Can a short-term missions trip hurt people?

Unfortunately, yes. The best intentions can be harmful, especially when attempting to minister cross-culturally. This seems to get magnified when the short-term trip is focused on ministering to children.

Many churches from North America are being asked to send their children’s ministry leaders overseas to help local churches learn about this wonderful area of evangelism and discipleship. But as we respond to these requests, we children’s leaders need take seriously what the missions world has known for decades: Not everything we do in the name of Jesus is helpful for those to whom we do it!

Some of our best intentions…most loving acts of service…are choices that have far-reaching, unintended consequences. If we are not careful and thoroughly informed, our short-term trips can actually undermine our good intentions or, worse, actually harm those who we hope to help.

I’d love to hear your thoughts over the next few weeks as I share five key issues that must be considered before taking a team on a short-term missions trip. I’m declaring the first day of each week “Missions Monday” and would like to share some of the principles that guide our thinking at KidZ At Heart International.

Unintended Consequence #1: Taking stuff overseas can create a dependence on Westerners that cripples future ministry efforts by the local leaders and churches.

When we spend weeks gathering up the “trinkets” and supplies that are common to the way we do ministry with kids in the United States, and we take trunks of these supplies overseas, we think we are being generous with our “stuff” and working hard to put on a great program (oftentimes, a VBS) for children who don’t normally get to enjoy such things. And we’re right. These are good intentions.

But what happens is the unintended consequence of dependency. If we model Children’s ministry that requires published teacher’s guides, local teachers will believe they need these things in order to teach kids. If we use techniques that require markers, glue and scissors, the leaders will likewise believe these to be required to reach and teach kids. And if we model a wonderful “show” using puppets, instruments, PowerPoint, illusions, balloons and more, again the local shepherds get the message that without these things ministry is pointless. And they don’t have these things…and most likely never will.

When we met the leaders of one church in Africa and asked them what they needed, they asked for construction paper. I was surprised (as this is a relatively cheap resource) and asked, “Can you not afford construction paper?” Their answer: “No, we cannot. But the bigger issue is that can’t find it in our country; it is not manufactured here and it is not imported.”

“Then why do you want it?” I inquired. “Because the curriculum that a U.S. church kindly donated to us requires construction paper every week for the preschoolers.”

To add to the impact on this church, the curriculum also had take-home pages and student worksheets. In order to provide these “required” papers for their 35 students, this church was forced to search for a new church each quarter to send $1,000 USD to pay for the importation of these worksheets from North America.

Recommendation: When you travel cross-culturally and desire to impact the local leaders positively, don’t take supplies from the United States. Either don’t use resources and supplies at all (yes, it is possible) or only use items that are readily available within the country and affordable to the average Sunday school teacher or parent.

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One thought on “Can a short-term missions trip hurt people?

  1. Pingback: doctrines of christianity | small group ministry | images of Jesus

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