MUST-READ: Is Wes Widner right to oppose short-term mission trips?

Here’s a challenging post about short-term missions (1-3 weeks) from Wes Widner. Read and see what you think.

Excerpt:

One of the biggest elephants in the evangelical, missiological, soul-winning room is the lingering question of just how much good short-term mission trips are and whether or not they merely amount to sanctified vacations taken at the expense of others.

Now, to be fair, I’m not claiming that either the missionaries or those who fund them are intentionally nefarious. On the contrary; I believe that for the most part, those who go on short term mission trips and those who support them financially have honest evangelistic intentions. I am simply wondering whether we’ve fostered this “super spiritual” mindset around something we call “the mission field” and, as a result, neglect to ask the burdensome and unpopular questions of stewardship and effectiveness.

He explains how people misunderstand the great commission by thinking that it requires people to go to foreign lands, and then he writes this:

Because of this misunderstanding of the great commission and what it truly means to make disciples of those around us, we tend to overlook questions of stewardship and logistics. In fact, since we think the imperative is to go we tend to start to think that any cost is acceptable and questions of logistics are a mere nuisance.

How much does a round-trip plane ticket usually cost to travel overseas? $1,000, $2,000? More? Once you count the cost of food, lodging, transportation, etc. you can often approach figures well over $3,000 just to send a single person overseas. Is this really the best way to reach the lost?

I agree with him completely that it is not a good use of money to send laypeople as missionaries to foreign countries. However, I do think that it is worth it to send scholars with doctorates to foreign universities and other centers of influence to lecture and debate. So basically we agree on the stewardship question, except if the missionary is a scholar headed to a center of cultural influence. What laypeople can do instead of going themselves is to work hard in school, get good jobs, and to financially support Christian scholars in their studies and public events at home or abroad – e.g. – William Lane Craig debating Muslims in Turkish universities or debating atheists in Chinese universities, etc.

I also agree with Wes that the right way for laypeople to disciple non-Christians is to deal with the people who are around you in your workplace, etc. The thing is, it is much more difficult to build a relationship with non-Christians on the same social rung as you are who you have to work with day in and day out. That’s much harder because you have to live as a public Christian where you are, and let it affect your life more personally. This isn’t flying off somewhere to deal with poor strangers who you will never see again. It’s much easier to fly off somewhere and not to have to deal with people over the long-term. Flyig off to “do good” gives a person the feelings of “being good” and “doing something” but without any of the hard work and persecution of having peers equal to you in social standing seeing you every day bearing with suffering and striving for holiness. Instead of trying to squeeze feelings of goodness out of temporary experiences “helping the poor”, we should be dealing with the smartest and most challenging people in our own lives – family, friends and co-workers. It’s not as emotionally fulfilling and spectacular, but it’s where God has placed us. It’s harder, too.

Secretly sponsoring the PhD studies of an aspiring Christian philosopher, lawyer or scientist would be an excellent use of your money, although it is not as flashy or emotional as helping the poor in Africa. You can’t really tell people back home about your spiritual experiences signing a check to bring in William Lane Craig to debate. You can’t really show impressive pictures of yourself working overtime to keep your job so you have money to support influential Christians like Michele Bachmann or Jennifer Roback Morse. But we have to ask ourselves which is more effective – not which caters to our emotional needs to get attention to force spiritual experiences and to feel good about ourselves.

More Wes:

Why do we go? Why do we really go? If our real aim is to make disciples as we are commanded to, then we will gladly step back and examine the questions raised above (and many will come to the conclusion that short-term, long-distance mission trips are simply not a good idea) but I believe the main reason most Christians go is to satisfy a desire for an emotional experience which they equate with “being close to God”. And therein lies the heart of our dilemma.

In the end, what’s the difference?

When we take vacations, we are expecting experiential reward. We don’t expect to leave a lasting impact on the lands we travel to, and we expect to receive a euphoric high from our experiences. Sadly, most testimonies I hear from short-term missionaries are wholly self-centered (though they are couched in a plethora of “Jesus speak”) with the focus being on the person as opposed to the message and often with little thought as to the lasting impact and cost vs. benefit to the congregation that helped send them.

