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How Short-Term Missions Shape Sending Congregations

Author: Mark Adams
Published: Summer–Fall 2019

MD 10.2

Article Type: DMin Project Material

Disruptive events create introspective opportunities for congregations to change. Short-term missions provide one such opportunity to create an intentional disruption which can lead to healthy, missional changes. This research effort explores how a short-term trip to Costa Rica impacted the Kings Crossing Church of Christ, looking through a missional framework for specific ways in which short-term mission efforts might help the sending congregations become more missional at home.

Short-Term Missions and Missional Churches

Short-term missions and the missional church movement have the potential to be mutually beneficial. Both are fields for which there is active research and thought refinement. Both intend to help churches live into the mission of God. For this project, I conducted original research in an attempt to blend the two areas. My specific interest was in discovering what ways (if any) a congregation’s involvement in short-term missions might help the sending congregation become more missional.

This paper will describe some ways in which these two areas align, the shape of short-term missions research and future opportunities for research, a summary of my findings, and suggestions for better practices in short-term missions for sending congregations, specifically if their aim is to become more missional.

My project is based on a biennial trip that I have led for several years to Costa Rica. The participants in my research were all members at the Kings Crossing Church of Christ in Corpus Christi, Texas, where I have been the preaching minister since 2014.

A Positive Disruption

In his research regarding how senior leaders can cultivate missional change, MacIlvaine has made a strong case for the presence of a “crisis” event becoming the springboard from which a church can move in a missional direction. He lays out several types of crises that have been catalysts for churches to make positive changes, such as cultural, interpersonal, moral, and situational crises.1

There is wisdom in trying to make the best of a negative situation as MacIlvaine has encouraged. But must every catalyst for positive change be a negative experience? My own experience has been that when a congregation is involved in a short-term mission trip, it is often a conspicuous part of church life, especially when there are collective efforts to fund, send, bless, welcome, and hear reports from the team who has gone on a trip.

To nuance MacIlvaine’s emphasis on negative crises, I would suggest that disruptions—both negative and positive—might be a better framework on which to cultivate missional changes. Might a short-term mission trip be one such kind of a positive, intentionally planned disruption to the flow of congregational life that could produce new missional possibilities?

Developments in Short-Term Missions Research

Despite the seemingly ever-increasing participation in short-term missions, the scholarly literature has largely been lagging behind.2 Encouragingly, the amount of research available has begun increasing considerably in the last few years. Below is a quick summary of the kinds of publications available on short-term missions roughly in the order in which they have appeared.

‘How To’ Helps

Most of the earliest publications on short-term missions arose from the need for basic helps about the logistics of planning a trip well.3 In their best iterations, these types of books and articles address having a healthy theology for missions, clear and careful planning for the trip, and healthy types of debriefing at the completion of the trip.

Better Practices for Short-Term Missions

Perhaps the most significant research on short-term missions to date is Kurt Ver Beek’s case study of house construction in Honduras, published in 2006.4 Ver Beek provided empirical data pointing to the enormous potential for waste and ineffectiveness in short-term missions. Ver Beek inspired a wave of research seeking better practices for short-term missions. One of the first significant contributions to this effort included a chapter from Ver Beek himself in the book, edited by Robert Priest, Effective Engagement in Short-Term Missions: Doing It Right.5 Ian Corbett and Brian Fikkert have also contributed through their book When Helping Hurts regarding the seriousness of being good stewards of the resources required for short-term missions, as well as greater sensitivity to ensuring the kind of help being offered by the mission teams is actually the kind of help most needed.6

For mission trip leaders, it is worth noting that S.O.E. (Standards of Excellence) has a helpful, concise list of seven standards that would guide any mission trip to greater effectiveness.7 The seven they suggest are:

  1. God-Centeredness
  2. Empowering Partnerships
  3. Mutual Design
  4. Comprehensive Administration
  5. Qualified Leadership
  6. Appropriate Training
  7. Thorough Follow-Through

Effects of Short-Term Missions on Going Participants

There has been a scattering of articles on the effects of short-term missions on the growth of people who go on the trips. One study examined the role that short-term trips can have in helping to develop people’s faith maturity and prayer, for example.8 In a similar vein, anthropologist Brian Howell has published an ethnography about the travel experiences of people on mission trips and how these experiences might help them think about larger issues of economics and justice in the places where they serve.9

Effects of Short-Term Missions on Receiving Locations

At least partially in response to Ver Beek’s work, there has been an encouraging effort to study more receiving locations of short-term teams, particularly the benefits of working with a single location over a more extended period of time.10 One group has developed a highly successful effort to address poverty and pollution through ongoing short-term efforts to the city of La Oroya, Peru, for example.11 If the goal is to make a positive, lasting impact at the receiving locations, surely this is a needed area of continued study.

The Missing Piece

Studies in short-term missions have developed in an order that is fitting for their purpose. It is my assumption that a primary goal of most short-term trips is to make an impact for Christ in a distant location. To this end, it has been important for scholars to create new resources that provide tools for better organization and planning. Likewise, as described above, there are a growing number of resources available to help trip leaders be sure that their trips are of the maximum possible benefit, both to the receivers of the efforts and to those who go on the trip. There is, however, another important area of short-term missions that has thus far been neglected in scholarly research.12 This missing piece is the sending congregation itself.

