My sister recently returned from a mission trip to the Dominican Republic. She relayed to me that it was really challenging for one reason: she went there to build homes, but when she got down there, she realized the missionaries and the local people really just wanted to talk. While she was there to build homes, she sensed what was really needed was relationship.
So while she tried to pull her own weight in building the houses she was there to build, she also tried to give the missionaries and the local people what they were desperately needing: encouragement through sitting on the front porch, drinking tea and talking about life.
After she described this challenge, I remarked that she’d just expressed in 30 seconds what every American who has ever been on a mission trip ever, struggles with. We are achievement focused and efficiency minded. This is not at all a bad thing. However, often what is most needed on a mission trip is the ministry of presence and a willingness to sit with people and walk with them through life. Often missionaries and churches can be very isolated from other believers. Therefore, ministry of presence is invaluable when participating in a mission trip. But this can be very difficult when we are wired to produce something tangible, measurable.
This is just one of the many challenges facing us when we are deciding to go on a mission trip.
We’ve all heard this perspective towards short-term teams:
- Better to send money, that’s what the missionaries really need.
- We can’t speak the language, so what good are we?
- Can’t they find their own people to build houses?
- I shouldn’t raise support to go have fun; it’s like asking someone to pay for my vacation.
I love comments and questions like these, because they reveal a heart to be effective. It reveals a heart that desires to do good, rather than cause harm. They are probing comments and questions that come from witnessing the damage of a God-complex. They come from a genuine desire to live life to the fullest.
That’s why it’s important to answer the question of why short-term teams to foreign countries are really important. It would be tragic to send people who don’t understand the why behind what they are doing. It would be even more tragic if, because of these hurtles, people decide to not go at all.
Let’s tackle each of these questions, shall we?
Better to send money, that’s what the missionaries really need.
Missionaries do need money. It’s probably the most needed resource. Without it, they can’t do their ministry. Let’s face it, without it, they can’t even pay their bills. Scripture has a lot to say about giving and contributing resources and finances to the spread of the gospel (2 Cor. 9:6-8). To give money to our brothers and sisters in the global church is extremely important.
Which is why short-term teams are also important.
Teams bring money with them. Typically, they fund the project, camp, or VBS while also providing the manpower when they come. Not only that, the teams often return home to tell their church about the work being done. Their testimony is the fuel a church needs to continue to send financial support throughout the rest of the year—until the next team goes.
Think about this, say you go on a trip that costs $3,000. If you weren’t going on that trip, would you still raise the $3,000 for that organization or church? Probably not. The ministry or church you are visiting is receiving more money becauseyou go—not less.
We can’t speak the language, so what good are we?
Have you ever heard the adage, communication is only 10% words? I should probably stop there, because that pretty much answers the question. You can communicate without words. In fact, there’s something really beautiful about the limitation of communication. You’re having to rely on Christ in a whole new way. Not only that, you’re getting to experience the bigness of God’s global church. Jesus didn’t communicate in English, after all. How often do we really think about this? I’d say a communication barrier is the most personally enriching part of a short-term trip. You’re challenged in your cultural blind spots in a way you’d never be challenged in homogenous culture. Language represents culture, and not knowing a language means you’re out of your depth. For most middle and upper-class Americans, this is a rare occurrence. There is nothing more beautiful than experiencing the grace of Jesus while seated next to someone who doesn’t speak your language.
Also, most countries teach their children English in school, so you’re unlikely to encounter any situation that doesn’t at least have a translator or two.
Can’t they find their own people to do the work?
Yes they can, but they probably can’t afford to pay them. Which takes us back to #1. Often teams bring resources that allow churches and ministries to pay local workers to help with everyday projects. Let’s face it, most middle-class Americans aren’t experts at construction or children’s ministry. They’ll need the aid of local people to help on construction sites, run VBS or sports camps.
But that’s not all. Building a house or putting on a camp is not the most important reason you are there. But, you say, that’s what I told everyone I was doing. Yes, that might be the reason you go, but your presence is usually the most underrated resource you can bring to a team. The fact that you raised money to go and spend time with people you’ve never met, provides more encouragement and sustainability than you can ever know. Once you leave, the church will carry on without you, but your willingness to commit a week or two to their spiritual growth by just being present with them is far more important than the number of houses you build or the number of children who come to a summer camp.
It’s not all about what you can achieve—it’s about who you are sitting beside.
I shouldn’t raise support to go have fun; it’s like asking someone to pay for my vacation.
Most people can’t take the time away from work or school to go on a mission trip, but they’re likely more than happy to send money for someone else to go. By asking people to join your team in praying and providing financially for your trip, you are not only ensuring you have the resources you need, but you’re also bringing awareness to the ministry you are serving. Most of the people on the other end of that support letter have never heard of the place you’re going. You just told them about it. You just got to share about incredible work God is doing in a part of the world they’ve likely never been. Does that sound like asking for money for your vacation?
Also, it’s not wrong to have fun while you’re serving Jesus. Jesus was a lot of fun. He did cool things and stayed in random people’s homes while he was on mission. Was his ministry less effective because people provided for him financially (Luke 8:3)?
Oh yeah, did you know Jesus was a missionary? Did you know Jesus relied on the support and the help of others?
If Jesus was okay with it…
It’s good to question the effectiveness of something. After all, you’re deciding to commit money and time, and everyone should use wisdom in making these big decisions. I hope the answer to these questions were helpful and that they helped clear up some of the doubt associated with the effectiveness of mission trips.
Katherine works with youth at Pacific Crossroads, but she used to be a missionary in Mexico. She’s experienced first-hand the power of the ministry of presence by being on the receiving end of short-term mission trips. Email her comments or questions here.