out if the service runs past 11:45. It’s easy to pile on during these times and get into a back-and-forth that centers on all the issues we have with our sending church. Are some of our criticisms warranted? Sure. Again, we like our comfortable lives, and when something happens that threatens our comfort—like a sermon that runs too long and might result in a long wait for a table at lunch—we often have trouble dealing with it in a God-honoring way. When being comfortable usurps being faithful, the church has left the narrow path to which Christ has called us.
Instead of just grumbling about our church back home, however, what if God is using believers in another part of the world to inspire us toward greater faithfulness to him and greater devotion to his church? What if God wants us to model faithfulness instead of just complaining about the lack of faithfulness we see in our church? Chances are there are areas in our own lives where we’ve allowed our expectations to dictate what we are willing and unwilling to do for the kingdom. Let’s ask God to expose those things, to reorient our priorities, and to use us to lead the charge in living out Hebrews 10:24–25 in our local church.
I’m so glad I went on that trip.
I’m way more grateful now for everything I have.
This incomplete response is probably the most common of the three I’ve listed here. Is there anything wrong with being grateful for what we have? Of course not. As I mentioned above, being grateful is a better response than just feeling guilty. But I’m not sure gratitude alone is how God wants us to respond after doing ministry in an impoverished area. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard something along the lines of “I need to send my kids on one of these mission trips so they can realize just how good they’ve got it.” If that’s the main reason you’re going (or sending), then you’ve missed the point of these trips entirely. The purpose of short-term trips is not to make those who participate in them more grateful for all the stuff they have.
Yes, after we’ve encountered disadvantage and destitution, we should respond with praise to God for providing us with what we have. But we shouldn’t stop there. We should ask God to show us how we can use what he has blessed us with to bless others. Better yet, what if we ask God to show us what we can live without so that we are freed up to live more simply and generously for the sake of the kingdom? Believers all around the world are living and ministering with little, and they are trusting God to supply what they need because they may not be able to count on much more than their “daily bread” (Matt 6:9–13). Some of what we come back grateful for may be the very things God wants us to lay on the altar so that we can encourage and empower believers in developing nations to continue in their Great Commission work.
The purpose of short-term trips is not to make those who participate in them more grateful for all the stuff they have.
The responses of guilt, grumbling, and gratitude aren’t entirely wrong, but I believe they’re incomplete. They don’t take us far enough in responding to the work God wants to do in us and through us after we’ve participated in a short-term trip to a developing nation. Rather than scrapping short-term trips altogether, I think the solution is to respond with action instead of mere sentiment. It’s natural that we experience these feelings after we’ve spent extended time in another part of the world, but feelings alone won’t benefit us, our churches, or the people we’re hoping to reach. Ask God to show you what he wants you to do in response to how you feel, and let the conviction and prompting of God’s Spirit lead you forward in Great Commission intentionality for the sake of Christ and the ministry he has called us to.
Can you think of other “incomplete” responses to short-term mission trips?
We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.
David McWhite lives in Greenville, SC, with his wife and four children and serves as Pastor of Missions, Outreach, and Young Couples at Edwards Road Baptist Church. Prior to joining the staff at ERBC, he and his family lived and ministered in Czechia and Ireland. David also works as Content Editor here at Upstream.