The “how to” guides give explanations for matters such as fundraising and inviting the sending congregation to support the trip monetarily and through their prayers.13 There is also the occasional emphasis on following up and reporting the events of the trip.14 Gary Green of Abilene Christian University has produced a helpful guide for trip participants to strive for mature discernment of mission trip experiences to be used after the completion of the trip, with a goal of transformation at home because of the experiences abroad.15

However, even with these resources, there is a lack of credentialed research on what sorts of effects a mission trip can have on those who participate by sending, but not going. There are bits of research, such as Craig Altrock’s, which mention the sending congregations tangentially, but not as the primary focus of the research.16

Regarding possible long-term benefits from short-term missions, the existing research has made strides in providing answers. Better practices can create a more lasting impact, both for the receiving location, and for those who go. While these areas are worthy of continued study, there is also ample room to investigate how a mission trip might impact those who cannot go, but who send and support others that do.

Establishing Missional Criteria

The specific scope of my project was to look at whether short-term missions might be a catalyst to help congregations become more missional through their involvement. In order to measure this, it was necessary to establish some criteria for what it means to be “missional.”

As the missional church movement is still active in defining its own terms, there were several potential frameworks worthy of consideration. In the larger discussion of what attributes define the missional church, one important contributor to this conversation is Graham Hill. Hill has provided a fascinating look at several strands of Christian thought with their contributions to the missional movement. Hill suggests: “Missional ecclesiology is a movement of thought, rather than an organized movement, which is concerned with all cultures as missional fields, the missional nature and expressions of the church, the missional nature of God and Scripture, and the missional presence of God in the world.”17 Hill’s book Salt, Light, and a City demonstrates the breadth of the missional movement by summarizing views of Christian thinkers including leaders of the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, and Free Church traditions, all of whom have unique nuances that contribute to a larger picture. There are numerous areas of overlap between these various theologies, but Hill’s work helps to portray the great variety of thought involved in the missional conversation. But where Hill’s work is more expansive in terms of a missional definition, other efforts are being made to narrow down the common criteria and refine the approaches of missional leaders.

Gospel in Our Culture Network is an organization that has significantly refined the larger conversation about the missional church. This ecumenical network functions as an ongoing interaction between a variety of theological educators and ministry practitioners who seek to give shape to the “missionary way the church is called to live” through social and cultural analysis, Biblical and theological reflection, and envisioning the church and its mission.18 The GOCN has partnered with Eerdmans to create The Gospel and Our Culture series of books, which is a good representation of the flow of thought in their circles regarding missional theology over the last few decades. One example would be their explanation of eight patterns they believe to be true of what they consider missional churches.19

Another leading voice that has nuanced the efforts of the larger missional community is Ed Stetzer. Stetzer is concerned that in an effort of many missional Christians to “be” the gospel, they are neglecting to tell the Gospel, resulting in societal transformation but not global evangelization.20 In 2010–2011, Stetzer collaborated with Alan Hirsch and a group of church leaders to define what they mean when using the term missional. The result of their combined efforts they have titled The Missional Manifesto.21 Their definition is a slight pushback against other missional efforts that they believe have underemphasized evangelism or possibly compromised the centrality of the gospel in the practices of the church. One of the collaborators, J. D. Greear, expressed such a view on his blog describing the creation of the Manifesto: “The word ‘missional’ has been around for a while. I think this document is timely and necessary, because it articulates in a theologically faithful but missionally practical way what all the fuss is about. Most of all, the document keeps the Gospel right dead in the center of all that we do.”22 It remains to be seen whether the Missional Manifesto carries the significance in the larger missional conversation that Stetzer and others desire for it to have. These are a few of the numerous significant contributors to the larger missional conversation.

Even so, it was necessary for this project to narrow down the criteria into something observable. One particularly helpful attempt at expressing core missional principles is Fitch and Holsclaw’s book, Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier (2013).23 Believing that it is not possible for the church to know fully the destination at the end of its journey until it arrives there, they attempt to provide missional “signposts” to help keep the church moving in the direction of the mission of God. These signposts function very similarly to the hallmarks of the GOCN or the elements of the Manifesto. A church moving in a missional direction, according to Fitch and Holsclaw’s signposts, would be:

  1. Journeying into a post-Christian culture. (Post-Christendom)
  2. Deepening their relationship with the missionary God. (Missio Dei)
  3. Understanding the incarnate nature of mission, as revealed in Christ. (Incarnation)
  4. Living as a community of witnesses to God’s truth. (Witness)
  5. Understanding their lives as continuation of God’s story found in Scripture. (Scripture)
  6. Following the way of salvation, which leads to God’s setting the world right again through the Gospel. (Gospel)
  7. Participating in God’s transformative reign through local communities of the kingdom. (Church)
  8. Extending God’s mission to the broken, sexually and otherwise. (Prodigal Relationships)
  9. Addressing systemic social injustices. (Prodigal Justice)
  10. Speaking clarity to the pluralist versions of truth in the world. (Prodigal Openness)

As I tried to evaluate whether the short-term mission trip to Costa Rica has helped the Kings Crossing church to become more missional, I chose to use David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw’s missional signposts as my main basis of comparison. This is in part because theirs is a recent attempt to articulate a simple list that summarizes what missional principles are and also because they have shown awareness of the greater preceding conversation that led up to their book. They provided an open-ended way of thinking about what missional can be. The guideposts suggest which characteristic actions one could be looking for, which aligns well with how I would evaluate the interviews with my participants. I examined the responses of my participants, evaluating whether their contents indicated any missional leanings among our members, evoked through the mission trip.

