Calling Bull on “Self-fulfillment Trips”

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Okay, the talk of the town (at least at my Christian university and among my Facebook friends) is whether short-term mission trips are meaningful or not. I recently read the article “7 Reasons Why Your Two Week Trip to Haiti Doesn’t Matter: Calling Bull on ‘Service Trips’,” and it filled me with sadness and anger. I must say- the title is much harsher than the article itself, but my point is: short-term mission trips have real value. Yes, motives vary person to person and trip to trip, but as my friend puts it, “don’t ever put someone down because they aren’t serving in your ideal form of ministry.”

Popular arguments against short–term missions include abandonment issues- can you even bond with the people you’re working with in so little time & if so, is it fair to love on them for a week and then leave? At first, this seems like a valid point, but how many Christians say that week-long Vacation Bible School is a waste? Not near as many as those who say that week-long overseas trips are. But why? Just like a short-term trip, at VBS you’re investing in kids you’ve never seen and probably will never see again. But that doesn’t mean you’re wasting your time. I accepted Jesus as my Savior and became a Christian at a VBS at a church that was not my home church. Without that week, my entire life would be different. Thank you to those VBS workers who realized five days was worth it.

Also, we as Christians have got to stop being so quick to judge! I think we judge our own family of believers even more harshly than we do nonbelievers. Those that do not support my short-term mission trips may look at my photos on Facebook and roll their eyes. And if you only think about 17 days in Cambodia or 8 days in Guatemala, it’s easy to assume that each trip was to check “good deed” off my annual To Do list. But hear me out…

By no means am I perfect, and evangelism is still not totally comfortable for me, but do not judge my heart based on my Facebook album of my short-term trips. You don’t know what I do the rest of the year or behind-the-scenes. Do you know that I’ve been learning Spanish for the past 8 years? So that I can love on those who are different than me. So that I can do international missions without being that white girl who knows nothing about the culture she’s serving in. And do you know that I donate? I help out organizations on a regular basis. Because when I’m not serving in places like Guatemala, others are. And finally, do you know my plans for the future? Do you know that I’ve always considered and prayed about being a teacher and missionary full time in a third world country? Do you know that I’m saving up for a long-term trip to Central America? The internship I have in mind is one that you have to pay for, and it’s a lot. Yes, pay to do work. To help people. To teach. To love. To serve. All for the sake of the gospel.

I know there are plenty of stories like mine. Plenty of people have found their calling and chosen their careers based on what some call “self-fulfillment trips.” I don’t know many missionaries who left the U.S. spontaneously to serve in a foreign country full time without ever seeing the suffering in another country first. Likely, that full-time missionary you’re thinking of went on short trips first, felt a call, and answered the call.

And if short-term trips are so useless, why do full-time missionaries organize them? Because they have a purpose.

You see a self-fulfillment trip …. I see a mission trip

You see a desperate GoFundMe… I see a chance for those who can’t go to support those who can

You see selfies with the poor… I see a newfound joy in the one holding the camera (and the children huddled around)

You see a meaningless short-term mission trip… I see relationships built, hope renewed, and souls saved

The Bible tells us to go. To love people. And to spread the Good News. It doesn’t say to do these things only if you have a long time to do them. It simply says “go.”

If you’re curious to learn more about short-term missions, check out an older blog post of mine here.

Note: not every short-term mission trip is done well or with the right heart, but these types of trips are a disgrace to the church, and they should not be used to stereotype all short-term trips

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3 thoughts on “Calling Bull on “Self-fulfillment Trips”

    • While I know there are plenty of consistent, trustworthy NGOs out there, they’re not always the perfect alternative. My first international mission trip was a 17 day trip to Cambodia. Much of the trip included testing wells for arsenic, because in Cambodia nearly 1 in 5 children die before the age of 5 due to water borne illnesses such as problems from arsenic. Almost all the wells we tested tested positive for arsenic. These wells were built (And labeled) by UNICEF. The organization probably thought they were doing a good thing by building the wells, but they were actually killing these people slowly because they didn’t know the well water was filled with an odorless, colorless poison. The missionaries there, though, knew that arsenic was a problem in Cambodia, and they created water filters and tests that were helpful instead of harmful. These missionaries were permanent, but they invited teams like mine to help them. Just one personal example to keep in mind!

      • I’m not convinced. While it does sound like extremely wonderful work you were doing, when you consider the amount you all spent on plane tickets to get there would it not have been better to donate that money to train Cambodian people to do the job of helping test the wells? If you want to travel sure, do it, and I have volunteered for a short time as well, but if we really want to help people, we are kidding ourselves that flying across the world for a week or two to “help” is really doing much.

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