What follows was originally a paper written for my Church Administration class at Northeastern Baptist College in January 2019. It has been adapted into its present form.
Churches have a number of functions, many of which are specifically local. It is within the local context that a church baptizes believers, interacts with its community, carries out discipleship, practices communion, participates in regular corporate worship, and invests in the lives of one another. If, however, we are to understand the church as being a vehicle for the Great Commission to carry the gospel of Christ to all the world, as Baptists hold, then there needs to be some means by which the local church functions on a global stage. Now, no local church body can carry out the fullness of its mission on a global scale--people from Malaysia simply will not attend a communion service in Iowa on a regular basis--so how is the global function of the local church related to the local function?
Historically, the primary means by which the local church extends its mission to the global stage has been by sending out individuals who have a working partnership with the local church and operate in a different, frequently overseas, local context. A working partnership is more than simply sending money, however, and requires that the church actually participate in global work on a fairly regular basis. This is the basic purpose of short term mission trips: to participate in and support the work of the church outside of the immediate local context. Short term missions, however, are a fairly new phenomenon in American Christianity. Bob Garrett, then-professor of missions at Dallas Baptist University, wrote in 2008 that “In the 1960s and into the 1970s most denominational mission boards and missionary sending agencies were still sending out exclusively career personnel” and went on to explain that the rise of short term missions was not only unexpected, but actively opposed by some. As such, there is much about the practice of short term mission trips to be clarified and understood.
Operating in this manner requires a great deal of planning, and the local church must have an understanding of what it is they are trying to do by sending short term mission trips and how best to accomplish those goals. This article is intended to give an overview of some of the primary concerns that arise in planning a trip, with a particular focus on the role of the church administrator in planning, organizing, and carrying out both a church policy of short term missions and individual trips a given church may send out.
The success of a church short term mission trip depends in large part on the work of the church administrator. The fact is that mission trips require far more planning than picking a location and getting to work. Even when traveling to assist an established long term missionary, there are a wide range of variables that have to be addressed and balanced to ensure that the trip has a clear goal that can be achieved and that the work is carried out well. In A Guide to Short Term Missions, H. Leon Greene notes that “Commonly, in the spring, thoughts turn toward a summer mission trip. This is not nearly enough time to complete your preparations.” Greene’s concern is that there is so much work involved in planning an effective trip that preparations should start far earlier; he states in the same paragraph that “ideally, a member of the team should visit the site a year before the team’s departure date.” Note that planning under this model does not begin a year before the trip. After all, the person who scouts out the site has to know what site they are going to in the first place. Planning has to begin early enough to have someone ready to visit the site a year before the trip.
Over a year of planning and organizing cannot be done as the background noise of someone partially invested in the work. Such a task must be given over to someone who is committed to the operational side of the mission, who can think about long-term objectives, and who understands the facets of planning a successful trip. In a church large enough to have a dedicated church administrator, this would be part of their work, in conjunction with any missions coordinator the church may have. For any other church, however, someone needs to take on the responsibility of organizing the missions work of the church. A volunteer missions coordinator should be selected with a great deal of discretion; they are taking on a highly important role, and the church needs to know that they are committed to the work, sound in their theology and goals, and submitting to the pastor and the church.
Churches should have a missions policy. Having an established system can eliminate a host of issues that arise in mission planning. A good church mission policy should cover, at the very least, any location preferences the church may have (such as overseas, domestic, only places with missionaries the church supports, etc.), criteria for members of the trip which includes an acknowledgement that some people are called to personally participate in non-local mission and some simply are not, fundraising policies to cover the costs of trips (if not addressed elsewhere), and specific point people who are responsible for determining whether or not a given trip suggestion will be pursued by the church.
Once this policy is in place it can guide much of the process that follows. Any trip that simply does not conform to what the church is able to support will be revealed quickly before resources, including time, are spent on it. The issue of calling is a major one, however. A recognition that there is an actual calling involved in cross-cultural mission ensures that the vetting process for personnel, especially trip leaders, is focused on working under God’s design instead of just filling a trip with an impressive number of people. Mission trips will not be as effective if they do not have at their core the understanding that God wants this set of people in this place to accomplish this work. A church policy for mission trips should aim to ensure that they are built to this standard.
