William Carey, the founder of modern missions, left his home in England, moved to India and spent the rest of his life there. For nearly 100 years, this was what people thought of when picturing missions and missionaries: someone who leaves home to become completely immersed in a new culture, language, and place.
Starting in the 1950s, many missions organizations, churches, and secular organizations began to see the benefits of shorter mission trips to help those in need from different societies around the globe. However, these shorter trips introduce their own issues in both the locals' lives and for the mission group.
How do you know whether your mission trip made a positive impact on the community you interacted with? How can you tell whether your mission trip made a positive impact in your own community? And lastly, what can you do to reduce possible negative repercussions?
Positive Impact on the Host Community
Short-term mission trips are organized for a variety of reasons. For example, Doctors Without Borders organizes doctors to travel to areas of the world where people are unable to access medical relief. Their length of time and goals within a host country is determined by specific health needs. Sometimes they set up permanent, long-term humanitarian missions, other times they set up shorter trips.
Churches may go to help build a project, inspire local volunteers, lead a conference/crusade, offer training to locals, or even provide medical relief. Since the purposes of a mission are so diverse, each trip will have its own desirable impact.
Take time to write out the goals for the trip. Start with "When we leave our host's homes, we will have accomplished..." Goals should be measurable and doable within the time frame of your trip. For example, a two-week trip to help remodel buildings and homes for single moms, elderly persons, and orphanages could include the following goals:
Create a fenced-in orphanage play yard to provide a safe place for children to be outside.
Install electricity for 5 widows in the church who are currently without power.
Provide handwashing stations and workspaces for entrepreneurial single mothers.
Dig an additional well for the community.
These 4 goals are clearly stated and one can easily define the type of workers and the materials needed. It is necessary to understand the goals beforehand so that you have the right volunteers and supplies for the job. The goals listed above are heavily construction oriented and require significant capital and knowledge to do and the trip director should select volunteers accordingly.
On the other hand, a goal of "Relieving the staff of the orphanage for a week by playing with children, providing crafts, stories, and nutrient-rich food" requires a different set of volunteers but still defines the desired outcome for the trip.
Positive Impact on Your Community
One of the reasons people take part in short-term missions is to engage the world in a way that challenges them to rethink their own lives. In many cases, trips have the ability to affect missionaries even more than the locals. Therefore, goals for the volunteers should also be considered.
A set of goals for positive impact on your volunteers and home community could look like this:
Encourage members of the trip to interact with individuals from all walks of life, especially when they return home.
Allow people in the team the chance to practice speaking the language of the locals.
Provide information for volunteers on how they can return to the host community as a full-time volunteer or missionary.
Illustrate ways business leaders can develop habits of giving back to their own community.
Inspire workers with how they can make a positive impact on others' lives in their own profession.
These goals are more intangible in nature, but that doesn't make them any less valuable.
Preventing Negatives of the Trip
As an article by The Gospel Coalition mentions, there are some significant issues that short-term missions have difficulty addressing.
These issues include:
Increasing local prices (Aid to Honduras to rebuild houses increased the price from $3,000 to $30,000 per home)
Turning tourism into "charity." (The Bahamas receives 1 short-term missionary for every 15 residents)
Failure in cultural understanding
Enabling dependency (Reliance on the aid of missionaries instead of further developing one's own economy perpetuates the issue)
How do you understand these issues, plan for them, and address them when you come back?
Below are four possible ways one could potentially decrease negative impacts.
First, spend time studying the culture and language before your team goes. If you are going to an area where the language is not your native tongue, ask volunteers to briefly study the language (basic phrases and greetings), culture, and customs of the people you will be working with. It does not have to be in depth, but it needs to be enough so that every member of the team will approach the host country with humility and the openness to learn.
Second, if possible, ask your contact in the host country if there is anything specific they would like the volunteers to know beforehand. If there is any particular way to dress or behave in public, listen to what they say and then act on it. For example, in the Middle East and many Latin American countries, throwing up a thumbs up is considered a very rude gesture. Therefore, it is important to be aware of cultural differences and realize that most countries will have different customs than one's home country.
Third, work with the local people as much as possible. If you are working on building a water filtration system for a village and able-bodied locals are standing around watching, invite them to participate. If applicable, help them learn the process of building and maintaining the filter so if it were to break, they are able to repair it. Allow the locals to have a role in the projects (if they desire) because they will be the ones who take possession of your work when the team leaves.
Finally, consider the long-term effects of your mission trip. Make sure you are confident that you are leaving the people better off than when you arrived. If you feel certain that you can make a positive impact on your trip, you most likely will.
With proper planning and management, a short-term mission trip can be a powerful and impactful experience for everyone involved. It can increase cultural understanding between the host and sending communities, make concrete differences in the local community, and inspire those involved on both sides.