Rethinking Missions Trips:  “It Became Too Costly To Justify the Expense of Flying Kids Overseas”

Orginally published on Monday, July 07, 2008 at 8:38 AM
by Todd Rhoades

Here is an interesting article from the Washington Post about churches that are re-thinking missions trips. This is the first I have heard of things like this: a church in Mexico being painted six times in one summer by six different church groups, or a church in Ecuador that was built and never used because the community said it wasn't needed... Does this really happen? And, if so, why?

Then there was this quote in the article by one senior pastor: "It became too hard to justify the expense of flying the kids overseas. "If you're going to paint a church, you can do that in Florida as easily as you can in Mexico." True dat. And I have nothing against domestic missions trips. But I thought that the purpose of an international trip was the whole experience of a different culture; helping people who are less fortunate, and sharing your faith. Sure, you can do that in Florida, but it seems like you'll miss an important things you'd experience on an international trip.

All that said... when my two oldest boys travel to Honduras later this month, I'm hoping they won't be 'repainting' a church!

Read more here...

PS—What do you think?

This post has been viewed 1623 times so far.

  There are 34 Comments:

  • Hi Todd- I am the Communications Director of McLean Bible and we were interviewed for this story.  Its a shame that the reporter only reported one side of the story and failed to talk about the churches who have long term partnerships in foreign regions and send short term teams to the same places each year.  Our church has a partnership with the Great Lakes region of Africa through World Relief.  When we were interviewed for this story we talked at length about the partnership.  Its unfortunate this story came out one-sided.

  • Posted by Todd Rhoades

    Thanks so much for your input, AnnieLaurie.  That was my opinion of the article as well—one sided! 

    I know that there are some abuses, probably.  But this article took the downside on most every aspect.

    Thanks again!


  • Posted by

    I think it does point to an important need for churches to have a well thought out philosophy of short-term missions that guides their trip decisions.  I get mail in my inbox weekly from organizations promising easy and life changing trips for students through adults…

    We have taken a stand that we will only minister “short term” where we know our efforts are assisting an already existing and credible ministry that can/will follow up after we leave.
    We also are careful to understand what the missionaries NEED rather than bringing our “canned, and pre-prepared programs from rural/suburban/middle class/white America” into their context.

  • Posted by

    I am leading a team to India in September and we will only go where we have a standing relationship and can work to support the efforts of those already in ministry.  We have built a Mobile Medical Clinic in Kashmir, built a stationary Clinic, built sewing centers for abused Muslim Women, and work to do Pastor and leadership conferences along with a womens conference this fall. 

    I think we have to be committed to a stronger support role than a stronger doing role.

  • Posted by Wyeth Duncan

    One question that has always crossed my mind when I think of short-term mission trips to “experience...a different culture; helping people who are less fortunate, and sharing your faith”: Why don’t these groups go to one of the inner cities of any big city in the US?

    For the average, predominately white, evangelical church, the inner city qualifies as “a different culture”, its residents as “less fortunate”, and there is obviously a great need for “sharing your faith” with the people who live in these spiritually, educationally and economically disadvantaged areas.

    A related thought: As African Americans, active in a predominantly white evangelical church, I already consider my family and I to be engaged in “cross-cultural” ministry.

  • Posted by

    My 2 cents...I am no missiologist.  And, I agree that the article is sadly one-sided, and deserves a thorough critical review and more balance. 

    Nevertheless, deeper thoughtfulness and self-critique regarding Christian missions trips is also appropriate.  I would like to hear from a professional missiologist on this article.  Correct me if I am wrong, but from what I understand, so much of what we as Americans do is not sustainable, and often is not reflective of the kind of mutual partnership that builds projects through primary ownership by the people who are most affected by what we are doing.  And sometimes, it may not even reflect Christian love and Biblical wisdom.  Based on experience, many people understand that Americans have a difficult time serving other nationals, by and large. We often want to come in with our ‘can do’ spirit and our ideas and our culture and spend multi-K+ on the trip expenses.  According to the President of Gospel for Asia TK Yohannon, the ‘modern revolution’ in missions and international development is that the day of American control over missions is passing...Other countries’ nationals are often doing a better job of advancing the Gospel in ways that are winsome, cost effective, and compelling.  The largest churches in the world are outside the US, and those churches are reaching their own peoples and others’ as well.  I have read somewhere that South Korean missionaries, for example, are doing alot of the heavy lifting of Christian missions in the most politically tough places.  And miracles of community transformation often take place in developing countries without American involvement since we may not often show the faith patterns to pray to the point of breakthrough.  This is not to denegrate the historical positives of American missions and compassion as such, but to simply understand that the ‘American’ label on missions is perhaps passing, especially when it is related to behaviors which can imply superiority, dominance, arrogance, or American exceptionalism, especially in the Middle East.  We have alot to be thankful and proud of, as well as some things we can bring before God as a matter of repentance.
    Just my 2 cents…

  • Posted by Peter Hamm

    The first response nailed it. We (through a missions organization led by some great “lay-people” in our church) actively participate in long-term partnership missions (right now in a very poor area of Jamaica and in the Dominican Republic), where we go back and build out from a central base, always actually accomplishing something and making progress (building hurricane-proof housing and now helping them build some businesses where they can become more self-sustaining). It’s not about a life-changing experience for those who go, although that’s a great win, too. It’s about changing the circumstances and lives, and often the eternal destinies, of those we go TO.

