According to David Livermore this year 4.5 million Americans will participate in a short-term mission experience at a cost of $2.5 billion. DOOR, the organization I work for, will host .06% or 2,500 of these folks. Over the last two decades short-term mission trips have grown from a novel idea to big business. This growth has not come without criticism. Critics of short-term mission range from those who worry about the wasted resources to those who fret about the cultural insensitivity of short-term participants. Couldn’t the money be better spent on long term sustainable projects? What does it mean to be respectful of local cultures?
The critics do have a powerful case against short-term mission/service trips. It costs a tremendous amount of money to send and host folks for a short period of time. Hosting short-termers means that someone has to redirect their energy from local ministry to working with visitors. Short-term participants often show up with all their prejudices and stereo-types intact – this can be destructive to host communities.
Why host short-term trips? When done with fore-thought and concern for local communities these experiences can become opportunities for conversion. Not conversion in the “I have the answer for your deepest need so listen to me,” but rather conversion in the Acts 10 sense.
In Acts 10 Peter is asked to visit Cornelius, a Roman centurion. In an unexpected turn of events it seems that the Christian faith has expanded beyond the Jewish community. Through a dream, mostly about eating unclean meat, Peter is convinced to visit Cornelius. In the process of meeting each other, both Cornelius and Peter end up experiencing God in a new way - conversion.
When done well, short-term mission trips provide a space for conversation and mutual conversion. When both the visitors and hosts end up in a new space, God moments happen.