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Two Weeks Overseas
Canadian Christians spend around $300 million annually on short-term missions, so it's worth asking how such trips can be done well.

Nicole had vacationed in the Dominican Republic at Puerto Plata before but this time was different. She had brought school supplies to give to a local school. A guide Nicole knew took her to Murioz, a Haitian refugee community ten minutes from the hotel complex. There she met Pastor Ricardo who had opened his small church building as a school for Haitian children unable to attend Dominican schools. Pastor Ricardo poured out his story to Nicole. He said he was thinking of leaving the church to find work that would allow him to support his wife and five children better. Nicole prayed with Pastor Ricardo and promised to return.

Potential missionaries pray for the nations of the world.

That was January 2004. Three months later Nicole was back in Munoz with three people from her church in Ottawa. The Canadian congregation  would partner with Pastor Ricardo and his church, providing a small stipend and bringing small teams of people to help in the daily routine of the school.

Nicole visits Munoz twice a year, working in the school, assisting with food collection for a local orphanage and preaching on Sundays. The supplies brought from Canada — such as toothbrushes, crayons, notebooks, T-shirts, undergarments and good sandals — are left with Pastor Ricardo to distribute after the teams have left.

Nicole's goal is not to "fix" the lives of people in need; rather, "it is all about building relationships, respect and learning from each other." Clearly both the teams from Ottawa and the people of Munoz are enriched. As Nicole says, "I enjoy spending time with the people of Murioz and I am always pleasantly surprised during each visit how I get to see the goodness of God, His provision and His joy over the simple things."

Short-term missions have grown rapidly over the past 15 years in Canada among all kinds of Christians. The grassroots nature of many short-term mission trips makes it difficult to determine how many Canadians are involved. The low end estimate is 150,000 mission trips a year, but it may be double that.

While teenagers and young adults are attracted to short-term missions, an increasing number of adults, tired of chasing success and seeking for significance, are also volunteering for these trips. Most trips are two weeks or less in duration. Canadian Christians expend around $300 million annually on short-term missions. Given the size of this expenditure and the number of people involved it is worth asking how short-term missions can be done well.

Why are we going?

The first question to ask when a short-term mission is proposed is: Why are we going? The temptations of trying to keep up with the church down the road by offering ever more exotic trips or packaging trips as "volun-tourism" (emphasizing the tourism) need to be avoided.

Both those going on trips and the people in the communities they visit need to benefit…

Both those going on trips and the people in the communities they visit need to benefit, argues Mark Crocker, a cross-cultural consultant based in Calgary. If only one side benefits then deep, lasting partnerships cannot be built.

A further question is: What are we going to do and is it really needed?

A team went to an African country. Upon arriving at their destination they asked what needed to be done. The answer was nothing. The mission team insisted — they had come to help, to do something. Finally the village elders said "We don't need that building over there, could you tear it down?"

As the job was ending the team members asked "What did you use this building for?"

"We didn't use it for anything," the villagers replied. "A couple of years ago people came from North America on a short-term mission and built it, but we did not need it."

Careful listening makes it possible to discover what is needed and how short-term missionaries can best respond. Peace Portal Alliance Church in Surrey, B.C., has a partner church in Uganda to which the congregation sends teams. This relationship started when a Ugandan who had been attending Peace Portal Church returned home and started a congregation.  A relationship existed prior to sending teams to Uganda.


Once the decision to go has been made and the trip’s purpose is clear, the preparation of the team can begin.  Six months appears to be the minimum amount of preparation time for a short-term mission trip.  In addition to raising funds, getting passports and packing stuff for the trip, teams are wise to meet at least monthly to build team cohesion, pray together, learn about the place they will be visiting and some of the language, and develop cultural intelligence.

… no amount of training can sufficiently prepare people for the inevitable culture shock…

Crocker, who trains short-term teams, notes most Canadians understand that people in other countries eat different food, speak a different language and wear different clothes but often fail to grasp that there are much deeper, more important differences between Canadian culture and the destination culture.  While no amount of training can sufficiently prepare people for the inevitable culture shock, it is an important part of the preparation.

