Short-term mission trips for long-term good

From service to relationship

Mary Glenn Image Mary Glenn | Feb 1, 2016

Photo by Regis Freyd

What is one hope you have for your mission trip in Los Angeles?

This is the question I typically ask students coming to L.A. to serve for a weeklong trip. Los Angeles welcomes thousands of students each year who want to offer care here in the city of angels. For the last several years, I have been working with a variety of colleges, non-profit organizations, and churches who seek to re-imagine short-term mission trips in the city.

The responses I get to this question are all over the map, but quite often I hear some variation of this answer:

I cant wait to bring Jesus to people in need.

I love students’ desire to serve and care for others. Yet this kind of posture raises all kinds of questions for me as someone facilitating a team of outsiders in my city. Questions like:

How can we help students discover ways to serve without doing harm?

How can we help students discover how Jesus is already present in the city?

I encourage students to enter their week of service with the hope to share their lives and receive others in mutuality instead of trying to fix what they may think is broken. In particular, we look for ways we might encounter Jesus in the people we meet, each one made in God’s image.

During their service immersion, students stay at a local homeless rescue mission, sharing facilities with men and women who are part of a yearlong discipleship program. Over the week they get to know these individuals and share stories with each other.

When debriefing one morning, one of my students shared about a conversation he had the evening before with one of the men in the program. They each had shared deeply about their journeys including struggles, celebrations, and how God had walked with them. They realized they had more in common than they thought. In this conversation, God was working through both of them. The insight this student took away felt life-changing. He told us he would never forget what they shared. Later in the week I ran into the man from the program and he shared with me the same insight. We move from service to relationships when we provide people platforms to engage with each other and share their stories with those whom they might not connect with in their spheres of community.

Learning to see

This process of moving from service to relationship begins with (as my friend John Tiersma Watson says) asking God to be our lens so that we might see people and places through his eyes. This kind of vision enables us to see not only deficits, but also promises. With this perspective, we can enter into a city, share our lives, and trust what God will do.

Despite the potential pitfalls, there are many positive outcomes to cross-city engagement. As we lead students through these trips, several frames can help us view the experience differently:

  • We recognize that Jesus is already in the city. Our job is to help our students discover God’s handprint and presence in the city and its people.
  • We dont come with the answers but enter with a posture of learning. We do this best by asking questions. Our human tendency is to want to make things right. Sometimes we may try to fix what isn’t broken and in the process cause shame or cycles of dependence.
  • Jesus desires transformation, not change. We change our clothes, our address, and sometimes our jobs. God brings transformation in our minds, hearts, and lives. Rather than just changing circumstances (which are often symptoms of deeper realities), we long to see how God is working on root issues. Transformation takes more time but is more holistic. How can we help students to partner with God’s transformative work in themselves and in communities?

What is the role of short-term trips in long-term missional engagement?

The short-term mission (STM) trip movement started in the 1960’s and gained popularity in the 1980’s/1990’s.[1] According to one resource,[2] “2-3 million people from the U.S. go on STM’s internationally, 20-25 percent of any given church members will go on international STM sometime in their lifetime … $1.6 billion is a conservative estimate of international STM spending per year.” With so many resources invested into STMs, we want to make sure we are being good stewards.

One of the challenges of STMs is that they can create unequal relationships. We maybe believe that the people coming to serve are bringing what those in need will receive. But in reality, there are layers of need on both sides. Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett[3] define poverty as broken relationships rather than just lack of stuff. When we biblically and holistically define poverty, it impacts our lens and approach to others. We are all in need of God’s healing, shalom, and reconciliation in our relationships with God and each other. When we understand poverty in this way, it allows us to see our need both for God and each other, and opens us to the possibility of learning and receiving from our hosts. This also helps reframe short-term work in light of longer-term engagement and transformation in both the sending community and the host community.

From service to justice to relationship

Over a ten-year period, researchers studied a Central Texas congregation in its partnership with a residential children’s home in Guatemala.[4] One of the most significant perceived outcomes of the partnership was the sharing of love. “Most participants if not all shared that love was the number one need which this team met.” However, one of the limitations of this relationship was the focus of participants providing love for the children but not receiving love in return. In other words, mutuality was not highlighted as an objective or outcome of the short-term trip.

Our traditional “serve” models utilize a “to” or “for” approach. We do service “to” people “in need” or we provide resources “for” them. These kinds of “service” approaches can result in dependence, shaming, isolation, arrogance, and even harm. In contrast, asset-based community development (ABCD) is a model and methodology for the sustainable development of communities focused on their assets, values, and strengths. This model was developed over twenty years ago by John McKnight and John Kretzmann.[5] Through their research and community work, they discovered ABCD principles that identify the gifts of people and communities as well as a methodology of working with local leaders and residents for transformation.

