Are Short Term Mission Trips Wasteful?

One of my favorite things (as a mom blogger) is when men speak up and want to share on my blog. I appreciated this post from my friend, Caleb David-  Machine Gun Camera here and thought this would be another cool perspective on short term mission trip. My guest, Ben Singleton, really challenged me to look deeply in the heart of what Jesus considers “wasteful.” I want you to feel like your growing and gaining greater understanding when you have the opportunity to go and share the gospel with the world’s unreached people groups- there IS a place for long or short term missionaries- mission-hearted people that want to simply love and live James 1:27 in a crazy way. I want to know your thoughts after you read this new post. We have open spots on our Man Up trips this summer – click here to learn more. This is a crazy reason to encourage your hubbys, brothers, uncles, and friends to Man Up and Go. Don’t forget to come over bright and early on March 5th to My Crazy Adoption and enter to WIN a mission trip with Tom Davis’ Children’s HopeChest ministry!!!! Mark your calendars!

I just read your post and the last couple from Tom Davis. There seemed to be a common theme so I thought I would weigh in…

First of all, I think the conversation about short-term mission trips vs. long-term holistic solutions should be started in scripture.  Matthew 25 provides crystal clear support for meeting urgent (short-term) needs.  Jesus recognizes his own by their response to hunger, thirst, nakedness, imprisonment, etc.  It is important to note the response that Christ affirms as “knowing Him” is embodied in giving a drink, a meal, a shirt, or a visit.  He doesn’t necessarily ask for holistic solutions, economic development, not even (interestingly) any preaching, teaching, or theology lessons.  What lessons can we take from this?  First, the obvious message is that if we truly indwelt by the Spirit of God, we will see people (especially “the least of these”) with love & compassion in a way that make’s their needs more important to us than our own agendas.  Second, the gospel can be clearly and effectively communicated to the lost and hurting by our attitudes and actions if we truly love God and love others as ourselves.  Third, each of us is not called to solve every problem under the sun, rather we are called to respond with love and compassion to needs that God puts in front of us.

It saddens me deeply to see people who are deeply committed to the ideas of compassion and justice diminish the value of short-term responses to deep, urgent, legitimate needs.  While we are all called to be good stewards of the abundant riches God has poured out on us, it is just as important not to lose sight of what God considers good stewardship.  For example, Judas chastised Mary for “wasting” expensive perfume anointing Jesus’ feet instead of giving it to the poor, but Christ sided with Mary’s action.  By all worldly standards, Judas was correct that it would be more prudent to sell the perfume for the benefit of the poor, but this was not God’s purpose for the perfume.  This account rings in my ears every time I hear believers criticize the “effectiveness” of Spirit-led acts of compassion.  Other examples that God’s accounting systems don’t work like the world’s are found in the Good Shepard leaving the ninety-nine just to find the one, or the poor widow whose two small coins were “more” than large bags given by rich people.

I have also heard people criticize the “wastefulness” of the thousands of dollars required for each participant to undertake a short-term mission trip; the common sentiment being that funds could be more effectively used in other ways to benefit the least of these.  Again, an empty bottle of perfume pops into my mind.  But so does the fact that almost all of us spend money to take a vacation every year, an act that is probably just as expensive and yet roundly accepted and even encouraged.  Why is a trip to Africa condemned as wasteful when a trip to the Bahamas is much needed break from our demanding lives?  The answer, I believe, is that the source of attacks on the prudence of short-term trips mission is the father of lies himself.  Let’s look at this another way.  Imagine that your best friend lives on the other side of the country and is diagnosed and hospitalized with advanced pancreatic cancer.  What would you do?  Your first response wouldn’t be to work overtime so you could send money to help with his medical bills, to make a donation to the American Cancer Society, or to start doing your own research in a desperate attempt to find a cure.  Obviously you would go see him, even if the trip cost a lot of money, required you be away from your family for a short time, take time off work, etc.  The same is true with short-term missions.  It is an entirely appropriate response to the love and compassion that Spirit gives us for orphans in Africa, for example, to go and be with them.

There are even camps of people who criticize adoption because it doesn’t solve the root causes of the orphan crisis.  Again, the enemy must surely be the source of these ideas because ADOPTION IS THE GOSPEL as clearly demonstrated in Ephesians 1.  There could have been no more holistic solution to the suffering of three of “the least of these” who now call me Dad.

