A couple days ago, I returned from a ten day short term mission trip to Bulgaria and it was an incredibly inspiring and educational experience. I learned so much about the history and culture of the country itself as well as the challenges the Christian church faces. I met with Christians from the middle east who had been persecuted for their faith and had been forced to flee, and preached every night at gatherings in gypsy communities.
The best thing about short term mission trips is the relationships that the team builds with the local church in the host country. It is one thing to read or hear about the Christians in another country, but it something quite different to be physically present, partnering with them in their own ministries and getting to know each other as people. Both parties, the host and the team, will learn from each other and be encouraged. Both parties’ understanding of what God is doing in the world will be enlarged.
When I preached in a Bulgarian church the first Sunday we were there, I preached on Ephesians 4:1-6, Paul’s famous entreaty for the Ephesian church to live in unity and remember that they are all baptized into one body, under one Lord, with one Spirit. This reality, I noted, is the only reason it makes sense for a group of six Americans to travel halfway around the world to worship with people we don’t know. Those of us in Christ are in the same family and have received the same Spirit, so our trip is a family reunion of sorts. When we worship with Christians from another country we are reminded that our primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of God, not whatever nation-state we happen to be born into.
Growing up, I loved the Sundays when missionaries would come and speak at church. I loved learning about the work they were doing in their own contexts and would often leave feeling more encouraged to live like a missionary in my own culture. I think, generally, people love learning about the wider world and meeting people from other places. When a short term team enters a host country, the church in that country generally enjoys having them there and learning about them.
If done well, both parties are encouraged and enriched by the encounter because each helps the other to learn things about themselves that they otherwise might not see. It is all too easy, for example, for American Christians to be fixated on creating church “experiences” that are efficient, run seamlessly, and begin and end on time. But when we worship in a culture that does not start church services on time and regularly drifts from the planned order of service to listen to a testimony or pray for a special need in the congregation, we see how sometimes our particular focus on efficiency distracts us from the work that God wants to do in us. Exposure to other ways of doing church helps both parties to understand what is merely a cultural preference, and what is truly important.
The objection to short term mission trips often regards their utility to create any lasting change in the host country. However, I think that the focus on creating long term change in another country is highly reflective of our American impulse to be fixers of the world. The most important thing for people on short term mission trips to know is that they are not going there to “fix” anything, but to learn, be blessed, and be a blessing to the hosts.
Achieving lasting change in any community or culture is something that takes many years, and is ultimately the responsibility of the culture itself. We cannot and should not presume to go and impose change on anyone else through a short term trip. Again, the purpose of a short term trip is not to enact any substantive change, but to build relationships between the Christians of the host country and the team.
In the end, I believe the relationships that are built are going to be the most substantial lasting change because neither party can emerge from the encounter as the same person. Building a school or digging a well, while good things in themselves, are actually very temporary. The relationships that are built between the team and the hosts, however, extend into eternity. If the host and the team are encouraged in their faith, have their understanding of God expanded, and live their lives more consciously as representatives of the Kingdom as a result of the short term mission experience, then it is all more than worth it.