Short-Term Missions: Redefining Success


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By Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

The below article is adapted from Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert (Moody Publishers.)

The world has shrunk remarkably in the space of a few decades, creating new possibilities and questions for the body of Christ. The Apostle Paul spent his life sailing around the Mediterranean world visiting churches, sometimes arriving waterlogged or snake-bitten. Now we can fly halfway across the world in ten hours, rarely experiencing anything worse than a bit of turbulence. 

This is a gift. But what we do with this gift matters.

The rise of short-term missions (STMs) has left church leaders, missionaries, and organizations asking important questions about trips to low-income communities:

How well are we stewarding the billions of dollars invested in STMs each year? What are the potential positive and negative effects of STMs? 

Short-term trips to contexts of poverty, whether in the US or around the world, can be done in a way that blesses the communities they visit, avoids doing unintended harm, and leads to lasting change in team members’ lives. But doing so involves reframing the purpose of our trips, shifting away from an emphasis on directly engaging in poverty alleviation.

A Different Sort of Trip

Poverty alleviation is typically a long-term process, not something that can be broken down into ten-day pieces and projects. Poverty is rooted in systems, choices, and relationships that reach much deeper than a shortage of things like food, housing, or clothing. As a result, in the vast majority of cases, short-term trips are not appropriate or effective vehicles for engaging in poverty alleviation. 

We need a different definition of what “success” looks like for short-term trips to materially poor communities.

In fact, rather than focusing on the trip itself as the primary element of success, we need to deliberately situate short-term visits as one piece of a larger undertaking. When properly designed, short-term trips are an opportunity to learn from, encourage, and fellowship with believers in the context of long-term engagement with God’s work, focusing on understanding His body and our role in it more fully.

What would this type of trip look like? Consider the following video clip:

Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions: Haiti from The Chalmers Center on Vimeo.

As you reflect on what reforming short-term trips might mean in your context, consider the following principles:

  • Be Intentional with Training: The Holy Spirit is the ultimate author of change, and He has used short-term trips to change many participants’ lives. That is a beautiful thing. But we should be intentional about supporting the change process through our approaches. Quality pre- and post-trip training can guide participants as they craft healthy expectations for their visit, as they learn how to effectively bless the people they meet, and as they consider their role in God’s work in the world.
  • Prioritize Time for Learning, Fellowship, and Encouragement: We should live life alongside our brothers and sisters while on trips, learning from their experiences, worshipping with them, and spending time with local leaders. Instead of focusing on projects or tasks, we should explore how God is working and how the Church is already engaged in loving its neighbors. 
  • Engage for the Long Haul: What happens after participants return home is typically the biggest factor in whether a trip was “worth it.” We need to communicate to participants that they have a responsibility to steward the visit well, particularly in light of the financial resources invested in the trip. Debrief meetings provide time to reflect on the trip and set concrete, realistic goals for how participants can convert the experience into lasting engagement in their own communities and around the world. 

When done well, a short-term trip itself is just one piece of a broader, long-term journey of learning and action. Through this type of transformation, the local body of Christ—on both sides of the short-term trip equation—can share the hope of Jesus Christ’s work more effectively.

We have been given an enormous gift. What will we do with it? 

Learn more about or purchase Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions.

Steve Corbett is the co-author of When Helping Hurts and Community Development Specialist for the Chalmers Center at Covenant College. He is also an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics and Community Development at Covenant College. 

Brian Fikkert is the co-author of When Helping Hurts and Founder and President of the Chalmers Center at Covenant College. He is also a Professor of Economics and Community Development at Covenant College. 

Photo credit: Ryan Estes