The Shape of the Project

The Kings Crossing Church of Christ was the location of the research. As there existed no comparable research with preexisting hypotheses to test, my research was qualitative in nature, seeking to formulate hypotheses based on my findings for future research.

The basic shape of the study was that I invited a cross-section of my congregation to let me conduct two interviews with them. During the time in between the two interviews, I led a group from our congregation on a short-term mission trip to work with our sponsored preacher, Ronald Martinez, in Desamparados, Costa Rica.24

Here is the makeup of the interview participants:

  • There were 23 total participants.
  • 11 were female (48%) and 12 were male (52%).
  • 6 were between 25 and 40 (26%), 9 were between 41 and 55 (39%), 6 were between 55 and 70 (26%), and 2 were over 70 (9%).
  • 19 did not go on the trip (83%), and 4 did go (17%).
  • 16 did not go on the trip and had no relatives going either (70%), and 3 did not go, but had relatives who did (13%).

Kings Crossing as a congregation had not received prior education about the missional church movement; nor did they have much experience with short-term missions.

In forming my interview questions, I was careful not to lead with an emphasis on the mission trip in order to see what directions they went naturally when reflecting on how they saw God at work in our congregation. The fourth and final question was specifically about the trip, as I did want to know their perceptions of the role it played in congregational life. Here are the four questions I asked, which were the same both in the first and in the follow-up interview:

  1. Please describe what you understand to be the mission of God. What all does this mission involve?
  2. If you were telling the story of what God is doing through our congregation, what would the current chapter be about?
  3. How do you believe God is trying to shape us through our present experiences?
  4. What role, if any, do you believe the short-term mission trip to Costa Rica is playing in how God is shaping our congregation right now?

The aim of my research was to analyze the responses to these questions, asking: (1) Did the short-term mission trip seem to have any discernible impact on regular members of the congregation who did not go on the trip? (2) If so, when the interviewees spoke about this impact, would any of their observations align well with what could be considered missional impulses?

Locations of Impact

Here are some of the times and places that the interviewees revealed were impactful especially for the non-going members of the congregation.

Preparing for the Trip

In preparation for this trip, we tried several different types of fundraising events. These included congregational meals and silent auctions with fundraising components. The most popular format was that we would work out an agreement with a local restaurant, and on a certain night, we would invite members of our church to eat there, and the restaurant would give us a percentage of the proceeds towards our trip. One sending participant commented:

We had a goal. We had to raise money. That provided a way for people to be involved and to have a stake in it. That was good because it created excitement. I saw excitement. It was neat . . . to see you people at the restaurant, but I was there! I saw the people who were there doing this, but I saw that and said, I’m there with them! Not physically, but in prayer and that kind of stuff. I think that was good. I saw people respond to that. I saw people respond to the fundraising projects that we did.

During the Trip

On the trips I have been part of, we spend most of the trip practicing what we call a technology fast. Though I do not take up people’s electronic devices, we have strongly encouraged people to use the opportunity to live differently. We do not watch the news in the hotels, nor do we correspond with people on social media. Instead, we encourage people to build relationships, both among the team and with the locals, and to practice spiritual journaling, in a guided journaling folder that we provide to the team members.

However, believing it is a helpful way to keep people at home connected to the events of the trip, I take responsibility for posting daily updates online. By keeping all the updates in one place, Kings Crossing’s Facebook fan page, it makes it easy for concerned family members to know where to check and be sure that everything is going well.25

I never asked any specific questions about social media in my interviews, but four of my non-going interviewees brought them up and mentioned that they had been watching the updates online with interest. Here is how one non-going participant commented about the experience of seeing the daily updates on social media: “Hey, we’re sending family members over there and we’re seeing the results come back immediately, not seven months later, oh that’s what they did six months ago. We’re seeing it immediately. We saw the impact as you’re there, we saw the pictures on Facebook. With social media now you see the impact right as it occurs. Oh ok, that’s where they are; that’s what they’re doing. Then you see pictures of the kids . . . it’s a huge impact, and it’s helped bring people back to what we’re truly about.”

Reporting after the Trip

Upon returning from the trip, I spent the next three Sundays emphasizing concepts related to the mission of God and to our recent mission trip. These included: A general message about the mission of God in the Great Commission preceding the “founding” of the church in Acts 2, a full report about the Desamparados location which Kings Crossing has sponsored for many years, and a multimedia summary of the trip with personal stories about several of the people we encountered. Several of the interviewees commented that they had enjoyed the reports and found them informative and inspiring. One said: “I especially liked the way you did the follow up, where you didn’t immediately tell how the trip went. You had videos prepared and described those people’s lives. You went way into their life.”

Types of Impact

Above I have described the times and places where the most significant impact occurred. But impact alone does not substantiate my research hypothesis that short-term mission trips can help congregations become more missional. Below I will describe the collective ways in which the above experiences shaped the Kings Crossing Church of Christ, based on the viewpoints of my interviewees.

I have analyzed their comments through the lens of missional theology, looking for overlap between areas in which they have perceived change with areas that are typically categorized as missional ways of thinking and being.26 Several themes continually rose to the surface.