  • Posted by Ken Sowers

    Last week we had a guest pastor from India in our home. His ministry has 100+ church planters/pastors and two orphanages with over 100 children. Our small sized church was the first to offer them prayer and financial support. We now provide full financial expenses for 16 children and 6 pastors (about $25 each month) When asked if he wanted us to build an orphanage or church, we counted the cost and he replied “We had better take care of the pastors, Brother.” The buildings would be a luxury they can’t afford. I am questioning whether it is good stewardship for me to join them this January for a series of crusades. They are going well without me and I am sold on the value of international service to Missions.
    There are positive effects of a mission trip that focuses on service and ministry rather than experience and vacation. I went to Africa in 1989, came home and planted a church that supports missions. So it can’t all be wasteful.

  • Posted by Chris Elrod

    Well...if you paint a church in Miami. Florida...it will be almost like painting one in Mexico...or Cuba...or Puerto Rico.  grin

  • Posted by Randy Ehle

    First off, Todd, thank you for posting this.  It is one of the first posts about global engagement that I have noticed at MMI in the past few years.  I appreciate the comments made so far, too.  As one whose passion is to see American churches more globally engaged, I’m encouraged that this topic has (finally?!?) made it to MMI.

    Yes, the blunders referred to in this article really do happen...and they are avoidable.  I think it begins with rethinking what our global role is as Americans, and as HJ pointed out, that role is changing rapidly.  In October I’m going to Liberia with a team from our church.  In conjunction with that, I’m putting together an individualized study course to get some credit toward my MDiv; the focus of the course is “implementing an effective short-term mission strategy in a local church within the context of a broader mission strategy”.  I’m reviewing some potential texts, and one of the best from an academic/missiology standpoint seems to be Maximum Impact Short-Term Mission, by Roger Peterson, Gordon Aeschliman, and Wayne Sneed.  At the very least, I highly recommend looking at the “MISTM Grid”.  I also recommend http://www.glocal.net as a resource.

    I don’t like to plug my own blog here (especially since it hasn’t been updated in a while), but I’d love to hear more about what some of your churches are doing.

  • Posted by Jay Crouch

    I really struggled with the issue of mission, especially international, and have truly found a great mission opportunity that introduces students to basically another culture, takes them deeper in faith by bigger-than-life challenges, and is all within the US. Check out http://www.campbarnabas.org for an awesome mission/service project. Students serve 23 hours/day and are transformed like no other mission I’ve ever experienced. Two years ago we were assigned painting a house...one with aluminum siding...that doesn’t quite work. Well, it does until the first rain. This year we invested into lives of disabled kids and they invested our lives. We are forever changed by being taken completely out of our element and into a deper relationship with Christ and others proved to be a fantastic journey for every participant.

  • Posted by Randy Ehle

    Oops - forgot to include my blog address:  http://randehle.blogspot.com.  Of course, you smart people could probably figure out to just click on my name!

  • I used to run in a crowd of mostly poor Jesus freaks that would go on missions often, and it costs like $3,000 just to fly there.

    I began to question the Return On Investment or Stewardship value of these trips.

    Currently, to me, it seems like short term trips are more for the missionary than for the people they’re visiting.

    I feel it’s better stewardship to invest in indigenous missionaries - they know the language, they have trust, they’re already living there very inexpensively.

    Should I fly there myself for $3,000 or support a pastor there for a whole year?

  • Posted by Steve Hutto

    I know everyone has their own experiences with short-term missions.  I have my own.  I went to India for the first time back in 1997.  I went as a pastor to pretty much inspect the work which our church had been investing in for several years.  It changed my life!  I literally have not been the same since!  My appreciation for the nation I live in (U.S.) has been off the scale since.  Since 1997 I have been to India 8 times.  In addition my vision for the world has been enlarged exponentially.  Besides India, I have traveled to Honduras and Guatemala numerous times.  But the key for me has been to trust God to connect me with the people of His choice.  We are working with local pastors and churches in India and Central America.  I don’t go to do crusades arranged by myself.  I simply go to serve them in whatever capacity I can.  It is a lot less expensive this way.  I have spent time in the homes of some of the most wonderful people of other cultures!  Instead of a haughty attitude it causes one to have a very thankful heart.  For me, one (and its a major one) of the greatest effects short-term missions will have on a person is that they learn to appreciate the nation God has blessed us with. 

