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.