Imaginings of New Missional Possibilities

One of the things that amazed me most about my interviews with sending participants is the number of them who started brainstorming about new possibilities for our church in response to the mission trip. One of my interviewees, a non-going participant over 70, spent a sizable portion of her interview brainstorming about ways our church could enhance our commitment to missions and to each other. As she thought and shared, some of her ideas included:

  • Having more deliberate prayer services for the mission work, both before the team leaves and while they are away
  • Doing more to integrate the younger children at church in their class settings with supporting the mission effort and teaching them about our missionaries
  • Having the returned team prepare a meal in the style of Costa Rican cuisine and invite people to come share and reflect more on their part in the mission to “get more involved”
  • Following up with the Martinez family in Costa Rica to learn more of their needs, and working together to meet their needs

Another non-going interviewee felt inspired by the happenings of the trip to look for new ways to serve people nearby: “I know you didn’t only show pictures of people. You talked about them and made them more like people than just photos. Making the awareness . . . it’s not just feeling like I have to go to Costa Rica to do these kinds of missions. I can do these things in my own community and look for opportunities. And be aware that there are those opportunities.” In total, 68% of non-going participants either shared new ideas or commented on how the mission trip was producing fresh ideas and fresh focus on mission among our congregation.27 As an eschatologically-driven ecclesiology is a frequent theme in missional theology, future tense thinking is a close companion of imagination. It is not a large leap to speak of a church with an active imagination about God’s possibilities for them in relation to missional thinking. Even though talk is cheaper than action, thinking must precede action, and the mission trip experience created significant imaginative space for how Kings Crossing could live more fully into God’s mission.

Enhanced Feel of Community

The communal aspect emerged as one of the strongest and most consistent responses I received. In total, 78% of the interviewees made strong statements about how they saw God at work through the strengthening of relationships among the members of Kings Crossing in connection to the mission trip. One interviewee noted how they had not actually known many of the people who went on the trip, but the interviewee’s participation in preparing for the trip still helped him or her feel more connected to the broader church community: “I thought the activities that were done for the fundraising to get people involved . . . I don’t know the group very well that actually went, but we participated in some of the fundraising events, and to see the enthusiasm and the power that people were connecting to . . . that’s refreshing. The events we went to I thought were very well attended; it was much broader than just the group that was going, and it’s that type of event that I think will help build for the future; whatever events we go to. So, I think it’s good.” These perspectives about community were not just a matter of increasing the number of existing surface-level relationships but of a deeper reflection on how the community of God works together in bringing others in to connect to the community, in ways not possible for a single individual:

[God] has a way of putting things in your path and people in your path for reasons. You may not know why at that point, but some day you’ll look back and say, “Now I know why I met that person, because he knew this person who said the right thing to the right person in the right place.” That is in life and with jobs. Your Christian walk. Saying the right thing and the right time to the person. You may not be the first person who’s supposed to say it, but God wants you to say it and have a third person and a fifth person and maybe the seventh person who finally says it and lays it on their heart and gets them to realize that that’s what I’m here for.

Multiple participants made comments on the congregational buy-in to the trip and the unifying effect it had on the congregation. From my own perspective as an organizer of the various events, I noticed often people sitting with and meeting other members of the congregation they had not known before, or at least had never spoken with before. As participants in the fundraising events spanned all demographics, it provided cross-generational contact that is easily lacking when church members might otherwise be organized by their families or peer groups. As a summary of the trip’s impact on the congregation’s relationships and sense of missional identity, here is a statement from one interviewee, who was a non-going participant: “God’s at work more than ever before. We’re starting to see it and it’s exciting. When a church is growing, life is different. When a church is kind of humming along, it’s a place. Right now it’s not just a place. It’s a church. We are the church. That’s where I see us going. We’re growing, and this mission trip is key to it.

Missional Signposts at Kings Crossing

Having looked at the times and locations of impact related to the trip and to the general types of impact made by the trip experience on the congregation, here is an analysis of the responses through the lens of the ten “signposts” in Fitch and Holsclaw’s Prodigal Christianity, which provided a framework for analysis. It is not the case that I found evidence of all signposts, but I have highlighted below the points of correspondence that emerged.”

Missio Dei

The interviewees spoke at length about the flow of history, and how God is interested in saving the people who are lost through the missionary efforts of the church. The mission trip provided participants with a helpful disruption to the normal routines of church life, which allowed them to contemplate what it might mean to get more deeply involved in the mission of God. Though I could not substantiate that this mission trip changed people’s fundamental definitions of what God’s mission involves, there was more conversation going on in the congregation about mission as a result of the trip, and awareness of missional opportunities is an important step in embracing the mission.

Incarnational Ministry and Trinity-Inspired Community

There was an abundance of comments from interviewees about the need to start thinking more about mission opportunities, both abroad and at home. Missional theology has excelled at calling people to think more contextually about how God might be sending them to serve through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. One interviewee invoked Trinitarian ideas as he spoke of how God was trying to work through Kings Crossing: “The way I see things with church is that one of the most important things we do is that we are the light of the world, we are the salt of this earth, we are preserving society, and I think that our interaction with the community through our work is a huge part of what God is doing… So they are preserving society in that way, but the living water, the Holy Spirit is coming through the lives of those people.” With increasing discussions about what it should mean to be the church in our own community, prompted in response to the mission trip, it seems that short-term missions are a natural fit for helping people imagine what it means to become Christ’s representatives to the community around us.28 This will especially be the case when all participants are invited to contemplate what it means to serve incarnationally in another place, as a way to practice how we should serve our own community.

Witnesses to the Kingdom

One of the areas that livened people’s imaginations about being witnesses to the kingdom was in the fundraising efforts. There was excitement in each of the restaurants where we went to raise funds for the trip. Numerous people in those settings commented on how excited they were to have our church in a public setting, open about our commitment to serving in foreign missions. Several talked to me excitedly about people who asked them about our church, and about how they had an opportunity to share about their faith with people who asked. The sense of togetherness at such efforts promotes the idea of a shared life that embodies God’s work among us as witnesses to what God is doing.

