Probably everything that can be said about mission trips has been said. And probably everything that has been said is true somewhere. However, it is too big a phenomenon to ignore.
The last twenty years have seen an explosion of mission trips. Some estimate that one million Americans go on mission trips annually at a cost of $1 billion. Early on mission trips were mostly undertaken to stimulate missions commitment in the sending church: more giving, and praying, and producing more long-term missionaries. For years many of us have encouraged congregations to send their pastors and leaders to the mission field to give them first-hand experience and build their missions commitment.
Now people are traveling everywhere in the world for all kinds of reasons and no reason at all, and missions trips are part of this trend. Daniel Rickett said that mission trips are at the tipping point of becoming tourism. On the contrary, many Christians have seen needs elsewhere in the world and discovered ways they can contribute. Almost all new long-term missionaries have been on one or more mission trips. Others have maintained contact with people in remote parts of the world. Nearly anyone you ask will say the mission trip was a “life-changing experience.” The results of more research are coming to light, with mixed results. It seems a life-changing experience isn't what it used to be. Some people are attempting to build a life made up of a series of life-changing experiences. Some people who go on a mission trip come home two weeks behind in their work and find the washing machine broken, a tired wife, and a houseful of dirty laundry. This turns out to be another life changing experience, partially neutralizing the earlier one.
Mission trips are changing the way we view missions and do missions. Mission trips are a means to accomplish mission work on the field, to enlighten and disciple the ones who go, and to influence the congregation back home. At the same time, trips consume a great deal of missions energy both at home and on the field. Those who go return exhilarated, worn out, and two weeks behind. Unless the fires are deliberately stoked, they tend to die out.
While much good work is accomplished on trips, there are not infrequent reports that trips were more costly than beneficial, if not down right detrimental, on the mission field. The permanent life change we hope to see in the one who goes gradually fades back into normal American life. The congregation may not get the full impact because there is little opportunity to communicate and because of a failure to think clearly about what needs to be communicated. Not too long ago I heard a missions trip report that included no mention of giving, one appeal for prayer, and several enthusiastic appeals for people to go on trips. The primary result of most trips is more trips.
Mission trips are a means to accomplish mission work on the field, to enlighten and disciple the ones who go, and to influence the congregation back home."
I’ve never heard anyone say that their church’s regular missions budget (outside of giving for mission trips) has grown because of their mission trips. I'm sure it has happened but it doesn't appear to be a general expectation. It is clear, however, that an increasing proportion of many missions budgets is going to help support the trips. One of my friends told me that their church had notified a long supported missionary couple that they wouldn’t be able to support them any longer because they needed the funds for more missions trips.
While most new missionaries have taken mission trips, there is little evidence of a surge of new long-term missionaries.
An increasing number of churches are making trips a major part, sometimes the primary part, of their missions ministry. Others are using trips not for doing ministry but primarily as a discipleship tool. One young leader in a mega church told me that the reason they do mission trips is merely to disciple their people. There is no doubt that mission trips can be an effective discipling tool but subtly mission trips are becoming something we do for ourselves rather than a means of stimulating greater missions involvement and effectiveness in the world. When we find ourselves “using” missions as a tool for our own benefit, or doing missions in a certain way because it provides a means for personal involvement, and not to accomplish something for Jesus out in the world, we have gone off course.
The challenge is to do mission trips in such a way that they are productive on the field, they disciple the people who go, and they stimulate the congregation to greater missions commitment. This is no small challenge.
Church leaders always have to decide how to best use limited resources for Kingdom benefit. Which takes priority, investing in promising and productive missions strategies or supporting and caring for current long-term missionaries?
Historically congregations have been connected to missions through their missionaries who are their primary concern. Some churches idolize missionaries, the people who gave up everything to live for Jesus in far away places in the world. The support and welfare of their missionaries is their number one priority. One pastor told me, “We have never missed a check for our missionaries, and as long as I’m the pastor we never will.” They may have little idea what the missionaries are trying to accomplish, but their prayers are on behalf of the missionary and rarely the people they serve. They would not think of asking whether a missionary is effective or their ministry is strategic but whether he is safe and healthy.
Many churches do not have specific missions goals and priorities. Until recently the most common church goal was to raise as much money as possible for missions. Less attention was given to what was accomplished or attempted with the funds raised. Local church lay leaders are often unaware of various parts of the world and know little about cultures and mission strategies. They support and trust missionaries and mission organizations that have their own goals. The church missions strategy is a collection of the strategies of supported missionaries and organizations.
Many churches have lost touch with a number of the missionaries they support. Few people know them and they have little idea of what or how they are doing. New missions leaders may want to evaluate their missionaries but they may have unreasonable expectations. Is a church entitled to evaluate the ministry of someone with whom they haven't communicated and of whom they have only perhaps 5% of their support? Further, what standards apply? Could you use the same standards to evaluate your church? Others are highly critical of missionaries whose results aren't dramatic. They seem to assume church growth in a difficult environment should be rapid and dramatic like it happens to be in their church. One young missions pastor in a large suburban church told me their elders were considering disengaging with their missionaries in the 10/40 Window. They wanted to take a “high impact” approach like their ministry in the Canada. It seemed to be a new idea to him that “high impact” might look different in the 10/40 Window.
Becoming more strategic while taking care of our missionaries is a major challenge."
Occasionally a new missions committee takes their responsibility to become better stewards of missions resources seriously and they develop a good strategy. Wise leaders will consider the input of, and the consequences to, their far away and dependent missionaries. Alternatively, missionaries who may have pioneered the missions ministry in the church or been long time workers from the church may be unceremoniously dumped because they don’t fit into the new strategy.
Increasingly church leaders recognize that the congregation has become disconnected from missions and they work to get more people connected and involved. With fewer and time-limited services, there is little opportunity to help the congregation to learn to know all the missionaries on their roster. Even the missions team can't keep up. This leads to a desire to reduce the number of supported missionaries so that the church can focus more heavily on the ministry of a few. The same reasoning makes it difficult for new missionaries to obtain support unless they are highly regarded members of the congregation.
In reaction to the criticism that "churches only want your money," raising money has become an almost taboo topic in churches. In days past churches enthusiastically raised funds for missions. When people in the congregation were approached by individual missionaries for support, it was understood. As one fundraising missionary told me last week, "Young people don't have supported missionary models visiting and having dinner and being touted at church anymore. Support-raising, except for mission trips is foreign and odd."
The most natural forms of congregational involvement are mission trips and projects in the community. These require a great deal of planning and management. Many missions leaders are so busy with organizing these complex involvements along with their other church responsibilities, that they have little time to think about how or whether these high-involvement projects contribute to the larger goal of world evangelization. Becoming more strategic while taking care of our missionaries is a major challenge.