Why Short-term Mission Trips May Not Always Be A Good Idea

Illustration By Marie Toh, Singapore
Written By Adriel Yeo, Singapore

Have you been on a short-term mission trip before? If you haven’t, picture these three scenarios:

1) You and your church mates are planning a cross-cultural mission trip overseas. You’re excited and raring to go. In fact, you’ve already found the church you want to work with, identified what is lacking in that church, and intend to start a new ministry for the church once you’re there.

2) You’ve heard about this place where the houses are in poor condition and they don’t have a local school. So, together with your friends, you make plans to support their cause by providing funds.

3) You’re a youth leader and want to bring your youths for an overseas cross-cultural mission trip in order to expose them to missions.

Been on such trips, or know of others who have gone for similar trips? I have.

While I do not doubt the good intentions behind such trips, I’ve found that they’re not always as effective and beneficial as we might think they are. In the above three scenarios, I can see where some short-term mission can potentially do as much harm as good.


1) When we create unsustainable work

In running a short-term mission, I believe we can sometimes end up creating unsustainable work unknowingly. Think about the first scenario. A new ministry needs not only money, but also manpower. After our short-term mission of two weeks or so ends, the local church will need to keep the ministry going on its own. But very often, the pastors of these churches already have their plates full. So who is going to run that ministry? Would we have given the church more work to do—without providing the necessary manpower to do it?

We can also make the mistake of failing to contextualize. This happens when we organize ministries or events based on what works in our own church, country, or culture. However, what works in one place may not work in another, simply because we are talking about different people in a different culture.

For example, a church staff in a northern Thailand village who used to work for a church in Bangkok once told me that the evangelistic rallies often held in villages would probably not work as well in a city. City folk, she explained, were more likely to ask questions that were apologetic in nature—for example, about the existence of God. Villagers, on the other hand, usually believed in some sort of a deity or worshipped such gods, and would not question the existence of God.

Likewise, when we plan an event or ministry without taking into consideration the differences in culture, we may end up doing work that is ineffective.


2) When we create a spirit of dependency

In addition, the way money is given or spent in funding ministries may create a spirit of dependency among the locals in the long run.

Once, my church provided some funding to help build a church building in a particular village. It was meant as a one-off gift for the construction of the church. However, we subsequently received requests for better guitars and sound equipment. It seemed as though it had become natural for the villagers to turn to us for help rather than to raise funds themselves.

Father Vincent J. Donovan, a Roman Catholic priest who served as a missionary in East Africa, also shared a similar account. He recalled that 100 years after missionaries entered East Africa, no single parish or diocese had actually become self-sustaining. What started out as a funding for the church in East Africa grew to become continual support and funding because the East Africans witnessed just how much the church could provide for them without them having to raise any money themselves.

I must clarify that I am not suggesting that we should never provide funding for the building of churches and schools or the support of local staff. But perhaps we need to give thought to the potential consequences that we may unintentionally cause. For example, instead of providing the full funding for a project, some churches pledge to match the amount raised by the local church. Adopting the right methods can help the local church in the long run, and is just as important as having the right intentions.


3) When we mix up God’s mission with our own agenda

Often, the purpose of our short-term missions is to give exposure or disciple youths. It is certainly true that short-term mission can produce our own growth as a by-product; in fact, I know of many who have grown in their faith through such trips.

But if we start to put our own exposure and discipleship as the goal of short-term missions, we will be placing the cart before the horse. Instead, we need to recognize that the purpose of short-term missions is to take part in God’s mission—not ours.

There are many different forms of short-term missions, such as those doing direct evangelism, medical missions, leadership training, or running camps. Regardless of their activities, all of them have the same end objective: to see the good news of Jesus being shared, and to help those who received the good news serve and grow in their faith. This stems from our biblical understanding that Christians are baptized into the body of Christ where they serve, learn the word of God, and build one another up (1 Cor 12:13, 27; 1 Tim 4:13; 1 Thess 5:11). As such, short-term missions should seek to contribute to local churches either directly or indirectly.