Prodigal Relationships

Fitch and Holsclaw describe “prodigal relationships” as one of their missional signposts. They use this term to describe relationships between Christians with various groups of people with whom they might not normally associate, and perhaps intentionally so.29 The most frequent cause for reflection on “prodigal” relationships for the participants was through the stories told in the reporting about the mission trip. The presentations included numerous stories of individuals, their journeys to faith, the challenges of poverty, or their deep struggles in life due to the consequences of their decisions. Interviewees were quick to connect the value of learning other people’s stories to becoming more aware of the community around us and what people’s lives need God’s intervening. Experiencing “prodigal” relationships internationally can open a church up to doing the same thing nearby. One non-going participant reflected on how the mission trip might gradually shift Kings Crossing’s focus on what needs to happen in the local community: “It’s interesting to me to think about how the mission trip could affect the entire congregation. . . . If we are going to be a mission-oriented congregation, then the things we do for a mission in Costa Rica could very well be the same things that we use for a mission here in this community. . . . You can’t do everything, but what does God want us to do? If we want to be a foreign-oriented mission church then that’s good, but then how do we take that stuff and use it here also?” Prodigal relationships, as defined by Fitch and Holsclaw, entail both giving and receiving hospitality—a mutuality that was evident in one fundraiser in particular. Local small businesses were given the opportunity to purchase booth space at our church, and the mission team worked at bringing in both church members and people from the community to shop at the fair. The experience was powerful because the church made connections with local people.

Thinking contextually about Kings Crossing, the community is mostly white-collar, and not in need of handouts or financial assistance. But it became clear at several of the fundraiser events that the community was hungry for a good cause to support. Numerous vendors and shoppers, not members of the church, were excited to be part of supporting the work and felt connected to what we were trying to do in service to God. Several team members commented to me excitedly about the opportunity to talk to many of our guests about matters of faith.

In the past, most of what Kings Crossing would call “outreach” would involve community fair events and giveaways. It was very different to be receivers of the community’s hospitality and support, and it helped open eyes to where God might be at work outside of our own circle in ways that we would not have perceived without our openness to strangers in the community who responded to the call to help in God’s mission.

Higher Narrative Perspective

In the interviews, it seems that most participants, when invited to think about the bigger picture of what God is doing, were glad to reflect on God’s activity in working in and through Kings Crossing. One going participant reflected on how she perceived the mission trip’s impact on the congregation: “I think it made them look at God’s kingdom in a bigger way. A bigger picture of God’s kingdom. Sometimes we get pretty narrow-minded about our congregation, but it’s a worldwide kingdom, and a worldwide battle going on for the lost.” Her views were consistent with the general consensus that one of the main points of value in any mission trip was the change in perspective that people would experience.30 Most frequently, this comment occurred in the context of young people learning to appreciate their blessings when compared to people of lesser financial means. But beyond this, a mission trip is nothing if not a shift in perspective. All participants commented on aspects of God’s mission they had been thinking about in connection to the trip, and it seems that personal journaling enhanced this aspect. Referring both to this quote, and to several others above, it is clear that a mission trip invites people to look at their own local setting from a much different perspective—specifically from the missional way in which God views the opportunities that surround them.

Findings Less Supportive of the Hypothesis

One area of my findings that was not fully supportive of my hypothesis was how people defined the mission of God. Missional theology refuses to create a firm dichotomy between saving souls and meeting temporal, material needs of people. In 2014, I had a phone conversation with Brian Howell, following a reading of his book Short-Term Mission (2012). When I asked how I might approach my project, he had suggested looking for ways that people talk about what mission is. Because many short-term mission trips are largely humanitarian in scope, could the perspectives gained from a short-term mission trip help people to include language about feeding the hungry or serving the poor as mission in the same sense that saving souls is?

The first question of each interview was the broad invitation to define the mission of God, and “what all do you think the mission of God involves?” Though I got a variety of responses, most all of them centered around God’s desire to save souls, and for us to ultimately help with God’s work in saving souls. This would not be contrary to God’s mission, but from a missional lens, this would not be all of it, either.

As I compared the first and second responses regarding how one should define God’s mission, there was no change in the basic way people defined the mission of God, nor were second interview responses particularly more nuanced than first interview responses to the same question. This is an area that would be fruitful for future research. It is also notable that on my mission trips, our work is much more evangelistically oriented, with less of an emphasis on humanitarian relief. It would be profitable for a leader of a trip with a more humanitarian slant to conduct similar research to see if a humanitarian emphasis during the trip would be more impactful in broadening people’s definition of the mission of God to include such things.

Another potential limitation of my research was that at the time I was a new minister in this location, leading a new mission trip. Even though I believe the findings of this research have important implications for creating maximum impact, my own presence as a new leader was a significant part of congregational life at the time—61% of my interviewees alluded to this, and my conspicuous attachment to the mission trip had to have influenced way the participants thought about the trip. It does not, in my opinion, negate the value of what was found, though it does create opportunity for comparison to established mission efforts and how a congregation experiences them.

