Many scholars in the field of World Missions have recently been noting the ineffectiveness of short-term mission trips. In their book When Helping Hurts, Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett question the effectiveness of short-mission-trips, partly because the total cost to send the team abroad could be used instead to hire indigenous workers for a year! This investment is often justified because we expect the visiting team to continue giving to missions when they return. Yet findings prove otherwise. “Kurt Ver Beek’s data indicates that there simply is not a significant increase in long-term missions giving for either the team members or their sending churches” (Fikkert and Corbett).
As a long-term missionary who receives more than 20 mission teams a year, I can see their point. When some people visit, we enjoy their company for a week (or for a day if they came to serve at other project but just visit AFE); we see that they are touched or moved by the children of AFE, but then we never hear from them again. My hope for these people is that they plug in somewhere else, to be used by God to help the poor in some other capacity. But Fikkert and Corbett suggest that this is often not the case.
This begs the question, what makes an effective mission team? What happens on a team so that its participants experience long-lasting change from their time abroad?
It is difficult to measure how much impact a visit to AFE can have on team. I believe the job of follow-up falls on the leader of the trip, or the pastor of the visiting group. Did the participants make a covenant with God while they were here? What happened with that covenant when they returned home? How are they doing spiritually a year after their trip? Are they still spending themselves on behalf of the poor once they return, either by supporting a ministry or more direct involvement?
One way to monitor the long-term involvement on trip participants is by child sponsorship. Sponsorship is a commitment that lasts a year after the mission trip ends and it involves Americans supporting the poor from their personal resources. It is not the only way to determine long-term impact, but it helps.
With the last mission team that we received, a family team of 25 from Washington Cathedral in Redmond, WA, the results were quite astounding. Of the 13 families who made up the team, 10 sponsorship relationships emerged from this trip. The rest of the families contribute to the church’s auction which raises money for AFE. Every single person on this trip is involved in a long-term relationship with the poor of the Tegucigalpa dump. How did this happen?
I interviewed the trip leader, Debi Raines, who is a Holy Yoga instructor and member of Washington Cathedral to find out more information.
Where did the participants come from?
Most of those who go on our mission/work trips are from Washington Cathedral, but we usually have a couple people who come from other local churches. Those who are not from Wa Cathedral typically have a friend who went on the trip in previous years and spoke so favorably about their experience it encouraged them to join the group.
How were they involved in God’s kingdom work before coming on this trip?
We encourage all to be plugged into church in some way. Most are involved in small groups, bible study, involved in some sort of leadership, or discipleship program. Several members of our team have been to Honduras on previous trips and have formed such a bond with the kids and staff at AFE, that they return every year.
What kind of preparation did they have?
We start meeting as a team 2-3 months before the trip. As a group we learn about the Honduran culture and customs. We talk about the different levels of social status and the difference between about where we live compared to those who live in the dump community. The team is encouraged to be open about the Honduran ways and not to think that our way is better. We also prepare to work as a team and we spend time getting to know one another and setting the intention of the trip clearly before we step on the airplane.
What kind of follow up did they have?
We do follow up with emails and phone calls when we return home. We also gather for a dinner together about a month or so after arriving home. This reunion gives us an opportunity to talk to each other about favorite memories, what we learned about ourselves, what God has been speaking to us about the people and ministries in Honduras. The team leaders try to follow up with the team members encouraging them to follow through with the plans God laid on their hearts and continue to pray for AFE and the kids and staff. The annual Honduran auction is also a great follow up and reminder to our team. The annual benefit auction raises money each year to support AFE and the team is strongly encouraged to support and attend the auction.
What makes this group of people different than other mission trips?
Washington Cathedral requires each team member to personally invest in the cost of the trip instead of allowing mission trip members to fundraise to cover their travel cost. We think that the personal investment in the trip helps each member to reap the most rewards. As Jesus says, “where your treasure is, your heart is also.”
(This is also what Fikkert and Corbett suggest to improve the effectiveness of a short-term trip. They write, “Require every member of an STM to pay for a portion of the expenses from his or her own pocket. Why? Remember, this is a learning experience, not a trip to save the world. Learners are more likely to value their training if they are paying for a portion of it.”)
How would you say the group was impacted during their time in Honduras? What made the most difference?
The group was greatly impacted on this trip and I believe it came from the personal relationships that were formed as well as the team project (building a house for a family). Having one-on-one time with the AFE kids during VBS and when the kids joined us after school for meals was a wonderful way to get connected. I don’t think I have every received so many hugs and smiles. Another huge impact on our team was the project. Building a home for a family, even if we were just a small part of it, was an amazing experience for our whole team. Being part of something that so significantly changed a family’s life is something we’ll never forget. Seeing the gratitude on the parent’s faces and the smiles of the children knowing that have a roof over their heads and a place to call their own.
How have you personally been impacted by sponsoring a child?
Having a sponsored child has been one of the best things we’ve done for our family. Our kids remember Elen every day in their prayers; they know that she is also praying for them. Our children have become pen pals with Elen and it was the most amazing thing to see my daughter (Rachel, 9 years old), meet Elen the first day we were in Honduras. They had an instant connection that lasted the whole trip. Praying for Elen reminds us every day how blessed we are and how important it is that we care for others. We feel like Elen is part of our family, we look forward to her letters and I know she looks forward to ours. Elen was carrying the pictures that we sent her of our family when our team arrived at AFE. She was just as anxious to meet us as we were to meet her. Rachel has been talking about going back to see all her friends in Honduras since the day we returned home and our other children look forward to one day meeting her as well. Knowing that Wa Cathedral will continue to have annual trips down to AFE is such a blessing because we know that Elen will be part of our lives, through prayers, letter and visits for years and years.
* If you are interested in increasing the effectiveness of your shot-term mission team, contact email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org for resources.