Over the last forty years and more, short-term mission trips (STMs) have become very popular.  The number of people involved in, and the amount of money spent on, STMs have increased at amazing rates and grown to amazing totals.  According to a report by Liberty University in 2009, far more than a million Americans, mostly young people, go on an STM every year. If the average cost of such trips is $2,000, then the annual expense total is over two billion dollars!

As the report says, STMs are here to stay.

What is an STM?

Short-term missions cover a wide variety of activities and durations of time. They can include building projects, short teaching stints (such as VBSs), evangelistic services (the evangelist who preaches a revival meeting in a mission setting is on an STM!), helping in youth camps, filling in for a missionary on furlough, literature distribution, and many other helpful activities.STMs can range from about a week (a medical brigade with Evangelistic Faith Missions to Honduras, for example) to as many as two years (someone going to complete a specific project).

Ideally, an STM is a time spent in a mission setting in some ministry endeavor that is designed to help missionaries accomplish their tasks or help with a specific ministry project. The focus of an STM is on aiding the missionary and his ministry in the place where the STM is carried out. While there can be many benefits for those who participate in an STM, those gains are a secondary focus of the trip.

While there can be many benefits for those who participate in an STM, those gains are a secondary focus of the trip.

Some Potential Benefits of STMs

Short-term mission trips can be very beneficial. I have seen and been involved with several STMs that were very positive in their results.The annual medical brigades to Honduras that are sponsored by Evangelistic Faith Missions are an excellent example.  Doctors, nurses, and translators go with local pastors into villages where medical help is not available and put on one-day clinics.  Pastors preach to or personally evangelize those who come to the clinics. Children’s workers do special presentations to the kids who arrive.  Each year about a thousand people hear the gospel and receive medical help, and each year there are people who pray to be saved.

In Guatemala we hosted work teams from Teen Missions International. They came for six weeks and worked in rather large building projects. A chapel and other structures on the Bible institute campus in Jalapa, Guatemala, testify to their good work, and they were a wonderful example of Christian character to the people of that city.

One year we hosted a group of men from a congregation in Ohio who came to rebuild a church that had been destroyed in the 1976 Guatemalan earthquake.  They worked almost literally from dawn to dark and the people of the town, San Pedro Pinula, stood in amazement as they watched how the men labored together to quickly erect this new structure. This project was a major boost to the local congregation, which has outgrown that building and has, on their own, expanded it to satisfy a growing group of believers.

For several years a group of young people from a school in Bedford, Indiana, went annually to Jalapa, Guatemala, to help in the Christian school there.  These Indiana students presented special chapel services, provided special music, helped create teaching materials, assisted in minor remodeling projects, painted classrooms, and did a variety of things to help the teachers, who could then give more time to their teaching. The Guatemalan teachers and children have a lot of good memories from those special visits.

Where they are carefully planned and executed, STMs are a notable boost to the mission field where they serve.

I have also heard about STMs that were very successful with other missions.  Several people participated in the distribution of special evangelistic booklets at the 2012 Olympics in London. Stories came back about “that book that everyone is reading.”  Policemen and others were impressed by the message and I understand that good reports have come back from a number of countries where those booklets were taken by people who had received them in London.My own grandson went to Albania last year (2017) on a mission trip with young people from his church.  They participated in several activities, but their main focus was a youth camp. As a result of their ministry, eleven young people gave their hearts to the Lord.  My grandson is returning to Albania this summer as a team leader.

Bible college students doing missionary internships are another form of STM. I have heard many stories of missions students who not only learned more about their calling, but provided good help to the missionaries who were supervising their internships.  Caila Rice, serving on the Amazon River, returned for a year to continue some of the ministries that she had been involved with during her internship weeks.

STMs have the potential of providing much-needed help to missionaries. Where they are carefully planned and executed, STMs are a notable boost to the mission field where they serve.

Some Potential Problems with STMs

Unfortunately, not all STMs are carefully planned and carried out.  Not only have I seen some excellent results from short-term mission efforts – I have also, unfortunately, seen the damaging results of STMs that were not well-planned or that were attended by people who should not have participated.How well I recall one group that came to us to help with a building project!  The “workers” started late each day, took breaks often, stretched lunch times, and did work that was so substandard that we actually had a Teen Missions group tear it down and rebuild it. This group of people set off firecrackers on a bridge near the edge of our town, resulting in the police taking them to jail in an investigation of reported gunshots.  I had to visit the local police station to secure their release. Other incidents caught the attention of the townspeople, who later asked me if the members of the team were Christians.  Some of them were not.

One group of young people did some work on one of EFM’s mission fields. They were to open a recess in a concrete block wall to accommodate some remodeling that the missionary was doing. He cautioned them about their work, warning them that he did not want a hole all the way through the wall.  Not paying attention to his instructions, the youth broke open a large hole in the wall that created further work and expense for the missionary’s project.

In another case that I heard about, two members of the group were romantically attracted to each other.  The local missionary cautioned them about their behavior, telling them what would be acceptable and unacceptable in the local culture.  They did not heed his cautions and “carried on” in ways that brought reproach upon them and upon the STM group.

Short-term mission trips can be a great benefit to God’s work in other cultures.  They can also create some problems for the local missionary or the local church.  I believe that we all want to see positive, helpful, beneficial STMs from our churches and schools.  In future articles we will explore some factors that make for good STMs and some factors that hinder them.  We will also look at some ways in which we can help conserve good impacts upon those who participate in STMs.