Formulating a Hypothesis

Based on all of the above, I formulated a three part hypothesis for how short-term missions might help congregations become more missional:

If a congregation participates in a short-term mission trip, and if this congregation makes efforts to involve the whole church in the preparation, sending, receiving, and sharing in the reported experiences of people who go on the mission trip, the congregation will become more missional:

  1. In how they think about the way in which God is at work in the world and the part their church is to play in God’s larger story.
  2. In their relationships within the church, with a greater sense of shared purpose.
  3. In the way they perceive their role within the community around them, and with how they experience hospitality as part of the community, both in giving and receiving.

Applications for Local Churches

Congregations participating in short-term missions have several points at which they can promote missional thinking and practices. Commonly, existing material about short-term missions speaks of the importance of three major phases of the trip: (1) preparing to go, (2) time during the trip itself, and (3) follow up after the trip.31 Below are suggestions for promoting missional development within the sending congregation through their involvement in the short-term mission, categorized under the three phases mentioned here, with a few preliminary reflections about the leaders of such trips.

Consider the Leader

In order for communities to have a more missional narrative, the leaders of these communities will need to help them envision a better story, into which they can live and find meaning.32 The leader typically has much control over the shape of the trip. There are always unforeseen circumstances on trips, such as flight cancelations or inclement weather. But much of the effectiveness of the trip for changing both the sending and receiving community can come from the way the leader shapes the purpose and meaning of the trip.

The leader must exemplify the greatest level of love and respect for the people the team is going to serve. This is demonstrated by planning well in coordination with the receiving community. Communication should be open, and by the leader explaining that this is taking place and why, the whole team learns the practice of listening well to the receiving community.

Before, during, and after the trip, the leader should be inviting the participants, the senders, and the receivers to share in conversations about what it means to participate in God’s mission. No aspect of involvement should be minimized, because no gift from God, used in the service of God is an insignificant thing.33

Likewise, the leader should be careful to articulate the viewpoint that the team is going to work in conjunction with God and the community, and not as a rescue effort, as if God had never been there prior to the group’s trip. God is working to reconcile all things to himself, and if the group understands its trip as a participation in the mission of God, it adds long-lasting significance to what they are doing. The leader must push participants to think deeply about how what the team is doing on the mission field can become a more regular part of how they live in their own community.34 God’s story is not only about what happens far away but also about what happens close to home. Though some ideas sprout up on their own, inspired by experiences, a leader has the power to verbalize healthy ways of thinking about the missio Dei, both locally and abroad. The ways in which people experience and understand a short-term mission trip have much to do with the way in which the leader leads them to do so.

Preparing to Go

Allow for times of prayer during team formation.

Inform the congregation when the process of seeking participants to go on the trip has begun. Invite everyone to pray that God will raise up the right people for the task, and that God will begin preparing opportunities, both abroad and at home. Prayer is especially important just before the team leaves for the trip. It is a powerful experience to have the whole team gathered in front of the assembly and to invite pastoral prayers for blessing, strength, and courage for the team members. This reminds the congregation of the upcoming trip, and it also reminds the going participants that they represent the larger body of Christ.

Preparatory events can involve all members of the congregation.

Fundraising events for the team can provide opportunities for intergenerational friendship over a common mission. Fellowship meals or silent auctions where members are invited to prepare food and donate items will give all members an opportunity to participate, directly helping to make the trip possible. When the team makes progress towards fundraising goals through these events, the collective celebration of the success can be a cohesive, positive experience for the whole congregation.

Dovetail preparation for the mission trip with other ministries at the congregation.

Sometimes it might be necessary to create a new ministry for this purpose, but often it is possible to work with congregational efforts that are pre-existing. For example, many congregations are involved in annual summer church camp programs, and many of these programs involve crafts. If the mission trip involves programs for children, one of the church camp craft options can be to work on assembling packets of whatever the mission team will be distributing. Similar things can be done in Bible classes, where children are invited to assemble or donate items that will help with the mission trip. This can also be done at the adult level, depending on the type of work to be accomplished by the mission team. If there are larger things to be packed, sorted, or assembled, why not invite more participation? In some instances, this can be a sort of outreach to the larger community outside of the church, inviting them to participate in God’s mission through collective acts of compassion for the poor or disadvantaged. Allow non-members to donate or help assemble items to be taken to needy areas on the trip.

Practice for the trip in ways that enhance local outreach.

Beyond items for donation or construction, this approach blends well with other sorts of ministries, such as drama or puppets. Some churches are involved in youth leadership training programs. Rather than developing programs and rehearsing them solely for a one-time presentation, invite the training participants to help create the dramas or puppet shows to be used on the mission trip. Beyond this, these preparations can be taken to places, such as local orphanages, and presented to them for their benefit and enjoyment. It is a way to serve locally while simultaneously preparing for the trip. It will be powerful for the young people preparing the skits and presentations, even if they are not going on the mission trip, to see that their efforts are being used in God’s work in other places, and that they possess the ability to make an impact with their talents in the name of Christ.

During the Trip Itself

Utilize technology to keep the trip in front of the sending congregation.

There are obvious limits to this possibility, because many places where mission trips travel may not have available internet access. Likewise, some places that are hostile to Christianity might be scrutinizing communication to the point that it would not be safe to use this sort of approach. Even so, technology continues to improve around much of the globe, and many short-term teams will have access to the internet while traveling. Making regular posts to social media is a helpful way to inform the sending congregation, and all other interested parties, what is occurring on the trip. Updates can include summaries of the happenings of the day, images from efforts in action or gatherings for worship, or even streaming live events as they occur. People who access and share such postings on social media can help promote much greater awareness of the trip as it takes place.

