A problem with short-term mission trips

“MDS ends historic 7-year recovery effort in New Orleans.”

The headline grabbed my attention as I pulled the latest issue of Mennonite World Review from my mailbox. Skimming the story that followed, I wondered how many readers would be surprised that Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) was just now wrapping up its work along the U.S. Gulf Coast — work the organization began in 2005 following hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Seven years, $8 million, more than 17,000 volunteers, and 126,400 work days later, MDS had done what it set out to do. The Gulf Coast initiative established a new standard for the Lititz, PA-based ministry, in length of stay, in number of projects completed (194 cleanup sites, 739 minor repairs, 183 major repairs, and 112 rebuilds), and in the depth of partnerships between MDS and area churches and ministries.

What a testimony to the power of a long obedience in the same direction. And what a contrast to the hit-and-run, volunteer-centric mission/service projects that are the norm for North American churches.


You know what I mean. I’m talking about the wildly popular, travel-intensive, short-term mission trip.

Even as I write, hundreds of thousands of mission trippers (including a group from my home congregation) are packing their bags and checking their passports. Over the next few months, hordes of religious travelers will descend on unsuspecting communities from Albania to Zimbabwe.

Ready or not, world, here they come.

The good news for the folks whose lives these missionary temps hope to touch, whose souls they’re praying to save, is this: they won’t be around for long. Most for two weeks or less.

This is also the bad news. As Robert Lupton, author of Toxic Charity: How Church and Charities Hurt Those They Help, writes:

Look at most any promotional package for a mission trip and you will get the distinct impression that lost, starving, forsaken people have their last hope riding on the willingness of North American church groups to come and rescue them. . . [However] the overwhelming majority of our mission trips are to places where the needs are for development rather than emergency assistance. And development is about enabling indigenous people to help themselves. This requires a longer-term commitment, not the sort of involvement that lends itself to short-term mission trips.

The MDS story illustrates that real change is the result of perseverance, staying power, stick-to-itiveness.  It requires not just putting hands to the plow, but also refusing to looking back until the job is done. It means wanting to know (and maybe even participating in) the rest of the story.

In his thank you comments to volunteers and community representatives, MDS Executive Director Kevin King noted that “God is still in the business of looking for people to make a difference. We can be, and are, God’s hands and feet.”

Being so, however, will likely require that we hang around for more than a week or two. And that, my friends, is one of the problems with short-term mission trips.


  1. Well Rebecca, now you’re just making us squirm – rightly so.

    • Squirming can be good for the soul, or so I’ve found in my life. Thanks for reading and responding to Generous Matters. It’s nice to know I have a BIC friend in Arkansas.

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