Every summer thousands of Christians pack their bags full of bug spray, bandanas, coloring books, toys, and translation books, eager to board a flight to a faraway nation.
Eyes full of excitement and hearts earnestly prepared to share the gospel with those natives of that distant nation, these pilgrims often dream of the ways they can be the hands and feet of Jesus.
Before going on my own first mission trip, I remember panicking just a little bit, my excitement over the impending journey tainted by a head full of doubts.
Should I even go? What good could I possibly do?
I’ve worked too hard and spent too much to back out now, but is Panama the place God wants me to be for the next week?
I’ve psyched myself out reading blogs about how short-term mission trips can be detrimental.
Will I hurt more than I help?
Will I misrepresent Christ to this group of people?
Several years ago, after my trip, I had the opportunity to ask David Platt, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board, a few questions about how Christians can better prepare themselves to participate in effective and compassionate mission trips.
There has been some bad press given to the idea of short-term missions in recent years. What would you tell those who dismiss the power of short-term missions?
I can talk until I am blue in the face about setting our sights on the nations, but until someone actually goes and sees the nations in person, he or she is likely to underestimate the urgency of God’s global purpose in our lives.
We hear many criticisms of short-term missions, and some are valid.
Short-term mission trips are often nothing more than glorified vacations. They can be sightseeing tours filled with sporadic service opportunities that give people an opportunity to pat themselves on the back while doing little to advance the gospel in a reproducible, sustainable way in another culture.
But there is another way. Successful short-term missions can have long-term impact both here and around the world.
On one hand, short-term missions must be part of fueling a long-term disciple-making process in another context. Clearly, no one is going to make disciples in another country over the span of one week. To expect to make disciples in just a few days is both impractical and unbiblical.
However, we can partner with believers in other contexts who are intentionally making disciples, and our time serving alongside them can help move their disciple-making processes along in exponential ways.
At the same time, successful short-term missions must also be a part of fueling long-term disciple-making in the sending church. As we go together into other contexts, we grow together in Christ. Our eyes are opened and our hearts are transformed as we serve in situations that make us uncomfortable.
Whether we’re serving impoverished brothers and sisters or sharing the gospel with people who have never heard it before, God does a work in our hearts that will not leave us unchanged. Part of the purpose of short-term missions is to walk through situations like this alongside others who will help us, challenge us, serve us, and spur us on toward Christ in the midst of it all.
How should Christians prepare for short-term missions trips to be as effective as possible?
In order to prepare best for short-term missions, Christians should make sure that they are intentionally tying any short-term trip to these long-term goals. They should work intentionally with other Christians before, during, and after the trip to make sure that this is fueling long-term growth in their own (and in others’) relationship with Christ.
In addition, Christians should work hard to make sure that what they will be doing during their short-term trip is actually fueling good, long-term ministry on the ground wherever they’re going.
Accordingly, Christians should pray, train, and prepare to do whatever is going to be most helpful for the mission partners with whom they will be working.
How can Christians stateside be of the most service to their brethren participating in long-term missions across the world?
We mustn’t miss the link between short-term mission trips and long-term missionaries, for the inevitable result of short-term missions done right is radically changed lives in the long-term.
Some from our church have returned to say, “I believe God is calling me to spend ninety-eight percent of my time in another context and come back to my current context for a two-percent visit each year.” In this way, short-term mission trips end up fueling long-term commitments.
In the end, if we have as much access to the gospel as we have in our culture, and there is so much absence of the gospel in other cultures, then surely God is leading many more of us (maybe the majority of us) to go to those cultures.
If God calls us to stay in this culture, then surely he is leading us to live simply and give sacrificially so that as many people as possible can go. We pray for them continually, we give to them generously, and we go with them willingly whenever we have opportunity on short-term mission trips.
In this way, the entire church works together for the spread of the gospel around the world.
Editor’s note: Learn more about more effective means to love those you are serving in Love Your Neighbor: Restoring Dignity, Breaking the Cycle of Poverty.
On “Flashback Friday” we publish some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This post was first published on July 29, 2015.
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