We have a responsibility to God to think about what we are doing and produce results for him. We need to stop having pictures taken of ourselves hugging children in foreign countries, and to instead think about working hard in school, studying hard things that matter, and saving our money, so we can actually move the ball forward. I know lots of Hollywood celebrities who make a big deal out of supporting animal rights and global warming, but they want nothing to do with chastity, fidelity, marriage, parenting, etc. Christians should not be thinking of Christianity as a fashionable cause that allows them to feel good and be recognized by others. We’re not Hollywood celebrities. We’re supposed to be concerned with truth, not feelings.

13 thoughts on “MUST-READ: Is Wes Widner right to oppose short-term mission trips?”

  1. Outstanding post. I agree completely and I believe that some thought on this subject is long overdue by the Christian community. My wife and I have had this discussion a zillion times in our home.

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  2. In order to make sure I understood, I followed the link to see how you define short term missions.

    If you had meant a weekend or a week, only, I could do little but agree. Even a month, I would suspect falls into this concern.

    But the link says, up to a year.
    Wes, do you mean up to a year?

    The reason I ask is because I live in a small county that has had up to three missionary organizations operating at one time. We are down to two now, due to the fact that one moved to a different state.

    And what they do is go in, usually for a month or more, taking young people after they have trained their young people in schools. Then the young people go in, along with experienced leadership, and they hold schools overseas. One of these organizations does seminars to teach the nationals how to be children’s workers since the children are so often overlooked in many of these cultures and thus lost. They also go in to establish libraries of children’s resources for children’s workers within existing churches.

    Also, I look at these trips as probably the best, most cost effective way to weed out those who really aren’t up to it while at the same time it gives those who are up to it a taste of what it is REALLY like to go overseas. It’s a good thing for them to see and experience firsthand because it ain’t glamerous. It’s hard work.

    So while I understand the uber-practical concerns of questioning the cost-effectiveness of short term missions, I wonder whether taking such a stand is really taking everything into consideration, things that go well beyond financial considerations.

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  3. If your points are that it is wrong to go on trips with selfish motives or without careful planning then I’d put that in the “stating the obvious” category.

    But having just gotten back from a successful short-term mission trip I offer the following.

    Relationships are important. Successful short term missions aren’t one-time activities. Our conference sends multiple teams to the same area within the same year and from year to year so there is continuity and relationship building. It is great to re-connect with brothers and sisters in Christ. They truly appreciate the support and tell us that while they appreciate the money they desire the relationships as well.

    People who go on mission trips tend to write more and bigger checks to help these missions and they encourage others to do the same. There is nothing like a personal touch to help people get excited about missions.

    There is nothing wrong with spending your own time and money to do what you want to do. What are you guys, socialists? If people like visiting remote areas to help meet physical needs and facilitate the spread of the Gospel, why be prideful about your personal preferences? Re-read Romans 14.

    Among other things, the trip I went on helps support a hospital which shares the Gospel with patients and their friends / families. It involves building homes for AIDS orphans which gets the church out in the community so they can share the Gospel.

    We took a Faith Comes by Hearing “Proclaimer” device which has the New Testament in Kiswahili. It can be charged via solar power so it can go to remote villages. We showed them how it works and plan to take more later. This will help get the word of God to patients at the hospital and to remote churches. I am really excited about that aspect of the trip.

    We did Vacation Bible School at a church / school in a Nairobi slum and did some token construction work. The interactions were great and this will help others get excited about supporting this church in a difficult mission field.

    I could go on, but you get the idea.

    And there is nothing wrong with helping with people’s physical needs.

    And worshiping with people in other cultures is a great experience.

    And people who go on short term missions may get a desire to do long term missions.

    Again, if people run ineffective trips or use bad motives then by definition they will be unproductive. But I wouldn’t be so judgmental about all short term mission trips. I’m all for discernment and wise giving, but please stay open to other perspectives.