On the other hand, Isaiah 58 instructs us to loose the chains of injustice, set the oppressed free, to spend ourselves on behalf of the hungry, to satisfy the needs of the oppressed, and to be repairers and restorers.  None of these directive can be accomplished in the short-term.  Accomplishing these Kingdom purposes requires time, wisdom, resources, and commitment in addition to the love and compassion required in Matthew 25.  The problem with focusing solely holistic solutions to fixing broken nations is two-fold.  First without the simple, compassionate love of Matthew 25, Christ-followers will not have the staying power to affect long-term change, and without first going, seeing, listening and living the pain of the least of these, Christ-followers will have the wisdom to understand the problems. Second, some of the least of these simply cannot wait for a long-term solution (revisiting again the wisdom of leaving the ninety-nine just to find the one).  Christ conquered BIG problems like sin and death, and he told us to solve big problems like poverty, oppression, suffering, hunger, thirst, and injustice.  I think it is worth while to note that before Jesus conjured the grave, he fed thousands, hugged lepers, ate supper with prostitutes and thieves, celebrated with friends, wept with the mourning, loved children, spoke the truth, and offered the Kingdom of God to all.  There is nothing wrong with his children doing the same smaller things before accomplishing the bigger ones.

Ben Singleton
Adoptive Dad, Orphan Advocate and One Child Campaign Advisory Board Member
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4 Comments

  • 1
    DanielleB says:

    I absolutely love this! Thank you for clearly & compassionately stating that short & long term missions are needed. One is not meant to negate the other, but enhance & spread Jesus’ love through all means necessary. We’ve led several teams to Swaziland, Africa through Children’s HopeChest & AIM. I always tell those interested in coming with us, that they may receive flack for taking a short term trip, by people saying it isn’t effective or the money could be better spent. The answer I tell them is that the money they’d save DOES NOT and WILL NEVER bring love & hugs to the children, who often have no one to listen to them, to play with them, help them, or love on them. Jesus was hands-on. He still is – through us.

  • 2
    valerie (in TX) says:

    Ben, thank you so much for this post.  Good, good stuff.  I’ve been so discouraged lately by what seems to be the “popular” theme of bashing short-term missions.  I completely understand that there are times – just like with anything else – when it is done wrong, with wrong motives, etc, and absolutely those instances need to be addressed.  But I believe that God DOES lead some to go on short-term trips.  If we are praying and seeking His will, and our heart’s desire is to surrender and obey and love and serve, who is anyone else to say that we’ve not heard God because He doesn’t support short-term missions?  No, I don’t believe everyone is called to do short-term trips.  Some are called to do long-term missions, some are called to pray, and some are called to support financially.  EACH has a place.  And each person must SEEK GOD to know their place.

    I loved your explanation of why short-term missions are right and needed.  I’ve heard your example about the friend in the hospital before, and I totally agree.  Which would our friend want more?  Our money?  Or our presence?  Thank you also for the reminder that in Matthew 25, Jesus admonished us to VISIT those who are sick or in prison (and dare we say it need not be a literal, physical prison?).

    When we were in Uganda last summer, one thing Pastor Samuel said has stuck with me and replays in my mind over and over.  He said to our team, “You could have sent money or mailed us supplies – which we would have been grateful for – but instead, you took time out of your life and spent your money to COME visit us, to love us, and to show us Jesus.  Thank you for COMING to us.”  I will never forget those words….from a man who IS doing the long-term care.

  • 3
    Erika Solgos says:

    Thank you for this post!!!  Part of me understands where people are coming from with their bashing of short-term trips, but it never settled right for me.  Your post put it all into words- thank you!  I LOVE the picture of visiting the friend who is sick.  YES.  The adoption criticisms FLOOR me.  I don’t think any adoptive parent would argue that the bigger picture issues should be ignored in favor of adopting.  Certainly we can and should do both!

  • 4
    DFW says:

    The analogy with the perfume doesn’t really work. Mary didn’t go to friends and family asking them to pay for this perfume. She was honoring GOD with HER GIFT. That is where the wastefulness comes in. A lot of these folks think someone else should pay for their trip because it’s “Missions Work” and not a vacation. That does really cut into funding because the givers don’t see funding this type of trip as any different than giving to Lottie Moon. But the reality is the biggest recipient of these dollars is the US airline industry. It really is a huge diversion of funds.

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