A rant for those who are against short-term missions

I’m writing this post in the back of a minibus after a long day. After 10 minutes of initial chitchat the bus has fallen silent.

We are en route back to the small seminary in Guatemala City from the tiny village, Caldera, a community of a couple hundred families living on a mountain meadow which hangs on the downslope of an active volcano.

I’ve now had 24 hours to get to know this team from a Christian school in the Philadelphia area. For about half of them it’s their first experience outside of the United States. For the other half they’ve been on 1-2 trips. Elijah, the group leader, has traveled extensively and been a part of many mission trips.

The team is great. They have great attitides, they aren’t afraid to work, and their hearts have been well prepared for the experience before them. Obviously, that starts and ends with leadership.

A great short-term mission experience comes from a well-blended cocktail of:

  1. A trip leader who spends lots of time and energy building into students and preparing them.
  2. An organization that has done its homework, careful to craft an experience that both suits the needs of the people coming and builds the framework of a partnership with local leaders who know what to expect .
  3. You have to have partner churches/organizations who are prepared for the guests… Not just meeting their physical needs, but holding a posture of looking to give and take, as with any partnership.

The project I’m working on this week has that cocktail. I don’t know if the team senses it yet, but this is going to be a great trip.

About Today

Today the team got started on building a small fruit stand. The current stand, basically the pastor’s front porch, is a source of income which helps him fund his ministry. The new stand is separate from the house and closer to the road.

But the team is also putting a concrete roof on the stand for a unique purpose: A volcano shelter.

A few years ago the volcano erupted, sending ash and rock into the sky. Unfortunately, the rock and ash came down on the village… Fiery rocks fell on the town then covering it in a meter of ash. Before they were evacuated people sought shelter in the church, but their thin metal roof provided little protection as hot rocks flew through the roof. So the new fruit stand will have a reinforced concrete roof in the event that there is another eruption; people will have a safe place to find refuge.

Other than that, today the team got to know the village a little by exploring and inviting families to services. We also have started to get to know our hosts both in Guatemala City and Calderas.

Ivory Towers

This afternoon I was struck by the sincerity of it all.

Sometimes I’m just too industry savvy, you know? I know youth ministry and short-term missions very well from the organizational side of things. I know about the money, the good guys and the bad. And knowing too much has a tendency to remove the magic on what happens on a short-term trip, I’m a little jaded.

But today was different. The sincerity of the students who’ve come and the host church who’ve waited for them in anticipation, cut through any jadedness I might have had.

Truth be told, there is plenty of internal and external criticism facing short-term missions.

Internally, organizations struggle with mixing the cocktail I mentioned above. It’s really and truly hard to get it right. And it takes top to bottom focus to keep it right, which takes a lot of energy, effort, and transparency. So they struggle to get it right but are acutely aware of their shortcomings. And just like I carry some jadedness… You can imagine that for trip leaders who see a new group each week, there is enough questioning and self-doubt internally without external critique.

But there is the external critique. There are lots of cynics about short-term missions, some deserved and some not. But let’s acknowledge these external voices often come from Ivory Towers, people who aren’t on the ground… Aren’t aware of the daily struggles of organizations like Praying Pelican, but only espouse their cynical, oft outdated view that short-term missions is somehow an extension of 19th century imperialism and not at the very heart of missio deo.

Those people in Ivory Towers hide their laziness and uneasiness with the actual work of Mission behind the veil of do-good pseudo-intellectualism. They’ve read a book, they’ve listened to voices they admire deconstruct or second-guess methodology outside of their expertise or pay-grade, and then they repeat these views as their own, as if they were based upon absolute fact instead of opinion…. While they themselves have not seen what they complain about with their own eyes or if they have, it was decades ago when they were a youth pastor, it’s likely been years since they’ve actually been with teenagers! (Ironically, many of these voices are planting churches… Because that’s an industry completely free of good guys and bad guys, right? Plank meet eye.)

In short, those with an Ivory Tower objection to short-term missions are, in my opinion, in desperate need to see contemporary short-term missions with their own eyes.

It’s always easy to second-guess something you refuse to participate in. To them, I simply invite them back… To experience missio deo not just on paper or in your local community, but come and walk with the larger church. Be reminded of the power of stepping outside of your experience and culture to serve the needs of the broader church. A check will never cover your presence. So stop pretending it’s the same.

Those who think short-term missions is somehow automatically pimping the poor haven’t met Tyler, a high school student who very sincerely shared his faith with Hugo. They’ve not met Rachel who seemed to re-confirm her faith in Christ tonight while sharing her testimony. And they’ve not taken the time to observe Nate, who encouraged a room full of parents tonight with his short message from Ephesians 2.

For further consideration, the flip side is that short-term missions is often the only place teenagers and young adults are empowered (and depended upon) to actually lead. I think one of the reasons short-term missions is so valuable for students is because it’s often a place they are treated like adults, where they don’t watch “the pastor show” but actually get to live out their faith. So if not on a short-term trip… Then where?

So here’s my advice: Don’t over think short-term missions. Don’t let your cynical side lead. Don’t fall into the trap of higher criticism. Instead, Partner with an organization you can trust and allow it to be what it is: Simple.

And then, when you actually have some skin in the game, let’s address your concerns.


This week I’m in Guatemala with our missions partner, Praying Pelican Missions. If you want to learn more about PPM or their work in Guatemala, fill out the form below and I’ll follow-up with you next week.

Published
Categorized as Guatemala

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in the San Diego neighborhood of Rolando with their three children.

2 comments

  1. Once again Adam well done Blog well done !!!!! It truely made me think about what my son ( Tyler ) and the west-mont team is truely doing there even if just for a short time of 10 days ! What a blessing !!!!

  2. Here is my complaint with (some) short-term mission trips — it is with those who participate for what they perceive as a purely altruistic purpose, but end up express it as wanting to “help those poor people who are so disadvantaged.” Such an attitude is similar to the pastor who has a messiah complex. Neither is a healthy form of ministry. That’s why the preparation portion of the cocktail you mention is so important. That preparation is about much more than logistics; it is also about attitude and approach to ministry.

Leave a Reply