8 Reasons I was Wrong About Short Term Missions Trips

Disclaimer: I’m not a cross-cultural ministry expert and I won’t play one on my blog. If you are interested in this topic a must read book in my world is When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself. I also did an interview on the podcast with an expert on this stuff – Christa Hesselink – that you should listen in on.

I used think that short term missions trips were the worst idea in the church world. They were a complete waste of resources … they were sideways energy to our core mission … they siphoned limited resources to non-essential functions … it was basically “petting the poor” or “poverty tourism” … the list went on and on about why I thought these were such a terrible experience. Although I still do believe there can be real damage done by these experiences my heart and mind has shifted.

Over the last 5 or so years I’ve found myself softening to the idea of short term trips and ultimately have become an advocate for these experiences being a part of church’s discipleship strategy. Recently, I had the privilege to lead short term trip from our church with Living Water International and I got thinking about the change that I’ve seen within myself around this whole area. Here are a number of areas that my thinking and attitude has shifted … I’d love to hear from you!

  • A deeper understanding of the universal human experience. // People are people. Whether they are across the street or around the world people have the same needs … they want to know and be known and they need Jesus. When short term missions are done participants are reminded to care for the people in their own community!
  • Clarity on what happens with people serving in other countries. // Each community and culture has unique challenges to serving in it. It’s one thing to talk about those challenges … entirely different to get up close and see those challenges first hand. Being informed at this level gives trip participants the ability to be more informed advocates when they return home.
  • It’s a chance for people to be in the role of learner. // Often the people who travel on these trips have some sort of day job where they are the “expert” or “teacher” or “leader”. These trips are a gift to these people because it gives them the opportunity to be in the role of “learner” or “servant” or “helper”. Jesus said that we’re called to the the “servant of all” and these trips give people the opportunity to actually do that … and hopefully this taste will ooze into the rest of their lives when they get home.
  • It makes better donors. // Can I be honest for a minute? As someone from a “rich northern country” traveling to a “developing southern country” often your biggest “next step” from a short term missions trip is to be a donor/advocate. The biggest way you to “help” long term is to go home and figure out how to restructure your world so you can be more generous. Seeing the needs first hand generates a depth of knowledge and empathy that no amount of spreadsheets, emotional videos & glossy photos can generate. People get informed and motivated … and that can translate into them being smarter and more generous with their financial resources.
  • The experience generates clarity on our economic status. // This is related to people becoming better donors but it’s more personal. A well executed short term missions trip gives people clarity on the fact that they are amongst the rich minority in the world. Some people end up experiencing this as guilt … which might be a start … but ultimately the hope is to move people beyond feeling bad to the place where they feel thankful that they have the opportunity to steward the resources God has given them.
  • Opportunity for dependence on God … maybe for the first time. // Our culture is structured to be predictable, safe and comfortable. It often removes the chance for people to be dependent on God because there is little opportunity for stuff to go wrong. [Watch this video from my trip where stuff went wrong!] Short term mission trips move people out of their comfort zones and force them to face the fact that they aren’t in control … maybe for the first time in their lives! This gift can give people greater clarity on their place in the universe and helps to reset their relationship with Jesus!
  • It gets people out of their seats. // A core part of engaging the people in our church is to get them out of their seats and engaged in the mission. Experiences like these trips give another chance for people to serve and give back to what God is doing … and that in turn draws them in closer and helps them get more connected with your church.
  • A final reason … that’s not as polite. // I’m not sure how to say this one but I do think it’s a factor. Often times people traveling on these short term mission trips are a part of the wealthy dominant cultures. (Think old, rich, white and male.) They are traveling to poorer countries and often being led by people who look totally different than them. I love the fact that our people are being led by incredibly talented people who are in the “minority” culture in our country. I love the impact this can have on our people as they see others from various cultures in a different light than is often portrayed by the dominant culture at home.

What has your experience with short term mission trips been? I’d love to hear what you’ve learned!

BONUS: If you want to get a sense of trip I was recently on … Christine (my wife) posted 9 photos and quick stories about the trip in an album called Learning from Nicaraguan Friends.



  1. Hey Buddy, I clearly resonate with your concerns. Too often the help has created a dependency on North America to do the work for developing nations. One of the clear mandates for all work trips that we take are to help local ministries and people become self sufficient.
    Like you I have been on the trips were things went south but it is amazing to see how God works through it all and how one of the end products of short term mission trips is life transformation.

    1. Josh!

      Thanks for dropping in and for your comments.

      What sort of work trips has your church been involved in? How do you ensure that you aren’t just taking jobs from folks in the community?


  2. Rich,
    Great insights. This is an issue that the Church continues to (and needs to) struggle with. I had a great interview conversation with Rich Frazer a few weeks ago. He is the president of Spiritual Overseers Service, International, and shared how he and his group invest intentionally in indigenous leaders, at their invitation.

    Still, he also sees the value in short-term trips, knowing that God sometimes uses these to transform lives and even cultures. If you’re interested in the link to his interview, I’d be glad to send it but I don’t want to spam your site with unsolicited links.


  3. Great to hear of your learning and application from your STT (short term trips) experiences. My life was personally transformed by my STT experiences as a young 20 something and they have been a significant part of my passion for student ministries over the past 20 years. Your post makes me think that perhaps we should offer an invitation to other youth pastors/volunteers to join us on a trip and see how STT can provide the space for students and adults to be transformed by the experience. In my experience, it is the transformation of the people we take on STT that has the longer lasting and greater Kingdom impact. Being the hands and feet of Jesus is one thing (serving the least of these), but seeing Jesus in the eyes of those we serve leads to our undoing! (Mathew 25). Bless you in your continued good works and as you engage others in STT. Peace, Marc

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.