Things no one tells you about going on short-term mission trips

My husband and I live in Guatemala and host short-term mission teams throughout the year. I am originally from California and he was born and raised in Guatemala. For me, short-term mission trips were kind of like camp. Every summer I had the chance to go somewhere new and ‘help people’. For my husband, hosting short-term mission teams in Guatemala was part of what he and his family did. There were blessings that came from it, but it was mostly a lot of work.

We have both seen the good, the bad and the ugly of short-term missions. And we continue to feel this tension with the short-term mission teams that we host. Do they do more harm than good? Do they perpetuate the cycle of poverty? Do they contribute to feelings of superiority? Or inferiority? Our work with families and communities in Guatemala, as well as churches and schools from the USA has forced us to ask these questions daily. 

We have learned that perhaps how we go might matter more than what we do. Here are a few things you may not have heard about being more effective on short-term mission trips:

YOU’RE NOT A HERO.

First of all, before you go and when you get there, you must commit to getting rid of the hero complex. Developing countries do not need short-term heroes. They need long-term partners. If you just want to be a hero for a week, then you may be doing more harm than good.

POVERTY CAN LOOK DIFFERENT THAN YOU EXPECT.

If at the end of your trip you say, ‘I am so thankful for what I have, because they have so little.’ You have missed the whole point.

You’re poor, too, but maybe you’re hiding behind all your stuff. There is material poverty, physical poverty, spiritual poverty and systemic poverty. We all have to acknowledge our own brokenness and deep need for God before we can expect to serve others.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT MAY BE JUST AS IMPORTANT AS IMMEDIATE CONTEXT.

Have you studied the history of the country or community where you’re going? Do you understand the role that the Church or mission organisation has played there, if any? Do you know the current needs and issues of the people there? Having background knowledge of where you’re going will help you know how you can best fit and help in your immediate context.

DON’T DO A JOB PEOPLE CAN DO FOR THEMSELVES.

Last time I checked, people in developing countries can paint a wall, so why are you doing it for them? If painting a wall or school is really a need in the place where you’re working then invite students from that school or people from the village to do it with you.

Doing things with people, not for people should be the motto. Always.

LEARNING TAKES PLACE IN THE CONTEXT OF RECIPROCAL RELATIONSHIPS.

Be willing to share about your family, your pain and your needs. Sometimes people in developing countries think everyone in the UK is rich, white and happy. We know this is not true, and we have the chance to share honestly and vulnerably. Prioritise building relationships over completing projects.

You are an ambassador from your country. Thanks to globalisation, YouTube and Facebook, most developing countries will have certain ideas about the UK before you arrive. Be willing to ask questions and share about yourself and your culture, as well.

Along the same lines, before you take a photo, ask yourself, ‘Would I mind if a foreigner took a picture of my daughter/son/sister/brother in this situation?’ If the answer is yes, then don’t take it. Come back with stories and names of people, not just an entire album of ‘cute’ nameless kids.

THERE IS SOMETHING SPECIAL ABOUT GOING.

All of this isn’t meant to discourage missions work. On the contrary, the act of going is important. Jesus left his home, the comfort of the Father to go, to be among the people. Your willingness to leave your home, your comfort and GO is an example of that, too.

So go, be among the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Eat what they eat. Observe what they do. Don’t spend your time in the nearest McDonalds.

DON’T RAISE MONEY FOR A TWO-WEEK TRIP, AND THEN GIVE NOTHING ELSE THE WHOLE YEAR.

We all know money is not everything. But when used wisely it can make a huge difference in the lives of people. You’ll probably write letters and do car washes in order to raise money to go, right? Well, what keeps you from still doing that? We work hard for a two-week trip, but then what? What if your church or community group worked on matching every pound you spent on your two-week trip to send down to the place you served over the course of the year?

YOU DON’T HAVE TO FLY IN A PLANE TO SERVE THOSE IN NEED.

Why not focus on seeking justice in your community? Ask yourself, ‘If Jesus was here who would he be talking to?’ The kid with disabilities who sits in the back at church? The Polish-speaking woman who works in your local shop? The man who collects rubbish in the local park? Ask God to give you eyes to see what he does. It might change your life.

First published in Relevant magazine in May 2019. Adapted for the Global Connections’ Serve Short Term publication. Order your copy here.

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

The views expressed in this blog post are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the GC network.

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Michelle Acker Perez

Michelle Acker Perez

Born and raised in California, Michelle now lives in Guatamala where she and her husband lead a non-profit organisation which works to bring about holistic health and development to rural communities.
Michelle Acker Perez

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