My first time, I went to Mexico. We were building two two-room houses from the ground up. There were about 40 of us teenagers and a handful of adults. After the foundations were laid, we started cutting, nailing, and putting up the beams and frame. Most people were scrambling up and down ladders, but because I am afraid of heights and more responsible around sharp objects, I got to be the assistant with the table saw and help measure and mark off cuts. Eventually the frame was up and we installed the drywall, the "mud," the stucco...and finally paint the interior walls white. The two families we built the homes for made us dinner of real Mexican enchiladas, and so ended the week-long trip that was my first ever short-term mission trip.
Did I form long-lasting relationships with the people there? No. Were they still poor after we left? Yes. Did they still struggle to provide their kids with school supplies and uniforms to send them to school year after year? Probably. But when it rains, they are no longer in a lean-to made of two-inch sticks and palm leaves. They keep warm and dry. We may not have installed a permanent doctor, built a hospital, and provided ongoing funds for health care, but we did contribute to their health in a small but important way. We may not have built them a church and funded a permanent pastor for them, but we showed them Jesus--his love, his equality, his generosity, and his humility--and they see the evidence of it every day.
There are a lot of opinions that go around about short-term missions. Good, bad, ambivalent. Yes, but...no, but... Everybody has valid points. But the conclusions are various and some downright wrong.
Some say that when we give aid of any kind, short- or long-term, we cause the people there to become dependent on us, which is bad. I think that's a crappy way to shift responsibility. Jesus tells us to give to those in need. He never tells us to be independent; in fact, he tells us to take care of each other, which implies dependence.
I don't want the whole world to be dependent on Americans, nor do I presume the arrogance of thinking we could make it happen. (Fact: China sends out more missionaries than America does, and some of them come HERE.) Yes, it can be bad if a church promises aid and then suddenly stops coming through. But this doesn't mean we shouldn't help. It just means we need to better define what we're hoping to accomplish and how.
For instance, the goal is usually to help a third-world community attain a sustainable humane living situation: access (in terms of affordability, nearness, cultural biases, etc.) to food, shelter, education, and health care. We want people to be able to work good hours and make enough money to support their family.
There are wrong ways to go about this, such as giving the people money every year to raise their income up to an appropriate level. Then there are right ways of doing this, such as giving someone in South America a pair of llamas; teaching them how to take care of the llamas, breed them, and sell their milk and wool; requiring that they use their increased income to achieve goals such as providing shelter and feeding and educating their children before they use it for anything else; and charging them to pass on the gift of a male and female llama to a neighbor once those goals are accomplished. Heifer International has been very successful with this model, and it helps create economically and environmentally sustainable living for the people through their own efforts. Microfinance is a similar model.
So that's what I think about the idea that we shouldn't help people in the third world: we should and we can. Success is possible. But what about short-term missions? How big of an impact do a bunch of teenagers building a house actually have? Wouldn't it be better for those teens to all get summer jobs, save up the money, and donate to a good cause?
Well, that's certainly a good idea, but I don't know if it's a better idea. Giving money to help those in need is certainly needed and can be just as honorable as giving a week of your energies. But the gift of a house can have a long-term impact just as much as anything you put your money toward. The gift of one interaction with someone can change a life just as much as a long-term friendship (it's just not as frequent). I'm not being dramatic; Francis Chan changed my life in one week of summer camp, and he was up on a stage. We hear those stories about someone who was going to commit suicide and didn't because one person stopped to talk to them, but seriously, those stories are true. They're not always so dramatic, but we shouldn't ignore the impact of small, simple interactions just to focus on our long-term friends and partnerships. Both are important.
Ultimately, I think that whether you go on a short-term mission, choose to live long-term as a missionary, or give money to a person or organization, good can come of it. I think there are a couple things that we need to hold in balance as we decide, and God alone can really tell you what the best course of action is.
First, we need to remember that ultimately we're supposed to use our God-given skills. Much as I can help build a house, God made me a writer not a builder. So instead of building houses all the time, I volunteered as a writer and editor for Courage Worldwide, who are working to stop sex trafficking. Now living faraway from Courage, I continue to help by spreading awareness. I also write stories that are infused with my beliefs about joy and love and loyalty. I'm using my skills and passion for Jesus and letting someone whose passion is house-building build houses for Jesus.
Consequently, long-term mission looks different for everyone. For my engineer husband, mission work is working a normal job and being a living example of the Jesus-relationship for his coworkers; making money that we can give to others; and inviting people over and building relationships with whoever we run into.