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  4. Good post. Long term investments reap greater rewards. Also, local gospel workers have an advantage in evangelism. They have community ties, they understand local culture and challenges better, and they speak the local languages.

    I think the exception would be a short term mission to “spy out the land” – i.e. to assess whether one is suited to addressing a long term need for missions. This would be for places with a serious shortage of missionaries. At the fall of the Soviet Union there was a serious need for missions in Eastern Europe, for example. However, it is better to support local missionaries financially if these exist. The Biblical model we see is as follows: 1) If there are no local missionaries, send missionaries. One of the chief tasks of these missionaries is to train leaders and missionaries in the local population. 2) Once there is a base of solid local missionaries, hand over the work to the locals. If assistance in training and finances is still required, provide that. Try to build up local training centres and theological colleges as well.

    There are international missions organizations which support local gospel workers in countries around the world and if one has a heart for the need of people in a particular country one can contribute via these organizations. Mission without Borders is a good one.

    There is also a case for sending missionaries if the church in a particular country is in a bad state, particularly with liberal theology. The church in Britain is in a sorry state. As a result there is a recent movement to send African missionaries to Britain. The countries in need of evangelization are not always the ones we immediately think of…

    Financial support may not have a “spiritual” glow about it, but giving to gospel work is vital. When you read stories of missionaries, there are always people around them who contributed financially to make it possible. God brought those people together. Working to give to God’s work is a calling.

    I also like the point you make about evangelization among one’s colleagues. We need to be sensitive to where God has put us and the needs of people around us. So you may be in a particular job just so that you can reach people there. Or maybe you are meant to do missions when you meet people at gym. The opportunities abound, if we will only open our eyes.

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  5. Good points from Neil and Mara. The series of short trips is very valuable. Our church sends a team on a regular basis to a theological college in a neighbouring country which is struggling financially. Our church members provide material resources and those who go up help wherever they can. The relationships are also a huge source of encouragement on both sides.

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  6. Thanks for writing this post, Wintery.
    I’m sorry if I appear harsh in the rest of this comment, I do not purposefully mean to be but I must say I do very much disagree with a lot of you and wes have said. I also apologise for the length of this comment but I feel it must be said and I do hope you will persevere and read it til the end.

    My parents (both english) have been m workers in Turkey for over 20 years each, I lived there for 9 years, they are now m workers in london reaching out to turkish and kurdish asylum seekers here, thinking about going to bulgaria, turkey, azerbaijan or afghanistan after i finish my bachelor’s degree. They have witnessed and organised COUNTLESS ST missions, and I went on my first one without them last summer when i was 17. So I think my parents and I may have more experience in dealing with this than wes or you do.

    Now I don’t know why in this post about mission you did not once quote the Bible or did not ONCE even think to ask missionary even for their opinion. It’s like the Democrats getting to power and regulating small businesses which they fundamentally don’t understand and have never dealt with. You’ve just done the exact same thing and it makes me mad.

    The country I went to was a muslim country in the middle east (begins with s) which is VERY VERY closed, with an authoritarian government where it is almost impossible to do any kind of evangelism. There are very very few missionaries there and the ones that are there do not do overt evangelism for fear of getting thrown out. We first went to a neighbouring country (starts with an L) which is very very free and learnt some arabic, practiced some evangelism and distribution and prayed and read scripture together. We met missionaries there and they helped us and explained what we would do, how we would do it, they prayed with us and helped us. We then went into this other closed country, smuggling hundreds of new testaments and jesus dvds in our luggage. (there were 4 of us)

    we then went around this country doing high-risk evangelism and distribution, and we expected at some point to be arrested by secret police and be deported. WE WERE TOLD BY THE ORGANISATION SPECIFICALLY NOT TO MEET A SINGLE MISSIONARY IN THIS COUNTRY BECAUSE WE WERE DOING THINGS THAT THEY COULDN’T!!!
    You see, wk, a long term m cannot just go out onto the street and start giving out NTs if they want to build a long term ministry. They will be either in prison or out of the country within a day. Because we were doing high risk work, we were told not to meet or contact any ms in that country in case they were linked to us. We were able to do this high risk work because if we got deported we could just do work in the free country which began with an L.