There are a number of issues that need to be addressed before detailed planning on a trip can begin. The first really is simply determining where the trip will be and when. Nearly every resource available on planning a trip suggests going where there is an established long term missionary who has a relationship with the sending church. If a given church has existing relationships with multiple missionaries, one will have to be chosen to receive a team. Garrett notes, “Realities on the ground should play a key role in determining the specific work of the trip,” and one of the easiest ways to accomplish this is to ask a number of missionaries about their needs and work that they want support on which the missionary and their community can continue after the short term team has returned home.
The reason it is advised to get trip ideas from long-term missionaries and to let them set the course of the work is that there is growing concern over how we do short term trips. The Catholic Church, for instance, published an article in 2015 in which the Mike Gable introduced his premise with the statement, “I am convinced mission offices, parishes, and schools across the United States need to stop funding and sending harmful, arrogant, and poorly trained short-term mission groups.” The reason for this blunt condemnation is what Gable refers to as a “‘heroic’ model of mission” that relies on the notion that Europeans and North Americans have “a sacrificial duty to ‘bring civilization and God’ to the so-called ‘pagans’ who supposedly needed Western culture to be fulfilled human beings.” This description of the actual effects of this mission style reverberates across denominational lines. Gable notes evidence that points to communities receiving teams agreeing to whatever idea the teams have, out of concern for offending their guests, even when the work is not beneficial to the community and may actually need to be undone as soon as the team leaves. In an interview, anthropologist Jeff Haanan argued,
I am not for the narrative that has typically driven these trips: ‘We are going because there’s this tremendous need out there that we have to meet. And there’s this burden that we have as the wealthy country to go and do something in another place.’ I support transforming this narrative so that it becomes, ‘How can we connect with what God is doing in other parts of the world? How can we learn to be good partners with Christians already in these places? How can we participate in what the church is already doing in these countries in effective ways?
The solution Gable points to is a relational one. Gable notes, “A recent study shows most U.S. mission groups prefer construction projects, while most host communities prefer building long-term relationships humbly walking together in Christ. Only after partnerships of trust and respect have matured should it be appropriate to discuss possible service and social justice projects together.” The fact is that we can talk a great deal about bringing the gospel into a new context, about learning the culture so as not to unnecessarily offend the people we minister to, about doing work that they need, but if we do not listen to them about what would be a blessing to them, none of that will matter. We must begin with a relationship, ideally through a long-term missionary or a native pastor, and respect their knowledge of the needs and gifts of the community rather than beginning with work we would like to do and then looking for someone we think can use it.
If a number of missionaries have provided ideas for teams to address, the church administrator or individual responsible for planning trips should take time to examine each, alongside the actual resources of the church, to determine which ones are feasible. A church with no young people and a lack of construction-minded members will simply not be a great benefit to a community that needs houses built. A church with a poor congregation may have difficulty raising money to support an extended stay or a project that involves a large amount of supplies.
During this stage, members of the church can be approached about prayerfully considering taking part in a trip. Those who are interested should be aided in establishing a network of supporters who will pray for the trip and the individuals from that point until the team has returned home. Looking at the gifts and calling of those who feel led to participate may be very helpful in narrowing down the options for where the team will go and what kind of work they will perform while there.
Once the works that cannot be done by the sending church or do not fit the mission of the church have been ruled out, that which remains can be investigated further. Gathering more information on the exact details about what would be needed for each possible trip, examining the urgency of each idea, and pitching these ideas to potential team members and leaders may make one option stand out as the best fit for this body at this time. It may instead result in multiple trips being planned for different times. Once the church has decided upon a specific trip to plan at this time, the next phase can begin.
