Five common short-term mission trip mistakes
International (MNN/E3P) — Heading overseas into the mission field full-time isn’t something everyone can do. That’s what makes short-term mission trips so appealing — they give you a taste of a foreign culture, an opportunity to work hands-on with the Gospel, and a chance to follow the Great Commission all in the space of a few weeks or months.
The problem is some travelers don’t always plan ahead for those trips, and even if they have good intentions, that can cause serious problems for them and the people they’re serving.
As Matt Morrison of e3 Partnersputs it, “There really is a value in missions trips, what it does for us here and for those people who are going, as well as for people who you’re there to serve. It’s just important to be doing it right.”
Just because a trip is short doesn’t mean it won’t require a lot of planning. Without precautions, Morrison says short-term trips can be extremely dangerous, and not just for security reasons. “There are things we can do in trying to minister to other people that, while it looks like helping, what you’re actually doing is crippling them,” Morrison says.
That’s why Morrison posted a list of five mistakes you don’t want to make on short-term mission trips. Click here for the original list.
1. Being the hero
There’s nothing wrong with letting people know you’re heading overseas or asking for prayer and support, but sometimes the attention can go too far. “All of that comes together to make you think, ‘Wow, I’m doing something really big; I’m doing something really cool,’” says Morrison. “In reality you are. You’re living out the Great Commission, and there’s something really exciting about that, but the problem is it can go to our heads sometimes.”
That can cause problems for two reasons. First, getting excited about our own work takes the power away from God. It’s through Him that any of that work is possible, and it can be easy to lose sight of that when we turn ourselves into the hero.
Second, “If we’re the heroes then the people we’re serving must be the victims, and if we start treating people like victims, they’re going to start believing they’re the victims.” Morrison says that strips the people we’re serving of their dignity and makes them feel helpless. When people are helpless, they look for a higher power, and when we think we’re the hero, that higher power is us, not God.
2. Teaching people to do things the American way
Morrison says when we’re running a business or attending church we often don’t realize how much our own culture has influenced the way we do those things. “We’re all created in the image of God, but we’re also so wildly different in our different cultures,” Morrison says. “It’s amazing how the diversity of the human race shows the intricacies and the complexities of God himself.”
And setting up something to work the way it does back home takes away from that diversity. If we teach people to do things our way, they lose the chance to learn how to do it their own way. “Our job is not to teach them to look like the same Christian we are, but to really be a follower of Christ in their own culture,” Morrison says.
3. Thinking they’re helpless
The fact that we’re the ones traveling across oceans to serve doesn’t make the people we’re serving helpless. Servitude is about humility, and if we look down on the men and women we’re there to help, we deprive them of the dignity they deserve and the respect we should be giving them.
“One of the things I encourage people to do is look for what you can learn from the people you’re there to serve,” says Morrison. “You’ll be amazed at what they can teach you about God and you’ll be amazed at what they can teach you about yourself.”
4. Making it about us
There’s nothing wrong with documenting our time serving God and His flock, but when we share every moment on Instagram or log every second of our experience on social media, our mission trip becomes “religious tourism”, Morrison says.
“You don’t have to feel useful, productive, or warm and fuzzy inside to accomplish what God wants to do through you,” Morrison says. “God’s entire plan for you could revolve around a single conversation or interaction on your trip.” That can only happen when we surrender ourselves to Him for the entire trip.
5. Handing out money
In many countries, the conversion rate from U.S. dollars into local money is extremely high. One US dollar is worth four Romanian leu, 18 Mexican pesos, and 60 Russian rubles. That means when we hand out money, we’re passing out more than we think we are.
Morrison says that much money can be corrupting and work against everything the organization you’re traveling with has already done. If people think they can get money from visiting Americans, some of them will start saying and doing anything you ask until they get paid, including pretending to convert to Christ. It’s hard to help people who are lying and sacrificing a long-term solution for a short-term need.
If you really have a heart to give, talk to your group leaders. Morrison says trips with e3 Partners usually make a donation to local leaders who then distribute the money so it gets where it needs to go.
Overall, “Follow the direction of your leader,” advises Morrison. “Follow what they say. They know what they’re doing, they’ve done this before, and they can help you make the right decisions while you’re over there.”
All of these guidelines, warnings, and regulations can be intimidating, but that’s why Morrison says every trip should start with surrendering to God.
“Don’t think that just because you’ve never done this and you don’t have the experience that God can’t use you,” Morrison says. “God kind of specializes in using the people that have no idea what they’re doing.”