    So actually, what we did was something that long term workers COULDN’T do. We gave out almost 300 new testaments in that country in a total of just TWO WEEKS in this area, and I had quite a few good conversations despite my complete lack of arabic in which some people even came close to accepting Christ as their Lord and Saviour.

    But I hear the cry already, “Ohhh but that’s just an extreme example. We can ignore it! Most countries can have long term ms doing whatever they want” NO. My experience will be similar to that of most short term missions in the WHOLE middle east, many parts of north africa, india, china, iran, the istans (turkmenistan, tajikistan etc.) in asia and countless others. Basically, the places in the world that are the most unreached are the countries in the 10/40 window.
    If you do not know what the 10/40 window is then you are simply not interested enough in world mission.
    And I mean that.

    And exactly THESE places, the NEEDIEST places, are the places that need short term missions so much, because they can do things that long term ms can’t.

    And this was a TWO WEEK mission. And I had a LOT of trouble getting the money together for this trip, because there were too many people with attitudes like the ones in THIS post. Getting new testaments out to muslims who have never heard the gospel ranks pretty high on my financial priorities, how about yours?

    Now what about in london, where my parents currently work and organise short term missions (ranging from 2 weeks to 2 years)? Yes, there are people coming from america, south korea etc. Well, let me explain. They are a huge help. They enable my parents to distribute hundreds of invites across large areas and council estates which otherwise would have been impossible. When the events DO happen, they are able to meet with the people that come, because there are so many that my parents wouldn’t practically be able to talk to them all. They also get trained in islam, middle eastern culture, polemics, history, arabic, turkish, theology, devotions and prayer.

    When they go back to their country, they can use these skills they are motivated to do evangelism like they have never done before. Their eyes have been opened. The asylum seeker they ignored they now try and understand and tell them the Gospel. They understand islam more, so they hed down to their local mosque to speak to some muslims, try and understand and ultimately try and tell them the truth about Jesus.
    OR their sponsors instead could have given their money to a particular political candidate who they think is perfect in every way and want to become president because they are putting their trust in politicians and not God, and then the politician could stop the building of mosques in cities instead of spending that money on getting people to evangelise those muslims (which ironically would actually stop them building mosques anyway if they became christians!!!)

    Also, people who had never before thought of long term mission work now have a taste for it that they simply can’t forget. They are energised and suddenly all their plans for a “successful”, comfortable life in the west get shattered into a million pieces and instead they go to live a life in a poor muslim country, which is exhausting, discouraging and not at ALL glorious or comfortable. After going on this short term mission, they end deciding to sacrifice their worldly ambitions to be a humble, unrecognised missionary in a third world country that they never ever would have done had they not done this short term mission.

    Now what about in the Bible? Do we see short term missions happening?

    Do I even need to ask that question?
    How on earth do you think paul was able visit and spread the gospel in all those different cities and countries in such a short span of time??
    DOH….MAYBE it’s because he was doing short-term missions!!
    Oh, and how did he get the money?
    By the churches (read: group of christians) in the cities supporting him.
    Read romans, at the end of that letter he asks the church there to give him cash so he can go to rome and then spain to spread the gospel on a short term mission trip.
    Many scholars even think that that is the focus point of the letter, ie the point of him writing it.

    Now, do you think we should be sending more missionaries to the U.S.A., where there is a church on almost every street corner, where at the click of a button someone is a click away on the internet from hearing the gospel?
    Or in a muslim country FULL TO THE BRIM of people who have never even HEARD of the gospel?

