Like most things, mission trips are a mixed bag. 

They can be terrible or wonderful experiences, helpful or harmful to the communities that you visit. I’m sure you’ve heard the many horror stories of foreign churches or schools being painted for the twelfth time in a year because they must find something for the never-ending teams of teenagers to do. Or you’ve seen the classic mission trip photos: invasive and undignified shots of ‘poor’ families, homes, streets, or people. Did you really go if you didn’t improve your Instagram feed?

It seems, when you take a step back from our culture and take a closer look at why we do the things we do – that missions (short-term team trips, specifically) are an all-around risky idea. Even potentially a bad idea.

That might sound incredibly strange coming from a mission organization, especially one that has been sending teams for over 20 years and sends over 600 people internationally each year. We love missions! We even love short-term mission trips, but there is a “but”. Short-term mission trips must be done in the right way and for the right reasons.

Here’s a checklist of 5 questions to ask and tick off before planning that next mission trip:

1. Do they have a respectful presence in the community? 

‘They’ are the people or organization that you are traveling with or planning your mission trip through. It’s essential to find out not only what they do the days/week/time that you are with them on the ground but also the other 365 days of the year. Do you know the community? Do they live and work among them? Are they respected and welcomed?

Unless you are going into an area that is known and understood, we recommend second-guessing your trip. Otherwise, there is a real danger of coming across as invasive, know-it-all, misunderstood, and brazen. You want to be sure that you are going with a ministry that is experienced, compassionate, knowledgeable, welcome, and respected.

2. Does your work continue when you leave? 

This is a big one. Before signing up for any project or activity, you need to be sure that your work isn’t going to leave with you. It’s great to bring people to salvation, but they need supportive churches and communities, and a lifetime of discipleship (we all do!). It’s great to build a house, but do the residents have somebody to go to when things break down and need repairing? It’s great to run a weekend children’s program, but do these kids have access to safety and the Gospel the rest of the year? It’s great to bandage wounds and hand out medication, but what about when the dressings need changing and the pills run out? You get the point. If work leaves with you, you need to ask yourself the question – in the long run, are we really being helpful, or more pointedly – who, really, is this mission trip for? It’s always best to partner with ministries and programs that run all year round and have a permanent presence in your community of service. That way, you are coming alongside what God is already doing in a location and assisting. The work and the effects of your work will stay long after you leave. This also gives a wonderful opportunity for long-term partnerships to form, as you can go back to the same community more than once.

3. Are you invited? 

This goes hand-in-hand with points one and two. Think about it this way: what would you think, and what would you do if a team of people came unexpectedly and uninvited into your church, street, or community and set up camp for a week, cameras in hand? Even if their help was genuine and needed, it would still be jarring, if not questionable and insulting. It’s very helpful to double-check that you are invited to wherever you are going – that people know and want you to come.

4. Are you actually helping? 

Even if points one, two, and three are in order, it’s still essential to check that what you are going to do is helpful, a blessing, and a good use of global resources. Just simply asking and answering this question would stop the twelve-times-painted-school debacle. It’s worth reading ‘When Helping Hurts’ or other similar resources to get a grasp of what this really means. If a community needs a school, for example, is it better to spend the $10,000 + to bring a team to move some bricks, or would that money be better and more efficiently used in the hands of local people in an area of high unemployment? Which option would sustainably empower the community? What is or isn’t realistic? Of course, this is not the only factor to consider, as we all know that mission trips change or help, not only those being assisted but those who go – sometimes profoundly and for a lifetime – and it’s hard to put a price tag on those experiences. But the facts remain. Often what we think people need is different than what they think they need. The help we give is not the help they want or need, and so it’s always worth asking the question: are we actually helping, in the right way, and for the right reasons? Again, this is why it’s best to partner with an ongoing ministry in a location in which they have a permanent respectable presence.

5. Are you (or your team) going for the right reasons? 

There are lots of reasons to go and lots of reasons not to go on a mission trip. It’s worth everybody on your team checking their hearts and ensuring that they have the basics in check. This includes essentials like being called by God to go, a willingness to serve and learn, a teachable and humble character, and submission to leadership and the host culture. Wrong reasons to go include having a (proud and boastful) savior mentality (these people need my help), wanting to simply travel overseas (you are not a tourist), or being forced or pressured by somebody else. It’s always worth checking and double-checking that everyone understands what a mission trip is and why you are doing it.

To summarize, what makes the difference between a useless and a life-changing short-term mission trip is this: Thinking it through and asking the right questions. First and foremost, by asking God and reading the Bible. We must understand what missions are and if, when, and how Jesus asks (or tells!) us to go. It’s imperative to have a foundational understanding of God’s heart for the nations. From there, you need some building blocks: an assurance that what you are going to do is helpful and life-giving to the community in which you are serving. That you are partnering with God and others in a sustainable ministry that is bigger than you and your team. With these things in place though, there is no reason why your mission trip can’t be mutually beneficial, kingdom-impacting, and one of the best things that you ever do. 

All our countries have permanent bases that run their ministries year-round. We partner you and your group with pre-existing, long-term ministries and missionaries. Over 80% of our missionaries are nationals, people who understand fully the cultures in which they are serving, and therefore the needs. We do not go into a country or community unless we are first invited (usually by a pastor’s alliance). Our bases approve each one of our trips before we send anybody, as they are the ones on the ground who know the needs and the people. We offer extensive pre- and post-trip resources and training.