Things No One Tells You About Going on Short-Term Mission Trips

A few ways to make sure your mission trip is effective.

It is estimated that over 1.5 million people from the United States participate in short-term mission trips every year. That is a lot of people. And those 1.5 million people spend close to $2 billion for these 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 U.S. has forced us to ask these questions daily.

We have learned that perhaps how we go might matter more that 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, your team must commit to getting rid of the hero complex. Developing countries do not need short-term heroes. They need long-term partners. And if your group just wants to be a hero for a week, then you may be doing more harm than good.

Developing countries do not need short-term heroes. They need long-term partners.

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 neighborhoods where you’re going? Do you understand the role that the U.S. has played there? Do you know what the role of the Church and missions has been? Do you know the current needs and issues of the people? 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 U.S. is rich, white and happy. We know this is not true, and we have the chance to share honestly and vulnerably. Prioritize building relationships over completing projects.

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

Along the same lines, before you take a picture, 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.

Jesus left His home, the comfort of the Father to go, to be among the people.

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 McDonalds.

Don't Raise $1,000 for a Week, and Then Give Nothing Else the whole Year.

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

You Don’t Have to Fly in an Airplane to Serve the Poor.

Why not focus on seeking justice in your neighborhood? Ask yourself, "If Jesus was here who would He be talking to?" The kid with disabilities who sits in the back at youth group? The Spanish-speaking man who cleans your office? The woman who collects cans in the local park? Ask God to give you eyes to see what He does. It might change your life.

Please don’t stop taking short-term missing trips, but do consider helping your team understand that how we do short-term mission trips may, in fact, matter more than what we do.

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2014.

Top Comments

Abby Gaby Lim


Abby Gaby Lim commented…

Thanks for this article. It made me think about what constitutes "long lasting". Money, construction projects, etc are helpful for sure . But what distinguishes missioners from other "do-gooders" is Jesus Christ. The best gift we can still share is the gospel, and this should be the heart of any mission trip.

Jon Adams


Jon Adams commented…

Good points. All of our best short-term missions experiences have been going to help long-term missionaries with construction projects that they couldn't accomplish by themselves. The support of our missions teams gave them encouragement because we went to help them, not to step on their toes and "do it right" in a week. Churches need to consider the legacy their one week trip leaves behind.


Tony Myles


Tony Myles commented…

Also worth noting... you need to prepare spiritually for it or you waste a trip doing "good deeds" versus leading out of the overflow of your soul.

Carolyn Robe


Carolyn Robe commented…

Interesting: Does this article kind of allude to what Americans have done in other countries? I like the idea of studying what the US has done in its interventions in Latin America. Not always positive....

Scott Berry


Scott Berry commented…

I appreciate your post. There are positives and negatives to short-term missions. I credit a short-term mission trip to my present work in missions. Hopefully, churches are prepping their people so that the negatives are reduced. Pray Always.

Timothy Martiny


Timothy Martiny commented…

An interesting article, with some good points that mission teams need to hear.
Blessings from a fellow missionary.

Rachel Henn


Rachel Henn commented…

"Developing countries do not need short-term heroes. They need long-term partners. And if your group just wants to be a hero for a week, then you may be doing more harm than good."

Good stuff. When I went on my first and only short-term mission trip at the age of 14, this is something I (and I think the other students in my youth group) didn't fully comprehend.

Since then I've been torn between whether or not short-term missions are good or not (unfortunately, there is not one easy answer to this).

I love this article's perspective that we can go on short to mission trips to serve the long-term missionaries there!:

Also a thought provoking read/watch:

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