Is There Value in Short-Term Mission Trips?
“Our global missions efforts can sometimes drift into a form of conquering. We put a pin on a map and say, ‘Been there. Don That. Got the T-shirt.” While there is certainly nothing wrong with mission trips, we can accidentally slip into ‘missions tourism’ attending the ‘mission vacation’ of our choice.”
Alan Briggs, Staying Is the New Going: Choosing to Love Where God Places You. p. 90
I recently returned from a mission trip to Honduras. This was my third trip spanning eleven years. Holy Cross Lutheran Church, where I’m senior pastor, has built a long-term relationship with Betesda Church in Lepaterique, Honduras by taking short-term trips to visit these amazing people. However, these trips are not all we do to enhances this relationship.
People at Holy Cross sponsor over 120 Honduran children through Compassion International and most of these are in Lepaterique. These sponsors frequently communicate with their sponsored children through letters and gifts. They exchange pictures which are cherished by the children and the sponsor families. Most of the people making the trip to Honduras have a Compassion child and the highlight of their trip is sitting in the home of this child with his or her parents. These relationships through Compassion International have strengthen the bond between us.
Flowing out of our connection to Betesda through Compassion International is another ministry called, “Feed the Children.” A portion of our congregational tithe goes to Betesda to feed children in the surrounding villages where there is no Compassion project. This money helps purchase chicken and other protein rich foods to supplement their diet since protein is often lacking. Not only does our contribution help to buy food for these children, it also supports the growing of beans, corn and other foods near Lepaterique. They buy fertilizer with some of this money because the soil is not nutrient rich.
Though college tuition is free for students attending Honduran run colleges, there are still many expenses that students encounter which can make it impossible for them to get a higher education. To help students of Betesda, Holy Cross sponsors an annual golf tournament with the proceeds distributed to selected students. At worship on the Sunday that I was in Lepaterique, I met one of those students who has since graduated. She is now a charge nurse in Tegucigala and is studying to become a clinical psychologist.
Much of what we do in this partnership with Betesda Church could be done without making short-term mission trips.
Once in a while members of Holy Cross will ask Honduras Ministry Team members why thy make this trip to Honduras. Why don’t they take their money that they spend on travel (about $2,000) and give it directly to Betesda? That’s a fair question which I have also asked myself. The money spent to make this year’s trip could have been spent to do amazing things.
But only giving money lacks one thing, the one thing that makes the money valuable. It lacks a personal relationship. The value of everything Holy Cross does in partnership with Betesda is found in our yearly, face-to-face meeting. Sending money to Betesda says that we value these brothers and sisters in Christ, but sending ourselves takes this relationship to another level. There’s no distance between us. We rejoice with each other and we weep with each other. We put our arms around each other. We minister to each other.
This is no “mission vacation.” We’re in this for the long-haul.
Yet there’s a question that haunts me as a result of this trip to Honduras. If we understand the power of relationships in Honduras, why do we struggle to build relationships here at home? Even in spite of the language barrier we face in Honduras, we still seem to find ways of reaching each other, of caring for each other, of being there for each other. And yet, we struggle to be there for each other, to care for each other, and to find ways to reach each other in our own hometown. Why?
Short-term vs. Long-term Ministry
Short-term mission trips are intense. There’s not a lot of “free” time. Our trip lasted ten days, two and a half of which were spent traveling, four and a half in Lepaterique and the rest in Tegucigalpa. Our days were highly structured to get the most out of each moment.
Ministry in our neighborhoods are long-term and not highly organized. In fact, we struggle to see our daily grind as ministry. We see it as something to be endured. We long for a good night’s sleep. We live for the weekend. We might even live for the next mission trip thinking that what we do in Honduras, India, or on a Native American reservation is ministry but what we do the rest of the time is survival.