    Read “The Light and the Glory” by Peter Marshall and David Manuel.  You’ll discover that many of the people who came from Europe to settle America felt they were called by God to spread the light of the Gospel.  This book truly reports the facts about our founding fathers.  America has always had the vision for missions because it is ingrained in our foundation.  http://www.pastorstevesblog.blogspot.com

  • Posted by Randy Ehle

    Jesse, your response is a fairly common one.  It is definitely important to count the financial cost, but that should never be the only factor.  (I think of Jesus’ response to Judas when Mary(?) used a jar of expensive perfume to anoint Jesus.) If a “mission” trip is primarily about building houses or painting - or repainting! - a church, then it probably does make sense to support a local pastor or send the money to pay for local workers.  But Steve Hutto’s post is a great example of why we can’t just count dollars.  If the life of faith is truly about being “transformed by the renewing of your mind” and being conformed to the image of Christ, then we need Americans to go serve our brothers and sisters in the Majority World...to learn from them, to encourage and be encouraged by them, to gain something of their passion and faith...and so be transformed.  We need them to then come home and empassion the rest of us to the type of faith they have seen.

    We in the west have been blessed with tremendous financial resources that will never be redistributed the way some of us would like.  But they have been blessed with a faith and contentment and joy that most of us may never experience short of spending $3000 to go spend a week among them.  A short-term mission trip can be one of the most life-changing experiences a western believer can have, and it has the potential to impact lives far into the future.

  • Posted by

    An organization I KNOW doesn’t do what the article lists is World Gospel Mission.  It has programs for skilled professionals (Dr’s,dentists,accountants, etc) skilled UNprofessionals (he he he), and college-age people.


  • Posted by Norm

    Wow! Must be a good topic sure got a gambit of responses and all, as usual, contained truth. Oliver, you sure seem angry. Just thought the enemy sure must love this we are arguing over doing the great commission. should we repaint something multiple times, not if it isn’t needed. But should we quibble over the cost of going if we are truly going because the Lord told us to go? Being sensitive to the culture and parterning with the locals is definitely the way to go even if you are coming from a trailer in the south.

  • Posted by

    There were a lot of good points made in the article, but I don’t believe in throwing the baby out with the bath water.  However, churches should definitely reevaluate their methods to ensure that they’re making good use of resources and actually helping and not hindering those they’re going to minister to. 

    1) At my church, and I’m sure we’re not alone, our youth hold fundraising events to help defray the costs of the trip.  I think kids value the trips more if they’ve had to earn the money for the trip, rather than being provided with an all-expense paid trip (hopefully no church is doing this).

    2)There is validity to doing domestic missions projects and there can still be exposure to different cultures.  Today with residential and church communities so widespread apart, those in the suburbs may never have rubbed shoulders with someone in the inner city.  Those of one racial group may never have had intimate one-on-one contact with someone from a different race or ethnicity.  So, it is possible to have this experience right here in the U.S.  Sometimes it has great impact as people are shocked to find out the conditions under which some people live right here in “the land of opportunity”.

    3)I would think that proper planning and communication could help churches avoid the mistake of building things that aren’t useful or helpful or recreating the wheel.  I mean to paint the same structure 6 times??  Someone did NOT do their homework.  If we really want to help those we’re going to, aren’t they worth the time and effort of true quality time to get to know their true needs?  I thought the idea of sending people to the Dominican Republic to teach computer skills was excellent.  This reminds me of the saying about teaching a person to fish.

    Just an in years gone by, missionaries reevaluated their methods, it sounds like we need to do so again, which isn’t bad as long as we learn each time and put that learning to good use.

  • Posted by

    AMEN, Wyeth!  I’m with ya’ there brother--literally!

  • Posted by

    Literally? smile

  • Posted by

    Just a note from a painter.  If you are going to paint aluminum siding you can put an additive (I use a product called Seal Crete) into the paint to help it adhere better.  Your local paint store can help you with this.

    As far as short-term missions are concerned:  I do them and enjoy them and don’t feel guilty about enjoying them or about taking in a few of the local sites while I am there.  My eyes have been opened to cultural differences, worship style differences, and economic differences.  It has made me more aware of the simple message of the gospel and how it impacts people of all races and backgrounds. 

    I am not a missions hero, just a guy doing what I feel that God wants me to do.  I know that there are times that I have blundered but there are also times that I know that I have done the right thing, too.

  • Posted by Ted Esler

    As somebody who works in the missions world and in an organization that has a short-term program, let me throw my two-cents worth in this discussion.