Your main mission is long-term, and your long-term mission is what you're called to. Naturally, that doesn't necessarily mean going to another country and giving up everything you own. That idea feels wrong to some people--and rightly so! God didn't call every one of us to that life. He called some of us--many of us--right here to live lives of all kinds of flavors. We need to understand what mission truly is: God wants to use you right where you are doing every day whatever it is you're called to do.
Love the Lord with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. That's the core of Jesus' message. When he said to "go and make disciples," I don't see why he couldn't have meant "go next door" as much as "go to Africa." Go love your neighbor, whoever and wherever they are.
And who is my neighbor? First of all, I am in a family: they are my neighbors. Secondly I am in a group or groups of friends. They are my neighbors. Then I am in a town community; they are my neighbors. Then I am in a state. I can do things in that state, through my voting, lobbying, writing, speaking, marching, or whatever. I am a neighbor here. Then I am in a country. And then I am a neighbor to the world.
It seems to me that you cannot save the whole world. You cannot help everyone. But you can help a few. Help those near you the most. But help those far away as well. In the end, all the little graces you give are connected, and the love you give one person may very well travel around the whole world. So what does this mean? Have a long-term mission where you are, and occasionally go on short-term missions elsewhere as you are called upon.
Secondly, it's true that short-term missions trips help to build us up personally. Some people see this as a reason not to do short-term missions: the only reason you go, they say, is because you feel good about yourself afterwards. But I don't think it's just about a spiritual/emotional "high," just a selfish kick of adrenaline or whatever. Rather, doing a short-term mission trip makes us more aware of the larger Body of Christ and of the bigger picture of God working in our world. It helps us understand the things we read about, making us more effective Christians.
I've come to realize that even if the #1 need of the community you travel to is something other than having a new house built, it's okay to still go and build a house...you're only there for a week! Their biggest need may perhaps be education or legal rights, but whatever it is, you probably can't accomplish it in a week.
That doesn't mean that providing access to clean water or building a schoolhouse doesn't have an impact. These are needs that have to be met at some point in time. Just because they're not the #1 need doesn't mean they aren't important. (Of course, make sure that it is a need. If they already have a schoolhouse, don't build another.)
Someone who God put in that community permanently is there to tackle the bigger issues. That's why God puts a passion for faraway places on some people's hearts and sends them off as long-term missionaries. One week just isn't enough to heal a community and provide all their deeper needs. If that's why we go on short-term missions, we need to stop thinking that's what we're doing and get a more humble view of ourselves. A week is just enough time to help out with one corner of the overall picture and provide a basic need. It's just enough time to give a single gesture of Jesus' love.
And you know, Jesus did that too sometimes. There were some places where he stayed for a while and others where he just passed through, and healed people practically without stopping walking towards Jerusalem. Those healing still meant something. The few words he spoke were no less valuable for being brief. Small help is still help.
A good example of the importance of the small stuff comes from my time with Courage Worldwide. Courage attacks the issue of sex-trafficking in every way possible--government, legal issues, enforcement, rescue, awareness, counseling programs--but what they're most known for are their homes. Courage builds Courage Houses and provides staff through a long, rigorous training program who live and work alongside rescued girls. The staff become the girls' family, the first image of real love many of them have ever seen. These homes are where the girls rehabilitate, a place of safety where they can catch up and continue their education, receive multiple forms of counseling, and hopefully begin to believe in family again.
When Courage purchased the land for their campus in Ethiopia, they needed a month's worth of short-term volunteers to build the homes there. They got them. People volunteered to cut wood, pound nails, and paint walls. After a month, all those volunteers went home. But their impact in the community goes far beyond constructing a few buildings. Without the safehouses, there would be no Courage House. Everything that Courage House is about requires, first of all, a building. It may just be a piece of the puzzle, but every piece is important.
Maybe the problem with short-term missions is our perspective. Instead of wondering if short-term missions is important enough to be worth it, we should ask how important we think we are. It's God who accomplishes real change, not us--whether you're talking about the economy, public health, or spiritual growth. He can choose to do it through missions that are a day long or those that last years.
What this all comes down to, really, is an issue of humility before God. We need to be broken down and see that we are truly just squabbling, insecure people worried about our own egos and whether our children or our peers will call us failures. Let's recognize that what we do is small--but that it still helps.