December 2004

Mission Trips – What Are We Doing?                   

…a brief analysis by David Mays


A question about short-term missions in a book review snapped me to attention. 

“Is this the first major missionary movement carried out primarily for the personal benefit of the missionaries?” 

(Timothy Paul Erdel, Evangelical Missions Quarterly, April 2004, p. 250)


This question raises some important issues.  Why do we do trips?  Who are they for?  What are we trying to accomplish?  Are we doing them in ways that accomplish what we hope?


There are at least three possible beneficiaries:

  1. Missionaries and people being ministered to on the field
  2. Those who go
  3. The church who sends them


Initially, many church leaders promoted mission trips to increase awareness and commitment in the goers and sometimes in the congregation.  Trips were expected to “prime the pump” to increase missions prayer and financial support and to produce long-term missionaries. 


During the last decade the number of trips and the number of people going on trips have skyrocketed.  A nearby church sent 300 people on one trip to Mexico.  Another church reported they are sending 200 people each year.  A third church reported their goal to have someone on a mission trip every day year round.


At the same time, prayer, money, and new missionaries are not showing a sharp incline.  When I ask church leaders what they are doing to follow up these trips and ensure that missions becomes an ongoing part of the life of trippers and the congregation, the answers are embarrassingly inadequate.  Efforts to leverage trips into long-term results have been crowded out by the energy required to prepare and conduct the trips.  And the talk is all about planning more trips.  I’m reminded of the saying, “Having lost sight of the objective, he redoubled his efforts!”


Over the past 18 years of working with churches in missions, I have noticed a trend in the way churches spend missions money.  In the 80’s, it wasn’t unusual to hear missions committee members, often older people, say that they didn’t want to join ACMC or go to a missions conference because it would cost money that could be given to missionaries.  Missions promotion in churches was often cheap, childish, and embarrassing.  Missions committees maximized funds for supporting missions and minimized expenses.


In this decade, church advertising for missions has taken a great leap in quality.  Churches are spending more money promoting missions but I wonder if they are producing more missionaries and spending as much on ministry.


The meteoric rise of mission trips is an example of this trend.  Someone probably overestimated that one million individuals went on mission trips last year.  Mission trips are costly.  A great deal of money is spent to support mission trips.  Don Parrott says, “The short-term missions market is consuming a large proportion of the available resources for the total missions effort.” (Evangelical Missions Quarterly, July 2004, 40 (3) 357)


In addition to motivating the goers, most trips are expected to contribute to a particular missionary endeavor, and those returning often feel very fulfilled in what they accomplished.  Many make substantial contributions to the Kingdom.  But for most the primary result may be recruiting more people to go on trips.  I recently sat through a 90-minute missions trip report.  The main appeal to the audience was to go on a trip.  A secondary request was to pray for a missionary.  There was no mention of giving money for the support of missions. 


This week a senior pastor said in an email, “We do a really good short-term mission trip at Southway, but our outreach at home is languishing.”  He seems to be saying that one (or perhaps more than one) mission trip constitutes their missions outreach!


What was once a preparation step has become the primary goal.  The mission trip has become an end in itself.  Missionaries and the mission field are the means to these ends.  Subtly, ends become means and means become ends.


Here are some questions to ask about your missions trips:

  1. What value do they provide to the missionaries or the field?
  2. Are you doing missions for your own benefit, i.e. “using” the mission field as a discipleship tool for your people?
  3. If they are primarily meant to stimulate missions involvement on the part of the goers or the congregation, are you following through to make it happen?
  4. Are you making mission trips your primary missions ministry?


Let’s look at an over simplification of how missions works:

Goal - God receives glory when lost people come to know Him and live for Him.                                                                                                 

Missions - Where the church is non-existent or weak, disciples from other places and cultures are sent to live among the people, get to know them, love them, help them, witness to them and/or train and assist the local believers to do so.                                

Sending - Christians are sent to do the above when local churches disciple, recruit, train, send, support, encourage and pray for them.                                                                             


As we do missions in the local church it would be well to keep the goal in view and remember this pattern.  Each step is valuable as it contributes to the top line. 


Our natural bent is to do what benefits us or to help others in ways that benefit us.  Rightly viewed, missions is not an activity we undertake because of what it does for us (although as a wonderful side benefit, we receive much from it).  Missions is not what we do for ourselves. 


Further, mission trips, once meant to increase long-term missions, can be detrimental.  One reader of this article wrote, “In my church we have given notice to two (missionary) couples that this is the last year we will provide support.  Both of these couples we have supported for more than twenty years.  The reason given was we needed those funds to send out more of our short-term workers.” 


Mission trips are a powerful tool in the missions enterprise.  But they aren’t the only tool.  Misused they are a huge waste of money at best and a serious hindrance to effective missions at worst.


Here are some recommendations:

A. For contribution to field ministry.

  1. Go where missionaries or local congregations want you and can use you.  Do what they ask you to do.
  2. Send people with appropriate education, skills, experience and training to carry out what the missionary or church needs done.
  3. Send people on mission trips where you plan to have ongoing support, partnership, or participation in field ministry.
  4. Prepare people adequately for the trip.

B. For increasing prayer, financial, and long term missions involvement.

  1. Design the follow-up plan before you go and carry it out afterward.  This is as important as going.  If you don’t carry out the plan, don’t go.  The plan includes a) ongoing mentoring of the one who goes and b) maximizing the impact on the congregation.
  2. Select and send people who are willing to seriously consider the potential long-term impact on their lives.
  3. Consider the costs vs. benefits of a mission trip just as you would any other training or promotion activity.  Don’t assume the work the goers plan to do justifies the cost.
  4. Be sure goers get plenty of exposure to missionaries and their work. 
  5. Arrange for a large portion of the congregation to be exposed to high quality, well designed, and compelling reports of the trips, showing the crucial benefit of the ongoing missionary work and clearly stating how the congregation can contribute.
  6. Over an extended time, help each goer process what God is teaching him or her and individually mentor each individual in living out what he or she is learning.
  7. Evaluate the results of each trip against criteria decided in advance.
  8. If trips are primarily discipleship opportunities for the goers, consider funding them from the education or discipleship budget.  This will help you evaluate the value.  It’s too easy to justify using missions money for activities that do not accomplish missions ministry.


It is imperative to make the maximum possible contribution to the glory of God in all the earth and to keep the ends the ends and the means the means.


For mission trip guidelines see the Short-Term Standards by the Fellowship of Short-Term Missions Leaders,