Before You Go: Defining Success in Short-Term Missions

Adapted from Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions: Leader Guide.

As the summer season approaches, many church groups in the U.S. are preparing for short-term mission trips, whether inside or outside the country. They may be thinking through the details of their plans, making travel arrangements and packing lists and prayer sheets, and raising funds.

But is that all that we need to think about before we go on a short-term mission project? What about a healthy framework for why we might go in the first place and what success in short-term missions looks like—first and foremost for the communities we seek to serve and then for our teams and supporters.

Missiologists, sociologists, and church and ministry leaders have written about the need for a revised approach to short-term missions. Some organizations, like Mission Excellence, have compiled documents and trainings describing best-practices for trips, including 7 standards of excellence for short-term missions. By emphasizing elements like pre-trip training, healthy partnerships, and intentional follow-up, these leaders have outlined what effective trips can look like.

What Is Success?

Rather than focusing on the trip itself as the defining element of a short-term experience, we need to situate short-term missions as one piece in a larger undertaking. A trip is not, in and of itself, typically a catalyst for change in a community—or enough to move team members toward meaningful, long-term participation in poverty alleviation. The definition of a “healthy” trip includes long-term engagement and learning.

While there can be tremendous value to well-executed short-term trips and their pre- and post-trip follow through with ministry partners, many trips have and continue to inflict inadvertent harm on communities in material poverty. We want to challenge misunderstandings about appropriate and realistic purposes of trips and focus on a long-term process of learning and engagement. Part of improving short-term trips actually involves taking fewer of them and dedicating more of our resources to long-term missions and poverty alleviation work within a community.

At one level, “success” in short-term missions looks like more and more churches and believers engaging with, praying for, and supporting effective ministries and their staff, missionaries, or community development workers. It looks like more and more churches turning loose their brothers and sisters who work in low-income communities every day, supporting them as they do work that outsiders could never accomplish in one or two weeks. A congregation supporting local workers without creating dependency, even without recurring short-term trips, is a long-term success!

When done well, a short-term trip itself is just one piece of the broader, long-term journey of learning and engagement with God’s work in the world. Leading trip participants through that process can be a powerful way to help them understand and advocate for redefining poverty and poverty alleviation in their own communities. Through this type of transformation, both sending churches and churches across the globe can better share the gospel in word and deed. Ultimately, there is no greater success than the local body of Christ declaring and demonstrating the hope of Jesus Christ’s reconciling work.

Doing It Well, Doing It Poorly

Co-author of When Helping Hurts and Chalmers’ Community Development Specialist Steve Corbett, writes that, during his time working outside the U.S. with a Christian relief and development organization, he had the opportunity to observe many short-term mission trips.

Steve shared about one memorable team: “The group, made up of mostly adults, came with such a spirit of humility. They came with open minds and hearts, wanting to better understand poverty and poverty alleviation in the region in which we worked. They visited and stayed in several communities. They met with national field staff, pastors, teachers, committee leaders, and community members. They attended church events and were full participants in them, but they did not feel the need to lead, teach, or preach. In fact, they politely declined invitations to do so, deferring to the leadership of local pastors. They came to simply be with us.

I personally knew some of the trip participants, and I had a chance to follow-up with their stories. Even as they returned home, they stood with their brothers and sisters on the field. Most of them became dedicated advocates for the work we were doing, and they supported our work through their financial generosity. They unleashed our local staff to engage in transformational work that simply couldn’t have happened otherwise. Their trip was a huge success. Thinking of my time with them still puts a smile on my face.”1

“But I also know of stories where teams constructed buildings one week and local people tore them down the next week, ensuring that subsequent groups had some work to do. I know of stories where local people came forward to be baptized week after week so that teams felt like their evangelism efforts were effective. These are obviously extreme scenarios, and clearly the sending-churches did not intend to create these situations. But such stories represent another end of the short-term missions spectrum.”2

Navigating Possibilities

There are countless variables in short-term missions. For example, the process of sending a short-term team through a direct congregation-to-congregation relationship takes different types of planning than partnering through an intermediary organization. Going with a large third-party organization that is doing quality poverty alleviation work provides enormous benefits to you and the receiving community. These organizations should have existing country- or region-specific training resources, and they can mediate your relationship with local churches and community members. However, engaging in direct congregation-to-congregation relationships can be very rewarding when done well, though they take increased investment of human and financial resources, time, and energy.

However, there is one common piece to any healthy short-term trip: wherever they go, they are sent to support an organization or ministry that is engaging in effective poverty alleviation. Situating a short-term trip in the context of an organization’s long-term work helps prevent certain types of inadvertent harm. Further, it can lead churches into deep, lasting engagement with effective work in your own community and around the world.

Before you go, think about why as much as you think about where or who, and make plans now for how your trip fits in a larger, long-term relationship with a church or organization faithfully doing good work where you are going.

  1. Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett with Katie Casselberry, Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions: Leader’s Guide (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014), 7. ↩︎
  2. Ibid., 8. ↩︎
The Chalmers Center

The Chalmers Center

The Chalmers Center helps God’s people rethink poverty and respond with practical biblical principles so that all are restored to flourishing.

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