How we unknowingly sabotage short-term missions

Kara Powell Image Kara Powell | Feb 9, 2016

Photo by laurenmarek

Just in time for your spring break service trips, The Sticky Faith Service Guide offers practical and field-tested exercises on how to translate short-term work into long-term change. Whether it’s a half-day local service project or a two-week trip overseas this summer, this resource will benefit both your students and the communities you serve.

“Do no harm.”

We at the Fuller Youth Institute wish that mantra was a reality in short-term mission trips.

We are well-intentioned. We want to do good. But often without realizing it, we sabotage our short-term mission trips by not thinking through how our work affects the locals hosting us.

Consider this haunting account from a leader in a Latin American country:

The indigenous staff in my organization lead weekly Bible studies with children to low-income communities … After a short-term team conducts a Bible study in one of these communities, the children stop attending the Bible studies of my organization. Our indigenous staff tell me that the children stop coming because we do not have all the fancy materials and crafts that the short-term teams have, and we do not give away things like these teams do. The children have also come to believe that our staff are not as interesting or as creative as the Americans that come on these teams.[1]


I have been that leader passing out candy, clothes, and soccer balls. I have been with students as people in Mexico and Guatemala crowded around our vans, eager for anything we had to give away.

Rarely did I think about what our giveaways were doing to the local leaders. The leaders who will be there not 7 days a year like us, but all 365.

Is it possible that we are well intentioned, but actually hindering God’s work globally because we don’t think about the locals affected by our work?

Having studied the research and had conversations with global leaders, my unfortunate answer is: Sometimes.

That’s why I am so inspired by a Texas youth leader whose church has decided to view their work through the lens of this question: How does this affect the locals? When this church was building a handful of houses in the Dominican Republic, they realized that some of the locals who work construction would not be working that week because they as Americans were working. So they figured out the wages of the construction workers and paid them for the time they lost.

That. Gives. Me. Chills.

On your next short-term mission trip, ask these questions:

  1. What locals could we partner with (and listen to ahead of time!) to make sure the work we do sets up the local church to win year-round?
  2. Who is being positively affected by our work?
  3. Who is being negatively affected by our work? As in the example above, it could be construction laborers, or food service providers, childcare workers, or teachers (to name a few).
  4. What can we do to compensate (whether it be financially or through another means) those who are negatively affected?

What else do you do to make sure that your short-term mission work “does no harm?”

[1] Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett, When Helping Hurts (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 169.

Kara Powell Image
Kara Powell

Kara Powell, PhD, is the chief of leadership formation and executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) at Fuller Theological Seminary. Named by Christianity Today as one of "50 Women to Watch," Kara serves as a youth and family strategist for Orange and speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara has authored or coauthored numerous books, including Faith Beyond Youth Group, 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Growing With, Growing Young, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family and the entire Sticky Faith series. Kara and her husband, Dave, are regularly inspired by the learning and laughter that comes from their three teenage and young adult children.

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