This assets-based approach mirrors the approach of God—a ministry of presence. Jesus is Immanuel, God with us.[6] God models this idea of “with” in who he is and how he lives. Pain, challenges, and injustices in a community may cause sadness or outrage in our hearts. Service may be our first response. But God invites us to move from service to seeking justice, all through relationship.[7]

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What is Mutuality in Mission?

I met my friend Carmelita several years ago at New City Church. We joined the same small group. Carmelita loves God and people so freely. She spends much of her time in Skid Row serving at two of the missions. When not serving in the kitchen, she walks the halls of the missions and around Skid Row, calling people by name, giving out hugs, and sharing a laugh. To many she is an adopted mother and grandmother. Her role is vital to the wellbeing of many in the Skid Row community. But this is not a one-way transaction. Carmelita models mutuality. She gives and receives love. By God’s design, we are called to live in such a way that creates an environment of interdependence.

Nelson Mandela describes the African concept of ubuntu as, “I need you in order to be me, and you need me in order to be you. Mutuality is the condition or quality of being mutual, marked by reciprocity and mutual dependence. Mutuality ensures that the interaction and experience is not just about meeting one’s needs, but it encourages empathy and concern between parties and a sense of the self as part of a larger relationship unit.

In first few days of immersions I lead, students are anxious to serve and provide practical acts of kindness. I continue to encourage them to enter into conversations and share their lives. By the third day, something clicks and they understand how mutuality is changing them. They begin to see God’s heart for us to be in relationship with rather than doing service to. In the process, they experience interdependence. They find they have more in common with others than they think and realize that they have something to learn.

Extend the trip back home: Re-entry

When students return from a mission trip experience, they often will encounter the challenges of re-entry. How do we help students translate their experience, transformation, and newfound understandings into their home communities? It can be difficult and at times painful to leave the place where we have encountered Jesus, people, and place in meaningful ways. Here are a few ways to help students during the re-entry process:

  • Begin conversations and provide teaching about re-entry before, during and after the trip. (The Sticky Faith Service Guide is packed with exercises for all three stages.)
  • Encourage students to find prayer partners to pray with them throughout their trip.
  • Provide ways for students to apply new learnings and understandings to their home context.
  • Have students share testimonies about what they are learning and how they are being transformed.
  • Follow up with students regarding their transformation process in the months after the trip.
  • Strengthen long-term relationships with people and organizations in communities into which you are bringing your students. Invite those people and organizations to serve with you in your home community.

Next Steps

Short-term mission trips have the potential to be transformational for all involved. How can we create a movement of students committed to their own transformation as well as the transformation of communities? How can we turn short-term mission trips into long-term transformation?

Here are some next-step ideas:

  • Evaluate your current model for mission and service trips and ask questions like, What are the values[8] and theology communicated and lived out in this model? Who is benefiting from the trip? How might those in the communities we are “serving” be harmed or impacted negatively? How are we partnering with local hosts? Are we utilizing a “to”, “for,” or “with” approach?
  • Work with students to create values and theology that will holistically shape how they see themselves, others, and place, including providing good theological and practical training.
  • Provide opportunities for students to craft their own stories and teach them how to share with others as well as listen to and honor others’ stories. Share stories of transformation before, during, and after, including what they have learned from others in the communities you are engaging with.

[1] There are over 1,000 U.S. mission organizations and ministries as well as colleges that send students on service project trips. See

[2] Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, Helping Without Hurting in Short-term Missions (Chicago: Moody, 2014), 9-10.

[3] Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself (Chicago: Moody, 2014).

[5] John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing A Communitys Assets (Chicago: ACTA, 1993).

[6] John 1:1-2, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.

[7] In Deep Justice in a Broken World (Zondervan, 2008), Chap Clark and Kara Powell tell the story of the parable of cracked roads (p. 11). When seeking to “right wrongs” we want to make sure we aren’t just responding to symptoms but identifying root issues. We can help our youth by teaching them how justice needs to be deep and it can’t be separated from love as we are so exhorted in John 13:33-35 (p. 242).

[8] In an effort to provide standardized values and guidelines for short-term mission trips, the Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Mission ( has outlined seven standards including “empowering relationships”. Rather than just focusing on service, justice and system change, we need to engage in mutually transforming relationships.

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Mary Glenn Image
Mary Glenn

Dr. Mary Glenn, Assistant Professor of the Practice of Chaplaincy and Community Development with Fuller Theological Seminary, previously served as an Urban Youth Ministry professor with the Fuller Youth Institute. Mary has more than 20 years of youth/college/community pastoral experience and she has served as a law enforcement chaplain for twenty-plus years. Mary loves cities, particularly Los Angeles (where she calls home), and she regularly leads Downtown Los Angeles urban immersions and city walks.

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