Have designated times and/or locations where the sending congregation gathers to pray for the effort.

Even if the sending congregation has limited or no ability to be connected to participants during the trip through technology, there is still great benefit to having the congregation gather to continue in prayer for the trip as it goes on. It can provide a strong sense of connection to the trip, even for those not there. But it is also a source of comfort and encouragement, both for the team, and for the members of their family at home who might be experiencing anxiety to have a loved one in a far-away place.

After the Trip

Allow prominent time for a formal presentation to the congregation about the trip.

This is critical if the mission trip is to be a source of encouragement and challenge to the sending congregation. It can provide a positive disruption from the normal routines for a church to have a worship assembly dedicated to sharing how members of their own congregation have shown greater openness to God’s mission through their service on a short-term mission. If the sending members have had much buy-in before the trip occurs, they will be increasingly curious to know what happened as a result of their combined efforts with those of the going team members. This presentation should not be rushed; nor should it be overly delayed in terms of when it occurs. But a clear presentation with highlights of what was done, where it was done, and whom it involved will likely be well-received by those who helped to make the trip possible.

It is especially desirable to create spaces where a variety of team members can share their reflections. Often, team members express anxiety about the trip, and participating in mission work, especially if they are untrained or inexperienced. Those who are able to report positively about how they believe God had used them, despite a lack of knowledge or skill, can be a source of encouragement and empowerment to those thinking of taking more action in the context of the sending congregation. The testimony that “God used me, and it was not as hard as I thought it would be,” is a healthy motivator for promoting more action at home.


In summary, the larger number of times and places where the congregation can feel connected to the trip, the more potential it has for impact. It is helpful to try and practice at home whatever kinds of missional activities are to be embodied on the trip. The trip should not be thought of as the primary event as much as a fresh opportunity to practice being the kind of people that Christians desire to be all the time.

Whether going or not going on the trip itself, everyone can benefit from utilizing new opportunities to practice living missionally. While a short-term mission is merely one part of congregational life, if used deliberately, it can serve as a positive, disruptive experience from the norm that re-awakens the missional imagination of the sending congregation.

Mark Adams is the lead minister for the Kings Crossing Church of Christ where he has been since 2014. He and his wife Carolina met at Harding University where they completed their undergraduate work. Additionally, Mark holds an MDiv from the Harding School of Theology and a DMin from the Hazelip School of Theology. Mark has been leading regular short-term mission trips since 2013 to Costa Rica. Mark blogs at and can be contacted at

1 Rod MacIlvaine, “Selected Case Studies in How Senior Leaders Cultivate Missional Change in Contemporary Churches” (DMin diss., Dallas Theological Seminary, 2009), 33–34.

2 Robert Priest, Terry Dischinger, Steve Rasmussen, and C.M. Brown. ““Researching the Short-Term Missions Movement,” Missiology 34, no. 4 (2006): p.445. The authors lament that the short-term missions movement has been almost entirely divorced from scholarship, missiology, and seminary education. Youth pastors are generally expected to lead these efforts, but have likely not received any education in seminary for how to do so effectively. They call for the short-term missions movement to be much more prominent in scholarly research, as this is a huge component of the modern Christian experience in the West.

3 One fine example of a preparation tool is Anne-Geri’ Fann and Greg Taylor, How to Get Ready for Short-Term Missions: The Ultimate Guide for Sponsors, Parents, and Those Who Go! (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2006). For an example of earlier efforts at how-to guides, see David C. Forward, The Essential Guide to the Short Term Mission Trip (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 1998).

4 Kurt Ver Beek, “The Impact of Short-Term Missions: A Case Study of House Construction in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch,” Missiology 34, no. 4 (2006): 477–97. Ver Beek’s article has been significant as a critique of short-term missions. He made a quantitative study of whether those who went on a short-term mission really gave more money to mission work after their trip than they would have given before they went. Ver Beek has challenged the notion that short-term mission experiences are really so transformative for people who go, claiming that the experience does not produce concrete actions. His conclusion was that over a 5-year period, there was no measurable difference in overall giving between those who had participated in the trip and those who had not. Likewise, he has expressed that the wellbeing of those in Honduras who received help from a short-term mission effort were not ultimately any better or worse off than those who had received no group.

5 Robert J. Priest, ed., Effective Engagement in Short-Term Missions: Doing It Right! (Pasadena, California: William Carey Library, 2008).

6 Ian Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009). There have also been efforts within organizations and denominations to set specific goals and standards for practices. See Jenny Collins, “Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Missions,” Common Ground Journal 4, no. 1 (2006): 10–16; Mark Woodward, “Standards for Short-Term Missions,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 3, no. 1 (2012):; Laura Montgomery, “Reinventing Short-Term Medical Missions to Latin America,” Journal of Latin American Theology 2, no. 2 (2007): 84–103.

7 The Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Mission, “7 Standards of Excellence: A Code of Best Practice for Short-Term Mission Practitioners,”

8 Bryce Norton, “Changing Our Prayer Behaviors through Short-Term Missions,” Missiology 40, no. 3 (2012): 329–41.

9 Brian Howell, Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012).

10 For an overview of this trend, see Matthew Woodley, “Church 2 Church: Congregations Are Trading Short-Term ‘Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em’ Missions for Long-Term Partnerships,” Leadership 32, no. 2 (2011), 64–65.

