are short-term missions becoming faddish?

great post today from seth barnes on the faddishness of short-term missions. it’s especially gutsy, since seth is the founder and exec dir of adventures in missions, an organization that takes thousands on short-term missions trips each year. he starts…

Are short-term missions becoming faddish? That’s a rhetorical question. The answer is: YES. I estimate that 75% of STMs are done poorly (that is, not meeting many of the standards of excellence referred to below). Robert Priest estimates that as many as four million a year go on STMs. You do the math on the waste there.

Those going are increasingly ill-prepared and what they do is of questionable value given the resources invested. Sadly, many participants are narcissistic, they have little cross-cultural perspective, and often their experience does little to advance the Kingdom.

read the rest here


many of the comments (interesting stuff, btw) seem to be implying that i don’t believe in short-term missions, or wondering if i don’t. many are taking time to defend stm’s. let me clarify: i’m a HUGE supporter of stm. i’ve taken thousands of teenagers on, litereally, hundreds of missions trips. i served on the board for adventures in missions (the organization seth barnes — the guy this post links to — leads) for 5 years. and i’ve rarely seen more lasting change in students than as a result of stm.

that said… i think seth (who is clearly also a massive propoant of stm, since that’s what his organization does) raises a good question (or, questions). i HAVE noticed a trend where youth workers and churches are adding stm as another program without really thinking through WHY they’re doing it, HOW they can do it effectively (without actually doing more damage to the culture they visit), WHAT should actually occur on an stm that makes sense for both the participants and those being ministered to, and so many more questions.

there’s some addition great reading on this. read dave livermore’s excellent book, serving with eyes wide open. it’s all about the damage that can be done by poorly executed stm, and how to avoid that.

AND, read the follow-up posts on seth’s blog. the one i linked to was only the first in a series!
what does an excellent missions project look like?
excellent mission team prep
and, how to follow up on your mission project

19 thoughts on “are short-term missions becoming faddish?”

  1. Mark O, I am one that takes students on mission trips ( st ) each year. And yes, it is a fad.

    I mean all we have to do is take a stroll through YS Exhibit hall and see all the organizations that are doing mission trips.

    I “buy” into the package deal and at times, I scratch my head wondering if it is the right thing to do.

    It seems to be a “money-making-machine” while providing individuals the op to serve God.

  2. what about the post high school post college students who aren’t ready to face the “world” and decide to go on a mission trip. It’s crazy. Here’s the conversation. “i don’t know what God wants me to do.” “I’ll go on a mission trip” “then God will show me what to do”
    Come now. Is that any reason to go on a mission trip? It may be a reason to work at McDonalds but not a reason to pursue missions.

  3. I’m dealing with this right now, because I’m going on a short-term trip to Haiti this summer with my church. One of the ways my church promoted the trip was, “it’s a great way to grow spiriually.” I was pissed off beyond all belief because that is such a rip off to the people of Haiti we are supposed to be serving. “We’re here for you…except not really.” I’ev been hammering it into the minds of the kids from my youth group going on the trip that this trip is not about them. It’s not about what they receive, it’s about what they give. Time will tell if all of my harping on it makes a difference.

  4. Marko, Thanks for posting this. It was a very interesting article. I sent a copy to the person responsible for coordinating our high school missions trip. While I think we are doing things fairly right, I can see how it could become a fad.

    In His Grip, Mike …

  5. I’ve been going on and leading short term mission trips since I was 14 years old. I’m only 32 now, but I wouldn’t call that a fad. It’s something that local churches have been doing forever. People might be doing it for wrong reasons and not preparing their teams well, but these trips have huge value for both the people ministering and those who are receiving the ministry. It’s a two-way street and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Maybe it shouldn’t be your purpose or intent, but it’s not a bad thing for students to grow spiritually while on a mission trip. I hope the students from my church grow. I think that consistency in location is very important when it comes to these trips to make it about more than yourself. We also try to visit and encourage our church’s full-time missionaries across the world on our trips. That way we are partnering with their continuing ministry as well as encouraging them. That’s enough for now, but I hope that short term trips don’t get overly bashed.

  6. Just wondering what you guys thought about this qouete in regards to missions,

    “In this missionary activity of the Church various stages sometimes are found side by side: first, that of the beginning or planting, then that of newness or youth. When these have passed, the Church’s missionary activity does not cease, but there lies upon the particular churches already set up the duty of continuing this activity and of preaching the Gospel to those still outside.

    Moreover, the groups among which the Church dwells are often radically changed, for one reason or other, so that an entirely new set of circumstances may arise. Then the Church must deliberate whether these conditions might again call for her missionary activity. Besides, circumstances are sometimes such that, for the time being, there is no possibility of expounding the Gospel directly and forthwith. Then, of course, missionaries can and must at least bear witness to Christ by charity and by works of mercy, with all patience, prudence and great confidence. Thus they will prepare the way for the Lord and make Him somehow present.

    Thus it is plain that missionary activity wells up from the Church’s inner nature and spreads abroad her saving Faith.”