But sometimes, we get the order mixed up. Often, I have heard youths share about how much they’ve learned or how much they’ve been blessed. What I don’t hear enough of is how the church or Christian organization there has actually benefited from the mission team. I know this because I was one of those completely oblivious to what was going on in the mission field, and focused only on my own learning experience. If we want to do short-term mission right, I believe we need to prioritize the mission of God over our own agenda.


So Are Short-Term Missions Ever Good?

Well, the answer is yes! I believe that short-term missions, if done right, can be truly meaningful.

One way for this to be done is to put aside any desire to start something new and instead think of how we can assist pastors in their ongoing work. We can establish lasting partnerships with local churches, have regular dialogues with local pastors to hear about what the ground needs are and make frequent visits to follow-up on individuals who have heard the gospel. Such efforts will build upon ongoing work rather than create additional work.

On one of my trips a few years back, a lady from a local tribe accepted Christ as her Lord and Saviour. Because we were partnering a local church, we were able to tell the pastor about her so that he could invite her to his church. When we visited that village again the next year, we were overjoyed to find out that she had been attending church regularly.

Short-term missions can also be a great source of encouragement and a form of pastoral care to local pastors. Mission teams can help them reconnect with the larger church outside their country. They can also help to relieve the work of local pastors by taking over Sunday School programmes or perhaps even preaching. This can help free up the pastors’ time so that they can look into other matters—or perhaps just get a well-deserved break. On other occasions, short-term mission teams with a particular skill set like medical training may also help the church to meet the needs of the locals by providing health care services to them.

A biblical model for short-term missions that we can imitate is that of the church in Philippi which ministered to Paul’s need by sending Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25). His role was not so much as a standalone missionary, but rather that of supporting and assisting long-term missionaries. Epaphroditus was so helpful that Paul described him as a “co-worker”.

In a similar manner, let’s see our teams as co-workers of the local church we have partnered with. In practical terms, this means putting the needs of the church or missionary above our own and seeking to help in ongoing work. In the mission field, this would mean that we need to be flexible in our own plans.

While we may not be able to stay long term in the field, we can make repeated trips over a period of time to build relations and support local churches. In that sense, short-term missions are short-term only in terms of the duration; when done right, they can provide effective and beneficial long-term help.

Why Marriage isn’t the only way to experience True Love

Written By Adriel Yeo, Singapore

When I was in my teenage years, one of the signs of our coming of age was being able to buy liquor, and drink in bars or pubs. But as time went by and the guys completed their time in National Service and the girls entered their final year of university, drinking lost its novelty.

We had eased into a new phase of growing up and a new sign had emerged as a significant mark of adulthood. I first noticed this change on my Facebook news feed. Yes, I’m talking about Relationship Status.

I recall quite vividly one Valentine’s Day about two years ago, when at least four of my friends got engaged. Within a year, I found myself attending weddings. While I knew that this day was going to come, I just didn’t realize it was going to be this soon.

As I celebrated the matrimony of my friends, however, I realized there was a common thought pattern among many of the Christian youth I spoke to as a youth worker. Many had the perception that it was only through marriage that one could fully experience what Christians call “agape”, or God’s unconditional love. And that if they were somehow unable to find a partner, they would never get to experience this love.

But I disagree.

Let me be clear first: I do believe that Christian marriage ought to have the sacrificial, unconditional love that Christ showed the church (Ephesians 5:25) and for that reason, one can certainly experience and practise the love of Christ within marriage. What I do not believe, however, is that the love of Christ can only be experienced in marriage.

Jesus told His disciples: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). The imperative is straightforward: the Christian community is told to show a love that reflects Christ’s love for his people, the same love that took Him to the cross.

This is both challenging and comforting. It is challenging because it instructs us to show sacrificial, unconditional love to everyone, just as God first extended His love to us even when we didn’t deserve it.

