Why Short Term Missions Are Harmful

By Liz Powers, Community Development Coordinator

“Elephant and Mouse were best friends. One day Elephant said, “Mouse, let’s have a party!” Animals gathered from far and near. They ate. They drank. They sang. And they danced. And nobody celebrated more and danced harder than Elephant. After the party was over, Elephant exclaimed, “Mouse, did you ever go to a better party? What a blast!” But Mouse did not answer. ”Mouse, where are you?” Elephant called. He looked around for his friend, and then shrank back in horror. There at Elephant’s feet lay Mouse. His little body was ground into the dirt. He had been smashed by the big feet of his exuberant friend, Elephant. ”Sometimes, that is what it’s like to do missions with you Americans,” the African storyteller commented. “It is like dancing with an Elephant.”

– Excerpt from When Helping Hurts by Corbett & Fikkert



Here at Next Step we talk a lot about doing missions responsibly. For us this looks like doing our best to equip our staff and mission teams to enter communities with a mission mindset, following the lead of local leadership in our partner communities, hiring community members on our staff team whose role is to bridge the gap between the community and our mission teams, the list could go on. For a second here, though, I want to take a step back and identify the need for all of this intentionality. Why can mission trips be harmful in the first place?


  1. Good Intentions Are Not Enough

Much like the elephant in the story, often times we go into our mission trip with the best of intentions. Whether that be to grow personally, to learn about a new culture, to invest in a work project or to help out on a community initiative – we typically head into mission trips hoping to use one of these platforms to glorify Christ. These are all great reasons to sign up for a mission trip! However, just as the elephant’s good intentions did not ultimately serve his mouse friend, sometimes our good intentions don’t actually produce helpful service. Helpful service is a result of good intentions AND responsible execution.


  1. We Are Not the Experts

The term worldview can be described as the lens through which we interpret the world around us. It helps us decipher what we think is wrong or right, it can influence the way in which we talk, and even shapes what we define as ‘normal’. Each and every one of us has our own worldview that has been shaped by the environment we have grown up in. One of the most common pitfalls of well-intentioned short term missions groups is failing to adjust our worldview to the context of a different community. It is easy to enter a new place and judge the successes and challenges of the culture looking through what our lens tells us is ‘right’ or ‘helpful’. This is why it is IMPERATIVE to practice being a humble servant by truly letting local community leaders lead our efforts during our trip – even if it means doing something in a way we aren’t used to or doing a totally different project than we had in mind. They are the experts of their community, if we want to be truly helpful we must follow THEIR lead.


  1. Jesus is OUR Savior

All too often we confuse our intentions to serve with the intention to save. This may very well be the core of where many short-term missions efforts all-too-often become harmful. Your mission trip is an amazing opportunity for you to participate in truly meaningful work as a visitor in a community. You will likely have conversations and experiences that inspire true life transformation during your trip. But, as we anticipate these things we must recognize that they will come to fruition only by the will of the Lord of the universe, not because of our intentions or efforts. Jesus Christ is hard at work both in the community you are visiting and in the one that you call home. The community you are serving in for the week does not have more or less of a need for a Savior than we do. If we aren’t intentional to live into this truth, we can easily fall victim to appointing our own selves as the Savior. This not only strays from our goal to uplift HIS name, but can also cause us to view the community we are visiting through a condescending and undignifying lens, as ‘lower’ than ourselves- the exact opposite of how Christ calls us to perceive those around us.


Next Step Ministries