  7. Marko,

    Leading 4 trips has not made me an expert- not even close but……
    I know for some, time is an issue but, when I see those pre packaged trips-( I am sure there is some value there) but I still can’t help but wonder, if I am buying this package- they do all the work- or so they advertise- what valuable things am I missing out on as a leader. If I haven’t got time to plan, and learn about the area- about the people we would serve, about the real needs of the people. Maybe its just not a good year for a trip and seems to me I short change my team because I have taken a major short cut.
    Preparing youself and team is so incredibly important
    and major part of training is working with local contacts from that country (when possible) that can help you understand the needs there and what would best benifit those in that country when we leave. (long term lasting effect)

    If what we do before we leave (by preparing well) and what were are about when we are there does not have lasting kingdom effect here on earth then we have wasted everyones time- no matter how nice the package looks. (another reason to allow the country you serve- help in the in definning the purpose of the trip)

    On our trips we even require students to submit applications and be interviewed. We also have many team building projeccts in our community (I am not talking fundraiser but community raiser- if you aren’t serving in your own community you need not try going across country) We meet to help build spiritual character and community of the team. (Before You Back Your Bags Prepare Your Heart”) is an awsome daily resource. All these things are mandantory- sounds sorta legalistic, but that is not the intention- the intention is to have a well prepared team who is ready and willing to focus on someone other than themselves. In so doing everyone benifits- those served and those serving. That is just what happens when we are others focused.
    I personally am glad to see so much interest in missions in and out of our country, maybe the issue more about hearts,training and understanding of missions.

  8. Thank you, thank you, thank you Marko! Becoming? STMs have been faddish for the last ten years. I’ve been doing this for 23 years, 35 trips. My teams haven’t had to leave the U.S., never take even a full day for recreation. I’m burdened with the number of jobs we’ve had to do over the last ten years that were re-dos of shoddy work by other teams, re-building the faith of needy people let down in Jesus’ name.
    At the same time I have to say that a good project SHOULD be a time of spiritual growth. But then, too often, spiritual growth itself is cheapened by the half-formed ideas of many in our calling who don’t realize that growth in the Spirit means drastic change in lives, not a personal “feel-good”.
    The real test of your STM is what happens when you get HOME. Do your kids start demanding opportunities to “hands-on” serve locally? Do they insist on not just serving but actually sharing meals with the homeless? Do they want to know why your adults don’t do more? and best of all, do parents ever ask if their kids are becoming “fanatics”? If not , just take the summer off.

  9. Short term mission trips are what you make them. I take our kids on mission trips for several reasons. One, to put them in w situation to serve others. Second, to give the teens responsibilty, meaning if we are to do a VBS, the teens must come up with the lessons, crafts and games. They are not allowed to use a pre-packaged VBS. It is all them. This is to teach them that there is worked involved in doing ministry, and they need to be put in situations where they are responsible, not “an adult”. They buy supplies, they are in charge of service projects, leading worship, accountablity partners and much more. Our trips are demanding, but very rewarding. We sell our teens way to short, but if we challenge them, they will respond. Do they fail? Yes they do, but this is where they learn. My adult leaders are there to guide, but no more.

  10. Lee,

    yeah! I agree…give the teens the opportunity to get in the trenches of planning and leading. I have found team training and enculturation training helps the teens grab the full vision of what they are going to do.

    I agree with Chris Folmsbee, in his new book “A New Kind of Youth Ministry”, he talks about the concept of getting away from event based evangelization. He talks about that it only teaches our teens to evangelize their friends and others only through events. I agree with Chris in that we need to be giving teens better training in getting over themselves and getting into living out the Life of Christ. To help teens live a Christocentric life in the midst of culture and not running from it. To equip teens with the power of the Holy Spirit to truly be that salt of the earth.

    My thoughts are that mission provides a perfect opportunity to do this.Impregnate culture with the Gospel. Meeting culture and God’s people right were they are at and evangelizing from the inside out. An impregnation.

    Giving teens this vision and hearing the teens thoughts on this gives life to the mission. By helping the teens through relational training and training on planning the mission then we are equipping them to evangelize and they are depending on Christ as a mission team and not crutching on us. (the youth minister).

    The teens need to depend on Christ for their conversion not on us. The work missions are great, but the commercial package has downplayed the authenticity of missions. Jesus never had a package mission trip for the Apostles. He gave them instruction and commanded, mandated and equipped. He never gave them a cruise ship, a three for one deal with PRing and marketing or a cute package with pre-made flyers to motivate people to come and here his disciples talk about the mission plan for their life. He gave them the essentials, The Trinitarian mandate to evangelize and make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20).

    Yes we do need a plan when approaching mission, but let the plan be centered on Christ and the vision of equipping teens for missions and not a social vacation to get away from home. If the teens are approaching missions with this attitude then we as youth workers are failing to do our job. Failing to equip properly and failing to bring the parents on board of the mission and vision for our missionary outreach.

    The parents need to understand the vision so the entire process can be fostered in the home as well. The parents are and should be the primary teachers of their teens when it comes to their walk. We as youth workers just compliment the family efforts of spiritual growth for their teens.

