What If We Got It All Wrong?: The “Mission Trips” Controversy

What If We Got It All Wrong?: The “Mission Trips” Controversy Hero Image What If We Got It All Wrong?: The “Mission Trips” Controversy Hero Image

What if we got it all wrong? What if God’s plan for the evangelizing the world does not include week long “mission” trips for North Americans to exotic places like Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Goma, Congo, or even South Dallas? What if short term mission trips do more spiritual, physical, and emotional harm than good for both those going to serve and those being served? What if we’ve built a church missions model that is not just flawed, but ineffective and unbiblical?

Always Ask the Question

While my knee-jerk answer to each concern above is to assume our model is useful, I believe strongly that my church (and every church) ought to be asking those kinds of critical questions about any program that results in deploying folks to other places, near and far. I say this because so often in ministry we slip into patterns of “doing missions” just as we have been “doing church” – because it’s been done a certain way for as long as anyone can remember. Instead of evaluating all aspects of a ministry, we settle for status quo and assume the above questions can be answered in a way that lets us off the hook.

And when it comes to short-term trips, which have been a popular form of “missions” for decades, many Christians are asking these very questions.

So how can we make sure our one-week, off-site deployments of our people should continue?

Back to the Basics

Over the past few years, we’ve developed some basic questions that we constantly ask to evaluate the effectiveness of sending folks on short term discipleship trips. (And even our use of the term “Discipleship Trip” arises from these questions.) This list of five questions provides us basic principles for evaluating our efforts:

  1. What did we do on the ground that provided real assistance to our partner and was an effective/strategic use of our team’s time? Why?
  2. What were the most effective parts of our Discipleship Trip preparation? Why?
  3. What could be improved in the preparation process so that our folks are better prepared to have an impact on the ground and upon returning home?
  4. What activities did we participate in that we don’t see as best use of the team’s gifts? Why is that? What can be done to improve them? Or should we scrap them altogether in the future?
  5. What have been the changes in the lives of those who served with us on a short term discipleship trip?

So what does this look like when these questions are really applied to our short-term ministry efforts? Are there tangible results from these trips that support the idea that discipleship trips make an impact?

The answer for Watermark is a resounding “yes” – with positive impact on both those who serve and those we serve.

We’ve found that four to six focused and planned preparation meetings for all trips, along with vetted and trusted leaders in charge of the trips, have greatly increased the impact of these trips for both our participants and our partners. Well-planned pre-trip meetings mean folks are memorizing scripture, learning about the culture they’ll be serving in, understanding how to handle conflict well, and going to serve with a heart focused on being a servant – instead of a tourist on a “vacation with a purpose.”

The Ingredients of a Healthy Trip

Well-planned trips… with godly leaders… to serve trusted, faith based partner organizations: these things go a long way toward ensuring that the time on the ground is well-spent. It also helps us make sure folks are using their gifts and talents to serve our partners in a way that provide a lasting impact and not simply a short-term fix.

So whether the trip is a serving trip to Haiti with Mission of Hope, a teaching trip to Central Africa with ALARM, or an evangelism trip to Ethiopia with E3 Partners, the plan and focus remains unchanged: ”Go and make disciples.”

For more on ensuring that short-term opportunities are effective and not harmful (whether you’re on a Watermark trip or not), we’d encourage you to see the new Helping without Hurting in Short-Term Missions guide by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.