    Short-term missions involvment has exploded onto the scene and expanded over the past 30 years.  Hundreds of thousands have been sent.  In the early days of this movement, many mission agencies were not in favor of it.  Eventually, this viewpoint changed as agencies felt that the exposure these trips gave to people would mean greater global giving, going, praying, etc.  Unfortunately, this has not happened.  Despite the millions spent on short-term trips, little impact has been felt in terms of long-term interest.

    Churches have had a different perspective.  They are often looking for ways for people to be engaged and have seen short-term as a way to do this.  While I am sympathetic to that purpose, it is not very focused on the objective within the receiving culture.  Is it missions if the greatest contribution is for the short-termer and not the receiving culture?

    Another concern is the buliding of structures and institutions.  Should this be the goal of our missionary work?  If these efforts are not under the control and direction of the local, indigenous people (not necessarily the church because there may not be one) I question their worth.  Did Jesus build churches for poor kids in Samaria?  I don’t think so.

    I think there should be a close look at the way we do short-term missions.  For one, let’s stop sending people to the same places.  The number of missionary trips into Guatemala, The Domican Republic, Haiti, etc., is incredibly high.  Is this good for these cultures and churches?  I doubt it.  Particularly if, in the meantime, there continues to be thousands of truly unreached people groups left in the world where there is little to no gospel presence.  We alse send the same people over and over.  One pastor I know calls them “repeat offenders.” Your church might consider letting them go to an “easy” place the first time.  The second time, send them to a place with fewer Christians and greater spiritual needs.  Help them to grow and not get comfortable by returning to the familiar and easy sites time and time again.

    What we need to do is carefully look at the objectives for a particular trip.  They need to be examined not only in light of the needs of the “trippers” but also in light of the local culture.  As somebody who has lived cross-culturally as a missionary, my perspective is that it is very difficult to understand what those needs might be.  Working with national churches is not a “get out of missiology free card.” I have seen short-term teams that were mislead by local people and never knew that they were.

    The great benefit of short-term trips is that they democratize missions.  It makes it accessible to everybody.  Praise God for this but lets be smarter about it than we have been.

  • Posted by Ted Esler


    When I use the term “democratizing” I don’t mean it’s evenly distributed.  What I mean is that it makes missions more accessible for more people.

    I agree with you point that it’s not creating the type of change that would be desired. That’s what I meant when I wrote that we haven’t seen increasing numbers of long-termers as a result of short-term.

    You would be wrong, though, to make a blanket statement that it has no effect whatsoever.  Our own internal research within Pioneers shows that almost 100% of long-termers have gone short-term first and most indicate that this had an impact on their decision to get involved in missions full-time.

    I think it depends on your objectives and how you do short-term.  Visiting a team that is working in a very unreached part of the world and seeing the national church suffer and struggle has an impact.  Going on a youth trip with 30 other high schoolers to a hotel in Mexico to mix cement for a few hours a day… well, I am not so sure.  It’s probably a great experience, but is it a missionary experience?

  • Posted by

    I think when we plan a short term missions trip for whatever purpose, be it helping out in physical needs or street evangelism, whatever, we need to broaden our criteria.

    A lot of good discussion here by they way.

    As a person who has been on the receiving end of short term missions teams, we have at times just said no.  Why?  Because often times we’ve ended up spending more time training those teams for ministry, then they’ve helped us.  And when they leave, we are just plain worn out.

    If the missions trips drains the missionaries that these groups are coming to serve, then should they have come at all?  We’ve said no to some.

    BUT, I don’t think the solution is to say, “Let’s get rid of short term missions.”

    I think we need to be very careful when we plan them, looking at real needs and seeking to fulfill them, providing all the necessary tools to make it happen and not expecting the missionaries to come up with what we need to get the job done, and honestly evaluating how much serving and how much vacationing we are doing in the process.

  • Posted by Seth

    I think the problem is partially one of semantics: What is the purpose of short-term missions? Do people really need a group of American teens to visit for two weeks and paint their building? I doubt it. Even in the US, short-term serving isn’t very effective. Ongoing service and relationship building is what is needed. It can be debated how much good is done in the country being visited, though at the very least, I’ve heard it can be encouraging for the people there.

    That said, we greatly underestimate the power of experiencial education and cross-cultural experiences for those going. There are a number of Western countries that encourage their youth to have Overseas Experiences. In New Zealand, they often go elsewhere for 1-2 years, and that’s the non-Christians. If people want to start debating how much change these really produce in those sent, we could argue that about a number of domestic educational and church programs…

    As long as we realize short-term missions are more about providing a learning experience for those sent than they are about doing something good for people overseas, short-term missions definitely have there place. And in today’s world, it’s a lot easier to keep in contact with people we meet overseas.

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