Earlier, Greene was cited as calling for someone to visit the site of the trip a year in advance. This is identified because quite a lot actually has to happen during that year. In Greene’s book, he described events where going early enabled a team leader to differentiate between two possible sites in the same community and determine which one was best for the planned work, and others where early treks to the community clarified difficult travel options and ensured that the team knew how to get where they were going and how long it would take to get there. The person visiting early can take note of what supplies the team may need and their availability, as well as any local wildlife or plants that people in the team may need to be ready to encounter. It is not that those who live there cannot be trusted to know their own environment, but that someone who lives with certain conditions and handles them regularly may not think them notable enough to mention to a visitor. Everyone in my family has hit at least one deer with a car in their life, with one exception, but I have never warned someone going to my home area from Massachusetts to watch for deer on the road. It did not register to me that there are fewer deer here, and people are not as accustomed to watching for them, until people began responding with surprise to my stories about being in cars that hit deer. Having someone who comes from the same context as the church group check out the site will bring up things that people from that context need to know about the one they are entering. An early trip also initiates an ongoing conversation between the team leader and anyone already on the ground, which helps deepen the relationship between the team and the community and provide updates on changing situations in the community.
That year gives the team members, who have already been building a team of people to pray for them, time to begin raising any necessary funds. It gives them time to get passports if needed, to request time off work, to make arrangements to be dropped off and picked up at the location where the team will meet for their journey. It gives the church time to arrange transportation, buy tickets, and secure housing at lower costs. According to Forbes, the best time to buy plane tickets, for example, varies by season but usually falls into the window of two to three months in advance. Having solid plans nine to ten months before buying plane tickets gives the church ample time to know exactly who needs those tickets.
During this year, if the team is traveling out of the country, it is also important to have team members visit their doctors and make any necessary arrangements for vaccinations, prescriptions, or other medical concerns specific to the location. If the team will be arriving in the summer and the scout visited the summer before, they can give the team detailed information about some of the concerns they noticed thriving at that time, such as mosquito populations or water conditions.
This needs to be a year of prayer, of active work in planning details, and of getting the church excited for the mission. The church is sending this team--the church needs to be on board with what the team is doing. Taking the time during that year to introduce the community, the need, and the vision for this specific trip ensures that the church has time to think over what is being planned and get excited to participate in it. It gives people who would be interested but had not previously expressed interest the chance to get involved. It also provides an opportunity to raise money from the church itself. In discussing fundraising in general, Dave Wilkinson noted that donors need
...the chance to give realistically and prayerfully. This includes advance notice before the offering is received. It means hearing how this special offering fits into the giving scheme of the whole year and what other special offerings are anticipated. For contributors, pacing is important, as is knowing what ministries they will have opportunity to support, so they can give to those closest to their hearts.
One other issue that needs to be addressed during this year is training. The team needs the opportunity to learn what will be expected of them during the trip, how to do the work, and how to interact with the culture. They will have a short amount of time to make an impact while on site, and cannot spend all of it figuring out how to start the work. The relationship with someone on site helps immensely here, as they can focus these efforts on specific conditions relevant to the site.
There should be no more questions or foreseeable issues to handle a few weeks before the trip. Surprises will arise, as they always do, during the final weeks of preparation and the trip itself; but a well-planned trip should minimize these as much as possible by having details mapped out, team members trained, and supplies gathered or on site. By this point, the team should be able to focus entirely on prayer, personal down time, building relationships, and doing what they are being sent to do. The church and any others that have been supporting the work should be encouraged to continue praying for the success of the trip and the glory of God revealed to everyone involved. While on site, the team should operate under the guidance of the team leader who is working alongside, or even under, the team’s primary contact in the community. When the team returns, they should be invited to tell the story of what happened to the gathered church and other supporters.
One important thing to keep in mind after a trip is that the relationship does not end when the plane lands. The team should be encouraged to continue contact with anyone they built relationship with while on site, the church should continue to cultivate a relationship with long-term missionaries and/or native pastors in the community, and that community should hold a standing option as somewhere that future teams can visit. Part of building relationships is not abandoning those relationships as soon as the immediate work is over. If short term mission trips are going to aid in the mission of the church to reach a global stage, they must open the door for the church to continue thinking and operating on a global level.
As Haanan noted, “the whole trip should be an experience of learning, growing, and serving God. Listening and learning from people, about people, about places, about what God is doing--this is God's mission, and it should be ours as well.” Everything that happens before, during, and after the trip should serve this broader purpose and bring it home to the sending church.
Church planter and ministry student with a bad habit of questioning authority and writing too much.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation