In 1976, the country of Guatemala suffered a severe earthquake. More than 25,000 people were killed, according to some estimates, and many thousands of buildings were destroyed. Some of those buildings included churches and Bible institute facilities belonging to Evangelistic Faith Missions.

In 1978, a group of young people came to Jalapa, where the Bible school was located, and spent six weeks doing construction work and children’s ministry. They did an excellent job. The young people were respectful, obedient, hard-working, and had learned skills that enabled them to effectively serve. They left behind a chapel building that stands firm today, over forty years later, and memories of their willing service to God and missions.

A short-term missions trip (STM) is a wonderful opportunity for “non-missionary people” to serve God in missions. An effective STM should pursue a number of goals, and proper planning and preparation are vital for hitting our targets.

Good objectives of an STM should include:

  • Helping and heartening the local missionaries in their work
  • Encouraging local believers (nationals)
  • Providing nationals with godly examples
  • Inciting participants toward further involvement in missions

One writer said that the STM’s purposes are “to demonstrate God’s love, to achieve life change in the participant, and to achieve a helpful goal.”

Although everyone wants the participants to enjoy their time on the STM, the goals of the trip should not focus on sightseeing, having fun, and taking vacation. There will almost always be some sightseeing and there will also be some fun times – but those are not the primary reasons for going to the mission field. An STM is a serious matter that should not be taken lightly.

Planning Steps

Contact the missionary on the field to learn what his needs are. What are some projects that a visiting group might do to help his ministry?  Small construction-type jobs provide common activities for a short-term group, but be aware that the mission house and local church probably don’t need to be repainted every summer!

Make sure that what you plan to do is a true help to the missionary or to the local believers. Erecting a wall where one is not needed is wasteful. On the other hand, even simple-sounding things like changing the oil in the mission vehicle, preparing visual aids for schools or children’s ministries, or having someone take over the cooking for a week, can be a big help to a busy missionary.

If you want to do something for the nationals, try to plan a project that they cannot do for themselves. In some cases STMs have increased the dependency of local churches by doing things for them that they could, and should, do for themselves.  I realize that this may limit some of your choices, but remember that our aim is to strengthen the national church, not just to have something for an STM team to do. Making the nationals more dependent does not help them.

Our aim is to strengthen the national church, not just to have something for an STM team to do.

Make sure the missionary has sufficient time and facilities for hosting a group or can arrange for them. Remember that you are going to impose on his regular schedule for a week or two, and he may not be able to give you that much time. Your planned trip may be during the annual assembly of the national church and neither the missionary nor the local believers will be able to attend to your needs. He may live in a small house and thus need to find accommodations for your group; and he may need to arrange for transportation for your group.

Be sure to have people on the team who can do the work that is planned. For a construction project, at least one person should be knowledgeable about building and be able to teach and supervise other members of the group.  If you are planning a teaching mission, make sure there are people capable of teaching and that they take materials along to make their classes meaningful.  And remember that there will probably be a language barrier. Can you include in the group someone who speaks the language of the country you’re visiting? Is the missionary comfortable with interpreting, or does he have someone available who can interpret for you?

Get an accurate estimate of the costs of the trip. I recommend that each participant purchase short-term travel insurance, which is readily available and relatively inexpensive. It should cover medical emergencies and even evacuations, as well as the loss of luggage or cancellation of fares.  No one wants to think about a participant falling ill or having an accident, but such things happen! Just doing something for God’s kingdom doesn’t exempt us from illness or mishap, and we don’t want to cause extra expense to the missionary or to the group with which he works.

Pay close attention to the recruitment of STM participants.  Give top priority to people who are truly interested in missions.  Since our STM focus is often on young people, try to include youth who have indicated a call to ministry, especially to missions.  An effective STM can be a great encouragement to a young person pursing a missionary calling.

Give top priority to people who are truly interested in missions.

Look for participants who are spiritually minded.  Your STM members should encourage missionaries and nationals alike by their examples in worship, faithfulness, obedience, submission, good attitudes, and the desire to see people won to Jesus.

Set a firm age limit. My recommendation is that no one younger than sixteen or seventeen be included.  You want to have responsible people who are capable of doing the needed work and doing it well and of behaving maturely.  

It might be best to not include dating couples on the STM. If they are included, make sure they abide by a strict code of behavior.  Many times things that we might allow here, such as holding hands or being together away from the group, are frowned upon on that mission field. Again, we want to set a good Christian example of obedience, not encourage the local young people to flaunt the rules.

The better the planning before you go, the better the chances are that your STM will be successful and will honor God.  Take time to plan, ask lots of questions of the missionary and of people with STM experience. You won’t be sorry that you made the effort to plan well!

Recommended Reading

A Guide to Short-Term Missions; H. Leon Greene: IVP Books (InterVarsity Press); Downer’s Grove, IL; 2012.  (4.7 stars on Amazon reviews)

How to Get Ready for Short-Term Missions: The Ultimate Guide for Sponsors, Parents, and Those Who Go!  Anne-Geri’ Fann & Greg Taylor; Nelson Reference and Electronic; Nashville; 2006.

Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands: The Best-Selling Guide to Doing Business in More Than 60 Countries; Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conaway; Copyright, Terri Morrison, 1995, 2006. (4.6 stars on Amazon reviews; used copies available)

When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself; Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert; Moody; Chicago; 2012.  Especially see Chapter 7, “Doing Short-Term Missions Without Doing Long-Term Harm,” pp. 150-162.