This entry is part [part not set] of 5 in the series Short-Term Missions

How much long-term benefit do Short Term Mission trips (hereafter, STM) have on the ongoing ministry of national (native) churches?

This should be the first question that we ask before asking for thousands of dollars to fund our 2 week trip overseas. Unfortunately, this question is rarely ever considered. And here’s why.

The primary reason that Americans promote STM is usually the spiritual benefit such a trip will have on the participant. For instance, if we send Johnny on a 10 day trip building houses in Ethiopia, he’s going to come back a changed person, spiritually ignited and ready to serve Jesus in new and radical ways. Or better, Johnny will more likely become a career missionary which might not have happened if he didn’t venture on a short term trip.

Shockingly, however, research shows that the lasting benefits that STM has on its participants is not what we have assumed. For instance, the whole “STM leads to career missionaries” logic has proven to be faulty.

Research has shown that while there has been a dramatic increase in STM participants over the last two decades, the number of career missionaries has stayed the same. For instance, one pole examining 690 Protestant mission agencies indicated that there were around 40,000 career missionaries and 60,000 short-term missionaries in 1996. In 2001, the number of short-termers increased to about 350,000 (almost a 600% increase) while the number of career missionaries stayed the same (R. Priest, et al., “Researching the Short-Term Mission Movement,” 432). If STM participants are more likely to become career missionaries, then the number of career missionaries should have increased along with the enormous increase of STM participants. But it hasn’t. The conclusion: STM doesn’t in itself lead to more career missionaries.

Ok, but wouldn’t Johnny be more likely to give financially to missions after returning from his STM—even if he himself doesn’t become a career missionary? You would think, but again the research shows otherwise. Missiologist Robert Priest performed a meticulous study of whether or not STM participants end up giving more to missions and concluded: “No methodologically sound research we have discovered has yet demonstrated a significant average increase in giving by participants cause by STM experience. In short, one claim about STM, that it helps to create higher levels of financial support for the career missionary enterprise, does not appear to be true.” (Priest, et al., “Researching the Short-Term Mission Movement,” 439-440). And this doesn’t consider the additional problem of the church’s money, which normally is allocated to career missionaries that is now being giving to STM.

Regardless of whether or not STM produces more career missionaries or more giving towards missions, we need to engage in STM primarily for those to whom we are seeking to minister, not for the potential benefit it may (or may not) have on us. The very “missions for me” mentality reveals more of our American consumer mindset than the “others-centered” mindset of Christ. Ministry, in whatever form, is primarily for others (see Corbett and Fikkert, When Helping Hurts, 172). Thus, even if the research above was reversed, we still need to ask the question, “What lasting benefit do STMs have on national churches,” rather than assuming that the spiritual benefit on the participants in itself is worth the cost of the trip. Instead of a “missions for me” mentality, we need to be driven by a “missions for them” one.

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  1. Hey Dr. Sprinkle!

    It’s been a while, but I hope this finds you doing well! I love keeping up with your guys’ blog on here. Anyways…I am totally with you on your thoughts above. As I am out here at CU, and I am taking a group to Ivory Coast this summer for a month or so, and I always get the question, “So, what are we going to be doing?” And I think this is also deeply apart of the whole “missions is for me” mentality. It’s not about getting to know, learn from, and see what God is up to in a deeper way, but it is for me to get something out of this, or have a sense of accomplishment so I can go back and tell everyone about my long term impact (even though that wall has been painted 4 times in the last year by various ST teams). But have you found any helpful resources that articulate this well, and not only point out the flaws but move people beyond that in helpful ways? I would love to read through something with the team before heading out this summer. Have a good one!

  2. Justin,

    Great to hear from you, brother! And for what it’s worth, I do think that there are good things that STMs can do, which I may talk about in a later post.

    As far as resources, the two books I’ve found most helpful are: Livermore, Serving with Eyes Wide Open, and Fickertt and Cobbert (spel??) When Helping Hurts.

    The first one is a must! It’s all about STM and how to do them right. The second one has a really good chapter on STM, but the whole book is worth its weight in gold. Both books are pretty sort and will blow your mind.

    I think the key is to follow the lead of the career missionaries and native churches that you will be working with. I guess I would begin with two questions: 1) do you WANT or NEED us to come, and then 2) what do YOU want us to do? Sadly, most career missionaries never hear that first question. Instead, they just hear: “We’re coming!” and “We’re going to do…” Missionaries really love this; it helps their ministries tremendously! (sarcasm, of course).

  3. Hi,
    I was one of the rare short-termers who became a career missionary, who being on the field now – sees some of the flaws in the “let’s change the world this summer” attitude – that I know at 19 I so embraced. Now I am a youth minister working with a population of international youth, many of whom are missionary kids, trying how to help them embrace service and missions for themselves.

    One of my favorite resources is Deep Justice Journeys Leader’s Guide: 50 Activities to Move from Mission Trips to Missional Living (Youth Specialties) and Deep Justice in a Broken World: Helping Your Kids Serve Others and Right the Wrongs around Them (Youth Specialties)

    The Leader’s guide provides great devotionals for before, during and after the trip – helping participants frame and process what they experience . It’s a great resource.


  4. thanks for your interesting commentary on STMs. as a point of reference, I should say that I am not an experienced missionary person however I have been on 4 STMs in the last year to latin american countries. I would agree with you that many if not most of the people who venture out on an STM look to their own spiritial benefit. quite frankly, it is easy to feel good about giving both fiscal and physical (meaning our time and abilities on an STM) resources to those in need- and there is clear biblical support for us to do that.

  5. oops, hit the publish button too soon on my phone! I meant to add that of all the things that I’ve learned on my 4 trips, the 1 that became most clear to me was that an equally important aspect of an STM is the recognition by the participants of their own need for spiritual healing. Meaning, there is as great a need to address the lack of physical resources and lack of hope in third world countries as there is to heal the living in luxury and apathy to the needs of others in united states. I believe God is saddened by both conditions.

    So in summary I agree with you. The STM may not have the global impact that we would like it to for all the money and effort that it takes to initiate such activity. however, I would still say in my (limited) experience it is an appropriate means by which those in grave need and despair and those in the grave excess and apathy can better understand how to love God with all your heart, mind, and soul and love your neighbor as yourself.

  6. Bill,

    Thanks for your comments and sharing your experience with us. It also helps to get the perspective of someone who has been on such trips.

    I would affirm your affirmation! I would only want to add that if such trips (which, if I understand you correctly, can have a spiritual impact on the participant) hinder the ongoing ministry of the national churches (or career missionaries) then it’s not worth it, no matter what spiritual benefit it has on us.

    We wouldn’t operate in our own context this way. We wouldn’t let someone minister in our churches if we knew up front that his/her ministry would actually hinder the spiritual growth of the church and/or curtail the ongoing ministry of the pastor, elders, etc.

    Yet sometimes our STMs actually do this. And we aren’t aware of it because we simply don’t ask the question: how is this STM going to benefit the ongoing ministry of the native church.