By Joseph Mosse | Contributor
Every year in Ukraine as summer rolled in, so did the short-term mission teams. Their arrival always signaled an exciting departure from normal life. I didn't often get to talk to other Americans besides the couple of local missionaries my family worked with. As I grew older, I began translating for teams and helping them navigate the Ukrainian cities and countryside.
I loved being able to show my home, introduce the people in my life and explain the culture. But with time, meeting, hosting and working with teams became less and less about the excitement, and more about the impact they were (or weren't) having on the communities they visited. (I think it was all my exposure to full-time missionaries, who can be a grumpy bunch). The question of short-term missions is often a controversial one. People don't want to be told that an experience they felt was profound may, in fact, have not been very helpful at all.
The issue is incredibly complex and covers issues of culture, evangelization and Christian witness. Before I go on, I should mention that my perspective is not that of one who has been on a short-term mission trip-in fact, I never have. My perspective is that of one who has met and hosted numerous groups as they've come and gone over the years.
The obvious thing about short-term teams is that, well, they're short. You don't have much time to invest. When you go, you will be there as a guest. In many cultures, where hospitality is highly valued, you will find you are welcomed warmly and make friends quickly and easily (you'll also get to try some really great food). But it's important to recognize that when a short-term team arrives, the people receiving them stop living "normal life" too. Their day-to-day routines are interrupted by the arrival of guests (you), a special and exciting event. Time together is often rich and fun for both groups.
But then the team leaves, and grey, normal life resumes for both. Teams often go home with incredible stories of the wonderful new culture they encountered, how everyone seemed to like them and how differently they see things now. The people the team left behind will likewise retain fond memories of their time together, but in the long run how much better will their situation be as a result of the trip? Given the time constraints, how can a mission trip achieve something more lasting than memories of that one time when the Americans came?
The best short-term teams I've had the privilege to know were effective because they partnered with established local churches, missionaries and ministries to do something that the host culture's ministers couldn't do on their own. For example, we've run several English camps, where the main draw for hundreds of kids was the opportunity to practice conversational English with native speakers. Only the Americans (or Australians, or Canadians) could provide that, and the team played an indispensible role.
Local church ministers were then able to follow up with many of the youth and continue to share the Gospel with them. The team left, but the work went on. These short-term teams made the maximum use of the limited time by providing ministers with tools that would otherwise have been unavailable. They built relationships with the people they encountered, but intentionally directed them to believers who could take the time to disciple and share God's love in long, gritty dullness of everyday life.
You should go on short-term trips, but remember that you are guests, and that while you are there, no one is living their normal lives. Remember that your influence is limited, so partner with those whose impact stays long after you've gone. Be intentional about bringing skills and tools local churches couldn't access without you. Hold on to the memories you bring back, but also think about how God can use you, not just in the exciting adventures, but also in daily grind of life. Because it's in the everyday that God surprises us the most, no matter what continent.