It is impossible to deny the popularity of short-terms missions. In 1989, there were only 120,000 Americans who went on short-term missions, but by 2006 that number had increased to 2,200,000 Americans going on short-term missions annually.1 And those numbers are probably even higher today. It is not uncommon to hear people rave about the huge benefits of short-term missions in mobilizing young people to the mission field, increasing missions giving from the home side, and making relationships for long-term impact on the mission field. But are these claims true?
As I’ve been reading through “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself”, I came across this summary of a study done on the long-term impact of short term missions:
Kurt Ver Beek, an assistant professor of sociology at Calvin College with more than twenty years of experience in Honduras, has conducted research into the long-run impacts of the STM trips on team members, looking beyond their initial statements to their actual behaviors.2 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. It is also hard to support the claim of increases in the number of long-term missionaries, given that the number of long-term missionaries is fairly stable despite the explosion of STMs. And as for all those great relationships that get developed, the reality is that only a small percentage of STM team members ever have any contact—at all—with their new "friends" after the trip ends.3
There is much more to be said about short term missions. But in light of this study, evangelical churches need to seriously consider whether the time, effort, and money that they put into short-term missions are really producing the results that they think they are. If they are not, then some trips may need to be eliminated or substantially modified. And at the very least, churches need to be more realistic in setting goals for what they hope their short term trips will accomplish.
If you want some more food for thought on this issue, I would strongly recommend reading Chapter 7, “Doing Short-Term MISSIONS Without Doing Long-Term HARM” in “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself” by Brian Fikker and Steve Corbett.