But it is also comforting because it reminds us that the love of Christ can be experienced regardless of whether we are single or married. The instruction was meant not just for spouses, but to one another. In the same vein, 1 John 4:19—“We love because he first loved us”—doesn’t just address married couples, nor does it talk about a love that can be found only in marriage. Rather, it is addressed to anyone who professes belief in God.

This understanding of what love is and where it is found can help us be confident in our identity. Imagine if one can experience unconditional love only as a married person. Wouldn’t that suggest that singles are less important in the sight of God than married individuals? A person could certainly experience God’s love within marriage in the form of the love between husband and wife that ought to reflect Christ’s love for the church. But it is also true that one can experience God’s love as a single, between fellow believers in the church.

While the sad reality is that many of us fail to show this sort of love among friends and fellow believers, the solution isn’t to find it in marriage or to think that it exists only in marriage. Instead, the solution is to go back to the source of love—God Himself. For it is only in God that we see true and perfect love, manifested in the person of Jesus Christ who loved us and gave Himself for us.

If God is good, why is there so much evil and suffering?

Written By Adriel Yeo, Singapore

This must be one of the most perplexing questions Christians face. The problem of evil and suffering is a thorny issue that has caused some to fall away from their faith, prevented others from coming to God, or discouraged some from growing deeper in their walk with Him.

When I started exploring Christianity, I had so many questions, including the problem of evil and suffering. I read quite a few books on Christian apologetics that attempted to address this question and grappled with the issue for a long time—and I still have questions.

For some of us, steering clear of the issue might seem like the solution, but I think it can be unwise to completely ignore this problem, because many of us struggle with it constantly. If God is all good (omnibenevolent) and all-powerful (omnipotent), He cannot possibly allow evil, can He? If He does, then surely He is either not all good or not all-powerful.

Philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga, Peter Van Inwagen, and William Lane Craig have presented a strong case that allows for evil to exist while maintaining that God is still omnibenevolent and omnipotent. Plantinga, in his “free will defense”, argues that so long as God grants free will to human beings, there will always be the possibility of man committing moral evil—in which God cannot intervene, for to do so would go against man’s freedom of will.

As to why God then allows free will, he argues in his book God, Freedom and Evil that it is possible for a world in which human beings have free will to be better than one in which humans do not. There can be no love in a world devoid of free will, for example, because love requires agents to make decisions voluntarily, without being coerced to. He explains it further:

“To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He (God) must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.”

Such a relationship between God’s omnibenevolence and free will could provide a helpful perspective as we try to understand why there is so much evil in the world. But it is still limited. Here’s the reality: while almost all of my friends whom I have spoken to about this are willing to buy into Plantinga’s argument, they still have issues. Intuitively, they just feel uncomfortable thinking about all the seemingly unnecessary deaths that are happening around the world. The amount of injustice doesn’t seem to make any sense, no matter what the explanation.

This has led me to believe that the issue is perhaps less of an intellectual problem, and more of an emotional one. The question about evil and suffering has no easy answer because it is not about logical possibilities or impossibilities. Rather, it is an issue of the heart—we want to understand why people go through various difficulties. In fact, to hear the cries of help and feel burdened is a good thing, because it reveals a side of our humanity. As such, I am not sure that any answer provided may be satisfying. A sweeping statement like, “It’s because of sin” may not help a person who is going through a difficult time.

Instead, as we ponder on why God is good and yet there is suffering, perhaps we can consider this: why is there a historical Jesus, and a crucifixion that is followed by an empty tomb?

When we look at the crucifixion of Jesus and His resurrection, we will see not a God who doesn’t care, but rather one who does and is determined to restore all of creation. That’s why He sent His son Jesus to earth to die for us on the cross, so that we would be forgiven of our sins, and raised Him from death, so that we have hope of eternal life.

