Short term mission trips aren’t the most efficient way to tell other people about Jesus. In fact, It’s probably one of the least efficient ways that most churches participate in. Take our church’s current team to Ecuador for example, we have 10 people going who are paying roughly $1550 to go, half of which is airfare. So we are spending $15,500 for 10 people to spend a week doing a little bit of labor and leading a VBS. If we were so inclined we could probably hire construction workers and local people to do all that we would do for much less, probably around $2,000 if we were just being generous. So 80% of our cost is money that isn’t directly helping the people we say we are going to help.
This whole line of thinking has lead many churches to abandon short term mission trips, for books to be written on it including Toxic Charity, and for people to even harass those who do go on these types of trips. And I get it. I understand the frustration of seeing money that could be used to pay for a pastor’s salary for an entire year in Ecuador being used just to fly our group down there for one week.
I was fortunate enough to spend roughly 16 weeks in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina doing disaster response. We usually had over 100 people a week coming from different churches to work with our organization. In all that time we only had two groups come through that weren’t connected to the church. Both groups worked harder, longer, and frankly even better than any of the church teams. They brought with them construction workers, doctors, and other skilled workers and they were there to really make a difference. The other teams were there to be on a mission trip. What I mean by that is they followed the call to GO, but that was the end goal for them. Their good deed was going on a mission trip. The secular teams goal was to help people. Hopefully that distinction makes sense to you.
We saw hundreds of crisis care kits come through. They were gallon ziplock bags filled with all he essential toiletries and even had toys in there. We tried to pass them out, but a year after the hurricane people didn’t need that kind of help anymore, however, the kits kept coming in. We had entire rooms filled with these kits, each one probably costing between $10 and $20, so thousands of dollars were just sitting in storage while people were just trying to figure out how to get back in their home. I remember becoming bitter about those kits and thinking that if people would just send the money that they would have spent on the kits to the organization that they could hire a case worker who could do some real good. I eventually had to go back to college and left, the crisis kits were still in storage waiting for the next disaster to hit so they could be passed out, and as bitter as I was about those kits and all the other wasted things, I would do all of it over again in a heartbeat.
You see when I was on a mission trip to Mexico, I received my call into ministry while sitting on the roof of a church we were building on to. When I was in New Orleans I saw real miracles happen and my journey with God was forever changed. When I was in the Philippines for two months, I learned more about poverty, the international church, humility, and prejudices than all my college courses could ever teach me. Sure, each time I went on a mission trip I saw things that we did things wrong, or where money could have been spent better. But I have also seen people catch a spark for helping others, for giving of themselves to where it hurts to give someone else a chance of meeting Jesus... to literally saving a couple’s life because they re-roofed the wrong house.
God does more with short term mission trips than we give him credit for. He has been doing work there before the teams get there and he’ll continue to do work long after we’re gone. These trips can have such a big impact on the people who actually go that it’s worth being inefficient. It’s worth it to see them develop a heart for the lost, the widows, the orphans and the sojourners. Short term missions might even be less about the people that we go serve and more about developing the people who go into better disciples of Jesus. May God forgive us if we are wasting resources, but don’t let that excuse stop you from trying to follow his command of “Go and make disciples”.