WACO—If Jesus’ Great Commission to go and make disciples of all nations were viewed as a business, it would be booming—at least in terms of short-term mission trips. But is the spiritual profit worth the investment?
The number of United States Christians taking part in trips lasting a year or less has grown from 540 in 1965 to more than 1.5 million annually, with an estimated $2 billion per year spent on the effort, Robert Priest, a missiology professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, reported in a January 2008 article in Missiology journal.
Some who study missions have suggested the money might better be spent giving directly to a country’s Christian partners for spreading the gospel and offering medical aid, construction assistance or other help. Some long-term missionaries even have complained that culturally insensitive short-term mission participants do more harm than good by damaging relationships that had taken years to build.
But when it comes to a spiritual return on an investment of time, money and effort, researcher Dennis Horton—associate professor of religion at Baylor University and principal investigator of a study on the effects that short-term mission trips have on mission team members—says the answer to the question “Is it worth it?” is a qualified “yes.”
Research has revealed students who participate in short-term mission trips tend to have lower levels of materialism, greater appreciation for other cultures and a better understanding of missions as a lifestyle. In general, the greater the amount of trip experience, the greater the impact in all three areas, he said.
Two-thirds of short-term trips last two weeks or less, with a host of purposes ranging from evangelism to digging wells or teaching English-as-a-Second-Language classes.
On the surface, Horton said, the trips seem a win-win-win situation—for those who send participants, for team members who make the trips and for host countries.
“It is very much worthwhile. But I’m qualifying that by saying I think a lot of churches and groups need more follow-up to help mission team members incorporate what they’ve learned on their trips into their daily lives,” Horton said. “Long-term involvement, whether global or local, is where you see transformation taking place.”
About 600 students, most from Texas universities, and 48 short-term mission trip leaders participated in the study conducted by Horton and four Baylor University undergraduate research assistants—Claire Aufhammer from Pasadena, Calif.; Matt Berry from Idalou; Daniel Camp from Garland; and Amy Rozzi from Spring.
For long-term effects on those who go on short-term mission trips, some studies show little difference between those who have participated short-term trips and Christians who have not, Horton said. Patterns are similar in terms of giving, materialism and believing one’s culture is superior to others.
What makes a difference, according to virtually all studies, is pre-trip training, on-site mentoring and follow-up after the trip, he explained.
“We appreciate the zeal” of students, he said. “They want to be on the streets evangelizing. They say, ‘We need to get out there and share the gospel.’ But the missionaries are saying ‘Wait a minute.’ In many countries, the most effective way to reach others is through friendships built over time rather than quick presentations of the gospel that can endanger the work—and lives—of long-term missionaries and local Christians.
“The study shows that many short-term mission trip leaders are doing a much better job training their team members about cultural issues and connecting with host countries. They’re doing a lot of things right and learning from past mistakes.”
Recent guidebooks are aimed at helping trip leaders aid team members move from mission trips to a lifestyle of missions, Horton said.
“The desire is to ensure that short-term mission experiences become more than spiritual tourism in which participants travel to an exotic place, take a myriad of photos and return to their relatively isolated home environments, as well as their pre-trip behavior and routines,” he said.
But researchers found post-trip follow-up by team leaders, usually from churches, schools or mission agencies, falls short.
Because students may be scattered after the trips, it can be difficult to do much follow-up other than online or through periodic reunions, Horton said. Churches, campus ministries and Christian colleges that offer coursework can play a huge role.
In their study, Horton and his research assistants surveyed students with different amounts of short-term missions experience (and some without any) about their levels of materialism, ethnocentrism and their interest in long-term involvement in missions or ministry.
For some, the trips reinforced a calling to vocational missions. For those who were ambivalent, the trips clarified how or whether they would be involved in vocational mission work.
Many people make a commitment at Christian youth camps to become missionaries, Horton said, but “some find out a little bit more and say: ‘Oh, that isn’t for me. I can do this for a few weeks, but I like my technology, my comforts.’ It wasn’t that they didn’t still have an interest or wanted to work with local missions. But as far as vocational missions, they need to have a definite call and realize this is how God can best use them.”
Some opt against career mission work when they see its challenges.
“In some countries, there are immediate responses to the gospel, with hundreds of people becoming Christians, but in other countries, you could work for years and have only one or two convert to Christianity,” Horton said. “Students hoping to see instant results on a two-week trip may become discouraged in these areas where people need more time before responding in a positive way to the gospel."
Chelsea Nuttall, a Baylor University sophomore English major from Sugar Land, said a short-term trip broadened her understanding of missions: “Missions can be anywhere. It’s not just going global.”
For some, a trip strengthened commitment—among them Matt Lewis, a Baylor University sophomore communications major from Jacksonville. He worked with youth on volunteer student mission trips to the Czech Republic in 2007 and 2008.
He said that between trips: “I spent a lot of time in prayer and really tried to meditate and listen to what God was trying to say to me. … I got to reconnect with some of the youth there from the previous summer. It was great to see that the decisions they made the last year were still apparent in their lives. Seeing this really reinforces my belief that God is calling me into the ministry.”
Research involving students involved in short-term missions focused specifically on levels of ethnocentrism, materialism and involvement in long-term missions and ministry.
Of the 32 students who were interviewed after their trips, 29 said the trips had changed the way they see other cultures, with 17 mentioning increased respect and concern.
Almost half said they were less likely to see their culture as inherently superior. Most of the students who had been exposed to poverty on their trips said they had greater appreciation for what they have—or even disgust for American greed—but only a few mentioned concrete steps they had taken to lessen their materialism.
Horton and the four undergraduate student researchers presented their findings recently at the Southwest Commission on Religious Studies. Research was funded through Baylor’s Undergraduate Research and Scholarly Achievement program.