Sometimes, I wonder, how many Christians turned to God because they were persuaded by how the Christian faith addressed the problem of evil and suffering through Jesus’ death and resurrection? For me, I became a Christian because I felt convinced by historical evidence for the resurrection, and at the same time, felt deeply convicted that I had disowned the God who had created all things. And while I continue to ask questions about evil and suffering, I’ve come to realize that I cannot make any sense of what is going on from my limited understanding and perspective. I keep going simply because of the truth of who Jesus is.

Personally, I think that if we focus solely on questions such as “Why me?”, “Why now?”, or “Why must this happen?”, we’re never going to make any sense of suffering, much less take any comfort in any solution provided. Rather, I believe that being a Christian means turning our eyes away from the “Why me?” question to the “Why Jesus?” question. He is the object of our hope.

We may never be able to fully comprehend this issue, but what we do know—and can take comfort in—is that God does care, and that the whole person and being of Jesus attests to this truth.

The question of evil and suffering will always tug at our hearts, and we will always struggle with questions regarding suffering. But we know that it isn’t because God doesn’t care. He does and He has taken action in setting the world right.

As N.T Wright says: “When we learn to read the story of Jesus and see it as the story of the love of God, doing for us what we could not do for ourselves—that insight produces, again and again, a sense of astonished gratitude which is very near the heart of authentic Christian experience.”


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Am I A Neighbor?

Written By Adriel Yeo, Singapore

In the month of June last year, I spent the bulk of my time in New York City. It was refreshing to see different types of people and lifestyles that one would not typically find in Singapore. During my stay, there were two incidents that left me thinking about how we should treat the foreigners living in our own country. Both incidents happened when I was taking the subway.

In one of the incidents, I was staring at the map trying to figure out which line to take and where to alight so that I could change to another line (honestly speaking, it’s more complicated than how it sounds). To my pleasant surprise, a lady approached me asking if I needed help. She then showed me the direction that I needed to head towards. Needless to say, I was very grateful. The second incident happened when I was already in the subway. An American who walked out attempted to spit at me but the closing door took the “bullet” and I watched the guy’s phlegm slide slowly down the train door.

In Singapore where I live, the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) map is by far less complicated and much easier to read. Singaporeans generally have little difficulties finding our way around. However, this may not be the case for a foreigner. Taking this issue one step further, there are plenty of foreigners in our midst and they may experience difficulties adjusting to the cultural differences. There are also those who work for hours under the sun and face certain injustices that are not being addressed. How should Christians respond to these issues?

In 2013, a Population White Paper was published that triggered a nationwide debate. It outlined the government’s plans to increase the population of Singapore to 6.9 million (of which citizens would only form 55 percent) by the year 2030. This news was not well received. But this is not the first time that Singaporeans have complained about issues regarding foreign workers.

As I recall both of the incidents that I faced in New York City, I wonder whether we are more like the American lady who offered to help me, or the other guy who attempted to spit at me. Do we as Christians show hospitality and grace to the foreigners in our midst? My personal take is that regardless of our opinions on certain policies like the Population White Paper, or the label “foreign worker” or “foreign talent”, we should offer help and extend the grace and compassion that was first extended to us by Christ.

No matter how much we may hate or oppose the idea of a city overpopulated by foreigners (or our university slots being taken up by foreigners), the reality is that some of these people are already in our midst. Many of them are our colleagues or people we see daily, making them our direct neighbors. At the end of the day, the rejection of a policy should not lead us to a rejection of people (or at the very least for this particular scenario). So while some of us may disagree with the government’s plan to drastically increase the population, this should not justify or give us an excuse to treat the foreigners among us with hostility.

Many of us are familiar with the parable of the good Samaritan where the question of “who is my neighbor” was posed to Jesus. I think it is extremely interesting and thought-provoking that the implication of Jesus’ reply was not so much of who our neighbor is but whether or not we are behaving as a neighbor to others. This is certainly a point worth pondering. Are we as Christians, neighbors to the people around us? Or do we treat them with hostility because we never supported the policies that brought them here in the first place?

[Jesus] answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (Luke 10:27 NIV).