Rethinking “Short-term”

Lately I have been reading a number of articles on the damage that can be and has been caused by short-term mission trips. One writer talked about churches that spend millions of dollars traveling to other countries, performing work that locals could do best and creating a welfare economy that deprived people of the pride of their own accomplishments.

When I read stories like this, I find myself agreeing with the writer and questioning my career choice. I lead a ministry that arranges short-term experiences for 3,000 young people annually. Am I part of the problem? The honest answer is both “yes” and “no.”

For those committed to long-term ministry, short-term experiences always seem incomplete and lacking in integrity. Although I run a short-term program, I have been a part of Denver’s Westside neighborhood for 15 years. Nothing replaces time when it comes to effectiveness.

But I do wonder about all the critics of short-term missions. From my vantage point, their claims greatly overestimate the power of the groups coming to “serve” and underestimate the strength of local communities.

Many well-meaning leaders seem to understand power only in terms of wealth. If this were truth, then the short-term visitors do have all the power. But power is much more than wealth. In my context, urban America, power comes from all kinds of sources – family, culture, community, language, and faith to name a few. I have yet to see a short-term group destroy this.

Short-term programs are plagued with all kinds of problems. I have witnessed the damage that racism, stereotyping and ignorance can inflict. These concerns cannot be ignored and must be addressed.

If I were to push this conversation a bit farther, I would question the common definition of “short-term,” the one day to two week time period. I would suggest that anything less than 10 years should be viewed as short-term.

In my neighborhood, I am always intrigued by the people who move in so that they can “do” ministry. God has led them to work among the “urban poor.” And I am equally intrigued by how God always leads them to move as soon as their children become school-age. What does this say to the community they were called to? What kind of damage does this inflict?

It is easy to pick on the people who do mission one week at a time, but I am not so sure that these are the people with the power to do the real damage.

Ministry, in all its forms, needs people committed to long-term presence. At DOOR we host short-term groups, but we do this in the context of full-time city directors and in partnership with local pastors and helping agencies who have been on the ground for years and even decades. These people help to inform what groups do and do not do during their time with us.