Rethinking short-term missions for long-term impact

By Mary Faulds, AFA Journal staff writer

April 2009 – It is a typical rite of passage for many young Christians. Heading off to a foreign country and helping the indigenous people with needed projects around their village, holding vacation Bible school for the local children, and passing out gifts. But ask the teens about the trip a few months later, and they are likely to remember the scenery and the food, but not the ministry. Is this the most we can expect from short-term mission trips?

Between 1.5 and 2 million American Christians leave the country on a short mission trip every year. However, short-term mission trips are kind of a misnomer, said Andy Crouch, executive director of Round Trip, a documentary and curriculum for groups that will be embarking on a mission trip. He said missions, or more accurately, ministry, should never be short-term. 

Crouch is also a well-known author, senior editor at Christianity Today International and musician. His Web site,, focuses on the intersection of Christianity and culture.

“The future of missions is multi-directional,” said Crouch. “Many short-term mission trips are undertaken with outmoded assumptions about developing-world needs, and without enough genuine partnership with those who will ‘receive’ Westerners’ ‘help.’ Especially lacking is awareness that the church in the global South is just as committed to, and capable of, engaging in mission around the world as the churches of the North and West.”

The idea for Round Trip began as a presentation by Oscar Miriu, the pastor of Nairobi Chapel in Kenya, at the Urbana missions convention in St. Louis, Missouri. “The presentation sort of summed up the word interdependence,” producer Nate Clarke recalled, “sort of a call to a different picture in missions. One that was less dominated by the West, one that was more, and not something that was dominated by the global South, but something that was more about reciprocity, more about building partnerships.” 

Crouch said he discussed missions in general with many church leaders from other countries at the same convention, and he said he was questioned in almost every conversation, “Why do Americans do these short-term missions?” He said they were interested in finding out what the teams thought they were accomplishing. Crouch said he found out that the people on the receiving end of these short-term missions had a different picture of what was accomplished from what the Americans saw.

A common theme with Americans in missions is the idea of accomplishing a task or goal, a finished product. “In a lot of the missions videos that you look at … they tend to be sort of music videos,” said Clarke, “which is not a problem in and of itself, but they oftentimes are very, at worst, sort of paternalistic and imperialistic.” He said they are made to look like the people who went on the trip had all the answers and the indigenous people were needing all the help and had nothing to offer. 

Clarke said that creates an unhealthy dependence, like a parent and child relationship in which the child never matures. “We are not acting as good guests in other people’s towns, villages, cities,” he said. “And oftentimes we impose our agenda without asking, ‘What would be helpful here?’” 

One African leader summed up for Crouch the feelings of many regarding American short-term missions: “You know, Americans always want to paint things. They want to paint buildings, so we have a building that we let them paint. Usually we have to repaint the walls after the Americans leave because they don’t do a very good job.” Crouch said the leader felt like letting the Americans paint allowed them to feel like they accomplished something, but it was an unnecessary task.

Crouch continued, “When we arrive in most places, we find the people that we’re visiting and serving among are very relationship-oriented, and they can’t imagine a reason for going to all this expense and time other than building a friendship.” That’s the reason why the focus of the Round Trip curriculum was Mavuno Downtown church in Kenya and its American sister in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The two churches have a long-standing relationship and have even sent interns to each other for a year at a time.

So Crouch and Clarke discussed their ideas about the future of missions, and Round Trip was born. Both men agreed that it is easy for short-term missions to become merely Christian tourism, so the need was there for material that addresses the very practical issues of short-term mission trips, but also the deeper issues of what they should really be. 

“We went looking for some pioneers – churches, like the one I visited in Nairobi,” Crouch explained, “that were developing a very different kind of short-term missions. They were planning their trips carefully to build long-term partnerships rather than just provide [one-time] experiences.” He said that mission trips are not just for high-school students but also for senior pastors. 

“We looked for churches that were making it possible for the less affluent partners to make return trips of their own to the United States, so that mission was no longer unidirectional but truly ‘Round Trip,’” said Crouch. 

While working on Round Trip, Crouch said they realized that the dynamics of a short-term mission trip is the same regardless of the country of origin. “We have this great scene where one of the Kenyan guys is in an American home where he’s staying, and they ask him to make tea. And they give him everything an American needs to make tea, and it’s just completely different from the way you make tea in Kenya!”

Crouch said cross-cultural experiences are a stretch wherever the mission team is from. He said it is easy to think that it is a uniquely American problem, with the bumbling American tourist-type coming to mind. “Really we’re all on pretty level ground when it comes to cultures. We all have to be learners, and we initially don’t know quite what we’re doing.”

What that really means, according to Crouch, is that short-term mission trips are a learning experience that happens as you go. A short-term mission trip is not much like a planned-out lesson from a master communicator, but rather much more like an adventure into the partially unknown. Crouch said short-term missions should be well planned but not put into neat compartments. 

“If you go expecting a series of cookie-cutter experiences or lessons, you’ll be disappointed, he said. “But if you go seeking to learn and grow, you will likely be amazed at what God is willing to do.”

It’s that open willingness to do what the group needs that helps develop a true reciprocal relationship. The mission team learns what the locals need or want them to do and that stretches them. Then, in turn, the locals help the mission team accomplish their goals and both groups become equal partners in ministry.

Both men said a co-worker’s encounter on a mission trip summed up what the real goal should be for those traveling to the uttermost parts of the earth. “A friend, who is also a pastor, had a group go to Guatemala two years in a row to the same place and help out the same church group,” Clarke said. “The second time they were saying good-bye, the leader of the Guatemalan group just broke down and wept, far more than you’d expect for just a ‘Good-bye and we’ll miss you.’ My friend asked him what was wrong, and he said, ‘We’ve had many groups from America come and never return, but you were different. You did. That lets us know that God really does love us and has not forgotten about us.’”  undefined  

Round Trip is a short-term missions documentary and curriculum aimed at individual Christians, churches and mission teams who are considering a short-term mission trip. The DVD is divided into five sessions with practical lessons: 1) Short-Term Missions, Lasting Change; 2) The Preparations; 3) Cross-Cultural Encounters; 4) Uprooted Emotions, Grounded Faith; and 5) Living with a Broader Perspective.

A participant’s guide is also available separately and recommended. Round Trip is available at