3 Pitfalls to Avoid on Short-Term Mission Trips

Going on a mission trip can be highly rewarding: building new friendships, discovering commonalities and differences, sharing knowledge and receiving from others. To maximize our impact, here are 3 things I think we should avoid and some alternative suggestions.

  1. Avoid Bringing Lots of Candy.

We all want to make kids happy. We all know that many kids in poorer countries have little access to things beyond the basics. And, yes, candy can be inexpensive and an easy item to bring. I’m not saying don’t ever bring candy, but don’t overdo it.

While candy makes a child smile today, consider that many children in developing countries do not have access to much dental care. And if it exists, consists only of pulling rotten teeth. Also, we know that many children in developing countries are undernourished.

Suggestions:

  • For snacks, try something healthier like a small granola bar or raisins or buy local fruit, like a stalk of bananas, if it’s inexpensive. You could bring toothbrushes and travel-size toothpaste. (Though if you go to a rural area, the people may just use a “toothbrush” stick and it may not be good to introduce something they cannot continue to obtain.)
  • Bring small school supplies. While giant stores in the U.S. have huge back-to-school sales, in many developing countries like Mozambique there are no back-to-school sales. A pack of pencils can cost a $1 and that can be a half a day’s wage. Candy is gone in a second, but the school material will bless the child all year.
  • Bring small crafts to do. Many schools do not do much for art because there is no budget and crafts can be a great learning experience.
  • Many young children in developing countries just play with plastic or tin cans and local toys are so cheap they often break within a few days. (I know from several disappointing Christmas gifts when our kids were little.) Bring small plastic toys, like toddler toys, from fast-food restaurants (avoiding toys like witches or Halloween items). You can sometimes get bags of them at yard sales or second-hand stores. These toys are great because they are durable and can be easily washed unlike stuffed animals which can quickly become unhygienic as children play in the dirt and sand.

2. Avoid Handing Out Cash Without Local Input

There are so many needs that you can feel overwhelmed. You may see staggering poverty. It’s easy to think if a problem can be “fixed” with $10 or $50, why don’t we just fix it?

Just like in the U.S., there are people who just migrate from church to church or non-profit looking for a handout. Someone may come to you with a  personal request knowing travelers have money. Organizations and churches have needs. But our Western perspective of help is not always the same as others.

Personal giving can provoke jealousy. In one of our churches in northern Mozambique I gave a pastor’s wife a few used clothes and a bottle of medicine for wounds since the church was far from any clinic. She expressed her gratitude, but a few weeks later asked me not to give her anything more because some people were saying mean things about her out of jealousy they didn’t receive anything.

Needs are seen differently. Years ago we organized the building of a parsonage. The mission team started to dig a sewer for the toilet and the local pastors told us that they didn’t want a toilet or shower installed because there was no running water. It was their facility, so we respected their decision and left the bathroom empty with a drainage hole in the back corner to dispose of bucket bath water. (Running water did come to their area at a later date and a toilet was installed. The point is we would not want someone coming to our house in America and offering to install something we didn’t want. Be respectful.)

Suggestions:

  • If a church has been building their church for a number of years, you could encourage them by matching their donations, i.e. for every window they purchase, you will purchase one. This way they still have ownership, but they are also feeling encouraged and blessed.
  • Entrepreneurs or business students might be needed to teach basic financial or business skills.
  • It may be helpful to invest in paying tuition for someone to get a certificate in computers, electricity, etc. rather than just giving money.
  • Ask if they need help in the national church or organization’s administrative area like a used laptop or used books for their library. Sometimes it helps if we can assist with one larger item, then they are able to manage the smaller ones.
  • If Bibles are needed, buy a box and let them be sold for a discount. (Giving things out for free sometimes increases expectations that future leaders should give things for free.)

3.  Avoid Thinking of It Simply As a Trip to Help “Them” 

The work you are going to do on your missions trip will bless and encourage the local people, but it shouldn’t just be a “job” to do. You will impact others by doing whatever work God places before you each day. But it’s more than that. Philippians 1:6 reminds us that God is doing a good work in us and will continue it to completion when we meet Him face to face. God wants to change you, too.

Suggestion:

  • Formulate some questions to ask yourself or to journal about your trip, like “Lord, is there something I should start or stop doing based on what I’ve learned in this experience?” or “Why am I so blessed to be a part of this trip?” or “How can I keep praying for/blessing the work here after I go home?”

We all want to make an impact on the world. Let’s be more strategic in making our trips a win for the short term and the long term.

 

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