    How many hours a week do you pray for missions, that there would be disciples of all nations?
    How many prayer letters are you getting from mission partners?
    How much of your disposable income are you spending on supporting hard working missionaries?
    How much are you giving for the young guy or girl in your church who is trying to get the gospel out to muslims but can’t because you don’t think it’s a good cause?

    Before you answer those questions, stop moaning and groaning from the sidelines and do some research, ask some missionaries for some advice, pray for them and for goodness sake give them some money!

    The main problem of the western church in the 20th century was anti-intellectualism.
    The main problem in the 21st century, looking at these blogs at this rate, will be complete lack of appreciation for world mission.

    /END OF RANT!/

    Please don’t ignore this comment, please respond.
    Thank you :)

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    1. Paul spent an average of 3 years in a place. That certainly was short-term by the standards of the time but that in no way lends biblical support to the modern practice of jetting around the world to a foreign land, spending a few days there, and then jetting back.

      Additionally, what you describe above is what WK and I both have accounted for which is the use of short trips as part of a larger strategic goal. However I would argue that your experience falls in the minority of Christiandom.

      The reality is that most churches in the US, particularly around where I life in the Bible-belt, advertise short-term mission trip as perks of joining their particular church.

      “Now, do you think we should be sending more missionaries to the U.S.A., where there is a church on almost every street corner, where at the click of a button someone is a click away on the internet from hearing the gospel?
      Or in a muslim country FULL TO THE BRIM of people who have never even HEARD of the gospel?”

      Why do we need to send anyone anywhere? If you have a heart for Muslims, you’ll end up structuring your life so that you are near Muslims.

      However I think the whole mentality of targeting people groups as opposed to targeting “the lost” is the problem here. There are lost people everywhere. A lost person in Turkey is no more or less important than a lost person in America. Even if there is a church building on every corner.

      “Before you answer those questions, stop moaning and groaning from the sidelines and do some research, ask some missionaries for some advice, pray for them and for goodness sake give them some money!”

      I lived in a missionary house. Had/have missionary friends. And worked for a missions organization for a couple of years. I hardly think your appeal to any supposed ignorance on my part is valid.

      The truth is that it was my involvement with missionaries that led me to my conclusions. Not a lack of information as you suppose.

      “The main problem in the 21st century, looking at these blogs at this rate, will be complete lack of appreciation for world mission.”

      My niece has been pressed into going on a mission trip. My niece is 13 and has no solid biblical training as of yet.

      Now I would really like to know how pressing untrained people into jetting around the world is preferable to their staying where they are, learning and maturing, and then being a missionary in their own back yard.

      No, what is really the problem in the 21st century is Christian rock-starism, and an undue emphasis on foreign missions is a great hindrance in this area.

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      1. I think we all run in different circles, subsets of Christianity.

        Wes, your experience brings a certain amount of wisdom to the table. But your wisdom is more for your subset. The wisdom needed for my subset is a bit different.
        This doesn’t mean that your wisdom isn’t wisdom. It just isn’t applicable to every subset.

        I live in a small county with three separate and distinct missionary organizations. And not one of those three engages in this crazy, jet off for three days, business. Nor have any of them ever pressured anyone, esp. not 13 year olds, into service.

        So while I hear you, realize that your subset is worlds apart from mine and your statements cannot be used as blanket statements for all subsets of Christianity.

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  7. I am not well educated in the mission field. My questions have been surfacing based on the fact that our church is struggling financially so much that we may not be able to pay our pastor. I wonder about the mission trips to tropical islands for a week now and then that are so expensive. Of course it’s not mine to say right or wrong. But I work at a church in a community not far from my own church. There are so many lost, so many homeless and cold and hungry, so many children in the group homes. I can’t help but think “why not go down the street and help there” I always hear them say what a difference they made in someone’s life at these places. But i know, because the church i work at does tremendous outreach in this community that they would make a difference here too. Then all the money raised for missions could go to the general fund and keep the church from failing. I just can’t help but think of it and that’s why i’m posting. I don’t want to judge anyone or question motives I know we can all be convinced one way or another on almost anything. Just my thoughts

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