11 Hunter Farrell, “From Short-Term Mission to Global Discipleship: A Peruvian Case Study,” Missiology 41, no. 2 (2013): 163–76. For another Peruvian perspective, see Marcos Arroyo Bahamonde, “Contextualization of Mission: A Missiological Analysis of Short-Term Missions,” Journal of Latin American Theology 2, no. 2 (2007), 227–47.

12 Greg McKinzie, “Framing the Current Short-Term Missions Discussion,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 3, no. 1 (2012): McKinzie does a nice job highlighting how various dimensions of short-term missions interact and affect each other. He lays out a list of eleven comparisons including benefits, both tangible and intangible, for the goer and the receiver, as well as the financial ramifications. He mentions neither existing research nor possible research directions that focus on the sending congregation, which helps demonstrate the opportunity for this area of study.

13 R. Peterson and W. R. Sneed, Maximum Impact Short-Term Mission: The God-Commanded, Repetitive Deployment of Swift, Temporary, Non-Professional Missionaries (Minneapolis: STEM Press, 2003) p. 128–31. This book is one of the first attempts to treat short-term missions at a scholarly level, defining terminology for different types of participants, and articulating a theology of short-term missions.

14 “Forward,” Essential Guide, 183–85. Forward’s spiral-bound book is a great example of the first round of instructional books, telling people how to work through the logistics of planning a mission trip. The emphasis is almost entirely on the going team itself, with very little about the sending or receiving locations.

15 Gary L. Green, Now What? Spiritual Discernment for Cultural Encounters (Franklin, TN: Carpenter’s Son Publishing, 2013).

16 Craig Altrock, The Shaping of God’s People: One Story of How God Is Shaping the North American Church through Short-Term Missions (Fort Worth, TX: Self Published, 2006). The bulk of Altrock’s research is on people who participated in Let’s Start Talking campaigns. Altrock does look at several factors that represent changes in trip participants upon their return home, such as an increase in giving and involvement. He is considering how going participants impact their churches, and he points to several positive occurrences, such as better-informed missions committees, more members willing to serve on missions committees after having gone on trips, and increased missions giving at a congregational level.

17 Graham Hill, Salt, Light, and a City: Introducing Missional Ecclesiology (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012), 3–5.

18 The Gospel and Our Culture Network, “What and Why,”

19 See Lois Barrett, ed., Treasure in Jars of Clay (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), v. The chapters of the book each address one of the eight missional “patterns. “ These include Biblical Formation and Discipleship, Taking Risks A Contrast Community, Pointing Toward the Reign of God, and Dependence on the Holy Spirit.

20 Ed Stetzer, “What Is the Missional Church? (Part 5) – Forgetting Missions,” The Exchange, November 9, 2015,

21 Collaborators included Ed Stetzer, Alan Hirsch, Tim Keller, Dan Kimball, Eric Mason, J. D. Greear, Crait Ott, Linda Bergquist, Philip Nation, and Brad Andrews. The original website created for this effort no longer exists. The Missional Manifesto in its entirety has been included in Ed Stetzer and Philip Nation, eds., The Mission of God Study Bible: On Mission, with God, Wherever You Are, Kindle ed. (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2012), loc. 591.

22 J. D. Greear, “The Missional Manifesto,” J. D. Greear: Pastor, Author, Theologian, .

23 See David E. Fitch, and Geoff Holsclaw, Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier, Kindle ed. (Peabody: Jossey-Bass, 2013). In my analysis, I will dwell primarily on the signposts which I perceived to be present in my findings.

24 For a more exhaustive description of the research setting and methodology, see Mark S. Adams, “Short-Term Missions and Missional Formation at the Kings Crossing Church of Christ” (dissertation, Lipscomb University, 2016), 58–72. My dissertation is available ot download at

26 For my purposes, I relied mostly on those categories provided by Fitch and Holsclaw, as defined above.

27 Thirteen of nineteen non-going participants shared these ideas and perspectives.

28 Ian Corbett, “The Theology of Mission in Contemporary Practice,” Anglican Theological Review 92, no. 1 (2010): 117–21, provides a refreshing perspective on how a church can strive to be a missionary in its own community, and the practices he suggests are very much in line with the calls of missiologists for better contextualized short-term missions practices.

29 Fitch and Holsclaw, Kindle loc. 3447. They use the term to speak of separations between Christians and other groups around them, such as the gay community, from whom some Christians might deliberately abstain. They also address issues of economic justice and how Christians might turn a blind eye to the impoverished (Kindle loc. 3880). My findings dealt more with the latter category, with how members of my (largely white-collar) congregation were considering interacting more intentionally with people not of their same socioeconomic status.

30 For an example of this type of reasoning, see Paul Borthwick, Youth and Missions: Expanding Your Students’ Worldview (Wheaton: Victor, 1988), 21–35.

31 See the extensive discussion of the “process trilogy” in Peterson, Maximum Impact Short-Term Missions, 127–49. This book was a large step forward in defining specific terminology for future study, and provides meticulous suggestions for increasing the effectiveness of trips for those who go and those who receive especially.

32 Story is the way in which a congregation views, understands, and explains itself in relation to both its history and its surroundings. See Larry A. Goleman, Finding Our Story: Narrative Leadership and Congregational Change, Narrative Leadership Collection (Herndon, VA: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2010), 5.

33 Matthew 10:42 indicates that even a cup of cold water given because of Christ will be acknowledged and rewarded by God.

34 Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 8. Many churches that formerly thought of themselves as agents of Western Christianity are suddenly being confronted with the need to think as missionaries to their own culture, which has largely abandoned them.

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