I sit in a somewhat unique seat of having been both a participant on and a host for short-term mission trips. It is something that has shaped my life and my journey for more than twenty-five years. Most recently, I put a group of university students on the airplane back to the U.S. after two weeks with us. Not so long ago, that was me. I am grateful to get to participate in the formation of young adults through cross-cultural experiences, the opportunity to serve, and space to step outside the rhythms of their daily lives. I’m also grateful for the ways those opportunities have shaped me.
I’ve experienced short-term mission trips done well, and I’ve also experienced the challenges they can cause for host sites. I’ve seen buildings funded and built by volunteer missions teams that are too big to maintain or are poorly designed for the local climate; I’ve witnessed patterns of disempowerment and codependency; and I’ve seen evange-tourism that elevates the traveler while making a spectacle of the host culture. These are only a few examples.
Short-term missions at its best takes place when both the travelers and the hosts humbly come to the table with the very best of what they have to offer, prepared to give and receive with open hands and listening ears.
Yet, for all of their potential faults, short term mission trips can also play an important role in bringing people together, shaping broader worldviews, and advancing the work of the kingdom. They allow people to step across literal and figurative boarders. Short-term missions at its best takes place when both the travelers and the hosts humbly come to the table with the very best of what they have to offer, prepared to give and receive with open hands and listening ears.
In these circumstances, I’ve witnessed the Spirit work in the lives of hosts and travelers as they’ve bridged gaps between generations, cultures, languages, and socioeconomic status. I encourage people of all ages to participate in short-term mission opportunities, either as hosts or as travelers, knowing that God can use listening ears and open hearts to shape and transform people and communities.
In our most recent experience, the travelers (a group of students) came to the table with time, energy, and a willingness to serve however we needed them to. We needed creative energy as well as physical manpower to help make our plan for a school holiday program come to life, which they brought with gusto. Our community offered radical hospitality, a different lens for viewing the world, and an awesome group of kids to hang out with.
For the students, receiving hospitality meant lots and lots of time invested in relationships, eating other people’s food (which can sometimes feel unusual or uncomfortable), late nights when they may have preferred to be chilling at home, and kids wanting their attention constantly. It meant being fully present for relationships, asking lots of questions, seeing the world from a different perspective, and expressing genuine gratitude.
Our church community was delighted to have help facilitating the school holiday program—perhaps best described as “VBS on steroids”—as well as a youth group event and playgroup activities. But our church also gave a ton of time and resources by way of baked goods and snacks, meals and stories, listening ears, and vulnerability. There was a give and take that required everyone to be all in.
The result of such a genuine offering is true community. It is deep relationship that comes from looking in the eyes of another and seeing the image of God reflected back. It is a place where the kingdom breaks in and we forget to be “us” and “them” and become “we.”