Is this the end of short-term missions?

Jen Bradbury
Jun 18 · 5 min read

I was supposed to be on a mission trip last week.

With the exception of the two summers I was on maternity leave, this is the first time since 2003 that I haven’t spent my summers leading mission trips.

Mission trips are – for so many junior high and high school teens – formational. They were for me as a teen and I know they have been for countless teens I’ve taken on mission trips.

I believe in them so strongly that I even wrote a book – A Mission That Matters: How to do short-term missions without long-term harm – on them.

Because of that, I’ve found myself grieving the loss of this mission trip. I’m grieving for what could have been; For the role that this trip could have played in the faith formation of the teens who would have gone on it.

As I’ve thought about what could have been had it not been for this pandemic, I can’t help wonder: Is this the end of short-term missions as we know them?

This summer, I was slated to work with two different short-term missions organizations. One responded to COVID-19 with grace and attentiveness to the communities and churches they serve; The other responded with fear, focused solely on its own self-preservation. 

Despite their very different responses, I’m not sure how either will survive a summer without the revenue provided by their summer mission trips.

This is not just unique to the two organizations we would have worked with this summer either. I know people on staff at other missions organizations as well, many of whom have (rightfully) canceled their entire summer’s worth of programming. 

I wonder, How will they survive?

While I‘m hopeful that I will be able to lead my teens in a mission experience in 2021, I simply don’t know for sure that that will be the case.

Will the pandemic be under control enough for us to be able to participate in a mission trip safely – without unnecessary risk to our teens OR more importantly, the vulnerable communities we seek to serve? 

- Will parents feel comfortable sending their teens anywhere next summer?

- Will my church feel comfortable sending us anywhere next summer?

- After the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, even if mission trips are offered, will families be able to afford them?

If the answer to any of these questions is NO and churches end up not doing mission trips again in 2021, I just don’t see how mission trip organizations will be able to continue, even if they somehow manage to survive this year.

That grieves me.

And yet… There’s something strangely hopeful about that as well.

It’s no secret that short-term missions have a dark side. They contribute to artificial faith “highs” that are impossible for teens to sustain after returning home, especially since many churches fail to invest the time and resources into adequately preparing teens for their experiences and then processing with them afterwards. They foster the “Messiah” complex that is so detrimental to true justice. They often fail to achieve justice. They sometimes ignore the actual needs or expertise and leadership of the communities they’re serving. They steal jobs from the people who most need them. They rob those being served of their dignity and worth. They create dependency. And they cost exorbitant amounts, most of which does not directly benefit those in need.

All that to say, short term mission trips can truly do more harm than good.

Given this, maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing if this is the end of short-term mission trips as we know it.

Perhaps this is an industry that needs to die.

Especially because as followers of Jesus, we believe that life comes from death.

Perhaps if short-term mission trips organizations die, something truly life and dignity giving could rise in their place.