Choosing a good team leader is an essential part of the preparation, according to Mike Miller of the Rock Church in Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia, which sends seven to ten teams a year throughout the world.  A good leader needs to have some mission experience, be spiritually mature and know how to build community among people of different ages and life experiences.


Short-term missionaries are guests and need to exhibit the traits of good guests:  flexibility and humility.  Projects get modified, equipment breaks down, promised materials do not arrive – these and a host of other things require adjustments to even the most carefully planned trip.  Being in another country with a different culture, language and understanding of time requires flexibility.

… lasting impact grows out of relationships, not out of projects.

The need to be flexible, however, is not an excuse for not planning; rather, it is an opportunity to be open to the unexpected and the surprising.

The short-term mission trips that attract the most interest, according to Dr. Charles Cook of Calgary, chairperson of the EFC Global Mission Roundtable, are those that build something, accomplishing a tangible goal.

Trips focused on building relationships between Canadian Christians and Christians from elsewhere in the world are not oversubscribed.  Yet Nicole’s story shows lasting impact grows out of relationships, not out of projects.

Humility is required to sit with another person, listen to his story and not say “Back in Canada we know a way to solve this problem.”

Short-term missionaries are accused at times of doing more harm than good through their cultural insensitivity and lack of humility.

A short-term team had just finished building a water reservoir for a single mother and her family in the mountains of Honduras.  In this particular region it was considered inappropriate for a man to touch a woman other than a relative.  To celebrate a job well done, the men on the project put the single mother in the reservoir and started to pour water on top of her.  Everyone, including the woman, was laughing.  As this was going on, John, the long-term missionary acting as the liaison for the team, arrived.  John was upset by what he saw, recognizing the cultural violation involved.  Six months after the team had gone home, John was in the same village and the villagers with great joy and much laughter told the story of how the crazy “gringos” had put the woman in the reservoir.

This story suggests how dangerous the mistakes of short-term missionaries can be but also how God can nonetheless build relationships that span cultural divides.

As short-term missionaries join to worship with their Christian sisters and brothers in other parts o the world, the human-made barriers that divide people from one another come down as all join in the praise of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  An important part of short-term mission trips is worshipping with people from the host country.


Mark Crocker begins the debriefing process with the first planning meeting, challenging team members to ask themselves how they will live differently as a result of the trip.  Debriefing continues throughout the trip with nightly team meetings.  As the mission is winding down, Crocker asks team members:  “In your time here you have discovered things about yourself that you like.  How are you going to take those things back to your life in Canada?”

Congregations across the country have been changed. 

Charles Cook notes trips can change lives:  “Being on a short-term mission trip can reignite the spiritual life of Canadian Christians.”

Congregations across the country have been changed.  Innerkip Presbyterian Church in Innerkip, Ontario, has a long-standing relationship with a community in Nicaragua.  The work in Nicaragua caused the leaders at Innerkip to ask “Where in our community in Canada are there people who need our help just like the people in Nicaragua?”

Scott Dickie at Peace Portal Alliance in British Columbia identifies a similar transition in his congregation, now “more generous to people who are poor and in need” in their local community and more likely to sing songs about justice and compassion in worship.

Christine O’Reilly of the Watford and Thedford pastoral charge in rural Ontario, whose Presbyterian congregations sent a team to help rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, notes the trip was important for the men who participated, allowing them to do something physical in their service to God.

Mike Miller of Rock Church in Sackville points to teenagers high-fiving 50-year-olds after worship as a sign of the connections short-term missions can build within congregations.

Short-term missions are part of the Canadian church landscape.  Used wisely they bring hope and the Gospel to people around the world and can transform Christians in Canada into world Christians.

Peter Bush is pastor of Westwood Presbyterian Church in Winnipeg.  He is the son of missionary parents and has lived in Lebanon and Iran.

Originally published in Faith Today, November/December 2007.




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