By John Paetkau in Canada — “And I thought Russian was tough to read and speak,” I thought as I came through customs in Thailand for a short visit. My inability to communicate magnified to me how my impact was minimized compared with the missionaries living in Thailand, who had various levels of speaking and reading ability. They could communicate; I couldn’t. It reminded me how crucial learning the language and culture is for ministry.

I have been involved with short-term trips in some aspect for the past 25 years — receiving as a missionary in Ukraine for close to 20 years, leading and facilitating teams and individuals while serving in Canada. People often ask, “Are short-term trips really worth it?” In short, yes, but only if.  If the why for the what is clarified, then the what becomes an opportunity to have an eternal impact.  

Start by asking why the team is going. Is this opportunity something that could bring eternal benefits to those who will receive the foreign team? Will it truly help those whom the team is going to serve, or will it just be something that makes the team members feel good about serving Jesus somewhere different, somewhere more exotic? Short-term workers need to know that the trip isn’t about them — it is about Christ and what he is doing in the receiving area. They who come will always be blessed if they come with this attitude of service.

Once the why is established, ask what the short-term team will do. Is the receiving ministry involved in Great Commission work, where the ultimate purpose is to reach the lost and make disciples of Christ? Will a short-term team’s participation help or hinder that work? A team from abroad often can enhance the ongoing efforts of the local church or long-term missionaries by coming alongside for a specific ministry task or construction project. The key is not what the short-termers want, but what the receivers need, can facilitate and desire.

While a short-term team often ministers for just a week or two, short-term individuals often commit months or even a year to cross-cultural ministry, giving them more time to learn some culture and language. In Thailand, I visited three individuals who are serving for a little less than a year. They are involved in front-line ministries — building bridges into unreached communities through various means, developing relationships and modeling being a follower of Christ in challenging circumstances. This past summer, another individual went the opposite direction, to serve short-term in Eastern Europe. Different country, different context, different ministries. But ultimately, the “why” is the same. He went in order to come alongside national believers, to bring something unique to the ministry that enhanced what believers there were in process of doing, helping it be more impactful for eternity.

So, are short-term trips worth it? Yes. For through short-term ministries, God can change the lives of those who receive and those who go, for eternity. But to maximize their effectiveness, teams must go mindfully, guided by the answers to the “why” questions and then the “what” questions. 

Coming next 

After a team has the why and what questions answered, the how question remains. Next week, a SEND missionary with decades of cross-cultural experience shares six tips to help short-termers observe and serve without offending. After that, we’ll share how the D House internship program in Japan disciples short-termers through the challenges — and joys — of living and ministering overseas.

More about short-term trips