    Missions give us an opportunity to take teens outside of event evangelization and into an area where we can lead teens and really equip them to become fishers of men. This gives them a concrete tool to evangelize, not just as teens but for on going growth. We are not going to be youth workers forever and the reality is that a lot of us will move on from where we are working at now and if they are not depending on Christ for their on going conversion, but are depending on a program or an event or the youth minister then they will fall and fall hard. We have to get back to the cross and missions in an awesome way to do this….

  11. Is meeting Jesus through the pain of others as you serve, faddish?

    Is students being out of their comfort zone, looking to Jesus instead of their Ipod for help and comfort, faddish?

    Is beeing in tears because I saw one of our students love the unlovable, faddish?

    Is students seeing for teh first time that Jesus can, wants to and does want to use them to make this world a better place, faddish?

    Is students seeing that their world is easy and lush and that others are suffering and need Christ badly, is that faddish?

    Is having a leader or leaders give up a week of their life to serve along side a student who they have poured their life into, and then they all of a sudden see Christ shine through that student in a way that makes the leader finally see what their hard work and prayer has done for that student, is that faddish?

    That is what happens on the week long mission trips we go on every summer with YouthWorks!!

    If those things are faddish, then yes, week long mission trips are faddish. But, who cares!! Kids and leaders alike are touched by Christ, and learn how to love Him and others more, and for me that is what I want my youth ministry to be about: Loving God and loving others.

    Faddish or not, week long mission trips touch lives!!

  12. Marko,

    What does the Gospel tell us to do? “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

    If we don’t take students and teach them the importance of going then who will? This is a generation of students who long to be useful, volunteers and find purpose and meaning in life. Why can’t God use them, too?

    STM trips can become faddish if all we strive for is an ego trip. If it’s about bragging rights and proving to our congregation that we’re capable of “mission work” then that’s just immaturity and irresponsible of the Gospel. But if we’re attempting to prepare students for a lifelong journey as Christ followers, that means we need to attend to the needs of those who he came to care for, too!

    His deepest commitment is for justice and compassion among the needy, the widows, the orphans, the sick, and the poor. The Bible specifically speaks about making justice a priority among our neighbors.

    If Christians are to truly be Christ followers, STM is a very viable way to give students a different perspective of just how God sees people, through a lens of compassion and gentleness.

    STM, when prepared well, can be the starting point for students who will be the Long Term Missionaries of this world. What’s so wrong with that!

  13. We have been leading short term missions trips for over 14 years now. I am not sure how much I feel that our STM has been a fad. I think there are a lot of people jumping on the STM bandwagon and doing them just because. I don’t think missions is for everyone, and I don’t think every student should go on one. Just taking students out of the country and exposing them will not change them. It is so much more.

    One thing I feel that was left out of the article on “an excellent missions trip” was the prepwork. I believe that in order to leave the country on a STM one should do missions at home. I know that we require our students to do at least 40 hours of missions at home in their community before they are allowed to go with us out of the country. I also think that the students monitary sacrifice to be able to go should be discussed. That makes it a better trip for them.

    As far as a fad, sure it could be. I know that many things have become that, like the Youth summer camps of the 80’s and 90’s and the Super conventions of the 90’s to now. Time will tell.


  14. I dont know. Ive had a week to kind of chew on this and think about it. Are mission trips poorly planned and executed? Yeah, I think we can all agree on that. But are average youth ministers and youth leaders experts on world and domestic mission trips? Of course not! It’s kind of like asking the little old lady that plays the pipe organ to lead your Middle school lock in!

    We aren’t experts on missions! And we need all the help we can get! We need more articles such as the ones that were provided!

    Us youth pastors have to wear so many different hats at once, we can’t always be experts on everything. I admit that I am in constant need of learning and I constantly have to remind myself that I don’t have all the answers.

    Ok, that probably didn’t really contribute anything, but it was in my head so had to get it out.

  15. Mr. Oestreicher,
    I left some follow up comments on my blog, a post entitled, “Why I draw a hard line…and refuse to budge.” Hopefully this clarifies where I’m coming from, whether or not you agree with it.

  16. i take my teens on missions trips each year. if you do it wrong they can be a fad. the mission trip is not to be “the end”. the trip itself should be in the middle. what i mean is that you prepare well for the trip in the beginning, then go on the trip, then come home and continue doing what you did on the trip. when you have ongoing growth then it is not a fad. i have taken trips with adventures in missions. they are great!

  17. i don’t think i’ve met many people who think their STM trip was bad or harmful. And yet so many are…

    there is no doubt that God will use whatever we give him. i’ve been on poorly planned STM trips, and God used those trips mightily, but God can use our worst, but why should he have to?

    i think this post seth barnes gives us all a great opportunity to really wrestle with how to make our STM trips better planned, more helpful for both communities involved in the trip, make us wrestle with the question “is god calling us to go on this trip”, etc. This post was really helpful for me.

  18. David Livermore’s book did an awesome job of making me re-think some things before our STM last summer (though I only discovered it a couple of weeks before we left town). This year, it’ll be a central part of our cultural prep for our team. The comments and dialogue on Barnes’ site was thought-provoking, too. Thx for the link and observation.

Leave a Reply