There are cultural differences and language barriers that distance us from the people we meet on a short-term mission trip. Some people might think this makes a short-term mission trip more difficult, and in a sense it does. Yet, language differences are not the only cultural disparity we encounter. There’s different worldviews, different customs, and different foods. However, since we don’t know the culture we also have not built up prejudices like we have in our own communities. We tend to be more objective about the people of a different culture than we are of our own culture. The irony is that whereas we’re apt to distance ourselves from people in our own hometowns because they’re not like us, we embrace people in a different country because they’re not like us.
Visitor vs. Citizen
When we visit Lepaterique we stay in dorm rooms at Betesda. The community does an amazing job of making us comfortable. They prepare every meal for us. Buses take us to different villages. We don’t live like the citizens of the village. We live as visitors, but not tourist. Very little of our time is spent doing touristy things like shopping. But we don’t live like a local person either. We don’t have to buy groceries, fill our cars with gas, and go to work. Because of these differences, a short-term mission trip might be what we wish life looked like every day.
Something to Think About
Should we stop going on short-term mission trips because of these differences?
No. Short-term mission trips are not evil, wrong or bad. They’re different. The trips that I’ve made to Honduras and Peru have played a significant role in the growth of my faith. Let me share some of the ways that these trips have opened my eyes.
These trips have helped me understand that God’s mercy in Christ is meant for all people and it works the same way no matter the cultural difference. I have talked with people in Honduras who’ve struggled with problems that I have, and who have found the same freedom in Christ. I’ve experienced abundant joy and hugs from the children of Honduras like I have in my own congregation.
These trips have pushed me outside of my comfort zone. I like to talk with people who understand me but in Honduras it takes extra work to be understood and to understand others. However, the language difference is not the only thing that makes me uncomfortable. It can be a frightful thing to walk into a foreign airport, walk through customs and wonder if my luggage is going to appear. Getting from point A to point B isn’t easy, especially if it involves walking across a street in Tegucigalpa.
These trips have given me the opportunity to watch gifted people make a difference beyond the walls of Holy Cross. Since I served as the official photographer for this year’s trip, I was able to step back and watch our team at work. Our team spent time with three to five-year-olds on Monday morning. With camera in hand, I captured this picture of one of our team members cared for a crying child.
When we go on short-term mission trips with an attitude of servants, we ask, “What can these people teach me about God,” These trips have value when the people feel that our visits are a blessing and not a curse. Short-term mission trips are not about us, they are about God and what he is doing in and through the lives of the people we visit.
On Friday, the day before we left Honduras, we visited children and their parents in one of Tegucigalpa’s hospitals. After climbing seven floors and grabbing a few crackers and juice boxes, we entered large rooms, each with twelve beds. There was no privacy for these children and their parents; no doors, no curtains. With the help of translators we moved from one child to another. Most of the time the parent told us what was going on with their child and desired that we pray with them.
My last visit was with a mom holding her one month old boy, Ricardo. He was suffering from convulsions. She sat in a chair, so I got on my knees, not wanting to stand above her. As we talked she shared her frustration that God was not answering her prayers. She believed in God but he was silent. I listened to her and shared that it can be frustrating not to receive the answers we desire. I assured her that God is present even when it doesn’t feel like he is. We prayed as tears filled her eyes.
I said goodbye and left the room. I remember standing in the hallway as our team was about to leave. She looked at me through the window and smiled. I cannot shake this picture. I will never see her again. It was one and done. That hurts. I believe that my time with this woman, holding her son’s hand, was God ordained. But all I’m left with is praying for Ricardo and his mom. I see her face looking at me and I think there’s more that God desires from that moment.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m humbled and grateful for that experience. Yet, for me, what happened is a picture of the difference between a short-term mission trip and long-term ministry. Long-term ministry isn’t one and done, or at least it shouldn’t be. When we head out on a short-term mission trip we need to remember that the people we visit are engage in long-term ministry. We’re there to help them better handle their long-term issues, issues that we’ll face when we return to our homes.
Life is not about short-term mission trips, it’s about long-term relationships.
Copyright Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Colorado Springs, CO