Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “Short-term mission trips are a waste. They do more harm than good. Americans only go on mission trips to help feel better about themselves and their lives. Short-term teams aren’t trained to serve cross-culturally.
By Ron Brown
Stop me if you’ve heard this before:
“Short-term mission trips are a waste. They do more harm than good. Americans only go on mission trips to help feel better about themselves and their lives. Short-term teams aren’t trained to serve cross-culturally. It’s a waste of time and money. After all, why spend all that money on travel when you could just donate it instead? These trips only create dependency on the help of others. They travel across the world, give out presents and then leave without ever thinking about those people again.”
Sound familiar? I could go on and on with a list of negatives about short-term mission trips that have been written and expounded upon in books, magazines and on the internet by a host of theologians, missionaries and others.
Now, some of these arguments are definitely valid in certain circumstances. But I have spent the last 17 years of my life and career leading Global Health Outreach’s short-term healthcare mission trips to countries around the world, using healthcare as our avenue of seeking and saving the lost. And I know without a doubt that these teams have made a difference and have helped introduce thousands and thousands of people to the transforming love and grace of Jesus Christ.
So why are our mission trips so successful when other trips seem to cause more problems than they solve? It’s because we have a long-term vision and strategy that we see come to life through short-term trips.
As a ministry of CMDA, Global Health Outreach (GHO) sends 45 to 50 medical, dental and surgical mission teams around the world each year to address people’s physical, emotional and spiritual needs. Our teams minister in outpatient primary care medicine and dentistry, as well as in small and large hospitals to provide surgical services. We serve the poor and needy who often have no access to any healthcare services because of poverty, geographic distance or social status. We often work in rural settings, in urban squatter settings and with women and children in bondage to sex trafficking.
Our primary role as healthcare professionals is to help patients and do no harm to them. How does this play out on a short-term mission trip? Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean that we should do something. We are traveling far from home to use our professional skills to serve others, not to be busy and productive. After all, mission healthcare is about caring for people—not about numbers.
Everywhere we go, we try to support and augment the local healthcare delivery system. In many places, it is nonexistent or very poor, so we adjust accordingly. Sometimes that means shifting our focus to treating what the local system can support when we are not there. As a result, we do very little chronic care. If we prescribe medications for diabetes, hypertension or depression, what happens when the medications run out in a month?
|“God gave me the chance to sit with patients who struggle with their own personal lives and with their families and hear their stories and they asked me to pray for them, more than the skilled therapy that I can provide to numb their physical pain.”
—Physical Therapist, Ecuador
But we don’t stop there. Our mission is to demonstrate the love and compassion of Jesus, and we do that by offering hope to mind, body and spirit through medical and dental care. After all, a healthcare mission trip is not just about using professional skills to cure the sick. It is not just about seeing a lot of patients and producing great results. Healthcare is certainly important, but sharing Christ’s love through our words and our actions is our chief objective. And healthcare is well-suited to sharing the gospel because we spend time with our patients. God can use these opportunities to open doors to Him.
Another focus of our trips is making disciples. We focus on disciple-making within our team members, by taking them out of their comfort zones so they can depend more on our Lord, and we also focus on disciple-making with our patients, interpreters and others. Again, our medical, dental and surgical efforts are only a means to these disciple-making ends.
But sharing the gospel and making disciples of all nations is hard to do in a one or two-week period. We know it can take weeks, months or even years for someone to open their eyes and heart to Christ. Even if they do accept Christ while we are in the country, how can we continue to help them grow in their faith if we leave only a few days later?
That’s where our long-term strategy truly comes into play. Before we take any teams to new countries, we work to develop partnerships with national ministries and long-term missionaries who are already working in-country. Then when we arrive with our healthcare teams, we work hand-in-hand and join forces with these national partners. Typically, those national partners are evangelists and church planters, and our teams help them open doors into unreached areas. They help us build relationships with the area communities, local governments, churches, pastors and more. Plus, they are able to navigate complex cross-cultural issues, while also making arrangements for our housing, interpreters, transportation and other details.
But most importantly, they remain in the area long after we return home. The medications we prescribe will eventually run out, but our national partners will still be there to provide support. They are able to follow up and begin discipling those who make decisions for Christ, they continue building relationships with others and they carry on the work that was started during the trip to share the love of Christ with the world. That’s why our partnerships with the local churches and national ministries are so imperative. Our trips are merely the tools that open doors for our national partners to have a long-term impact on the local communities.
SEEING THE STRATEGY COME TO LIFE
So what does this long-term strategy look like when you put it into practice? And is it actually working? A great example of how we are making an impact and transforming the world for Christ is our ministry in Ecuador. I’ve been leading trips to Ecuador for more than 16 years, and it’s easy to see how the Lord has been using these short-term trips over the years to grow His kingdom.
Our partners in Ecuador are John and Marilyn Guido, who have been long-term missionaries in Cuenca, Ecuador for almost 30 years. When they first arrived in Cuenca, they formed “Fundación Hogar del Ecuador,” when means Family Health Foundation, a non-profit organization that seeks to holistically minister to the needs of the family. Their goal was to have the highest quality healthcare available for people of all economic levels, something many of the poor in Ecuador were denied. They began by providing a family practice doctor to work a few hours a day out of the church office, and John and Marilyn both began serving as translators for healthcare mission teams. From the beginning, they placed a strong emphasis on evangelizing by using different methods. In fact, they were so focused on evangelism that they sent locals to the Dominican Republic to learn strategies, methods and models from Oasis Church, another GHO national partner.
GHO began partnering with them in 1999, and since then we have sent four or five teams each year to Ecuador. From 2003 to 2015, these teams saw more than 75,000 patients. That is 75,000 lives touched by the love of Jesus through the hard working short-term teams that gave their time and money to serve the people of Ecuador.
|“Working together with the Ecuador church made me understand the reality of the Body of Christ and how we all fit together.”
But the far-reaching impact on this ministry, this local clinic, this community and this country is even more amazing. When Marilyn and John were translating for the teams, the local physician was able to serve with the team as well. So the patients and their families were able to return to the local clinic for continued care after the team returned home. Because the physician was seen working alongside the healthcare professionals from America, his “prestige” within the community greatly increased. The clinic began charging a small fee for the doctor’s appointment while giving the patient their medications for free. This tripled the number of patients they were seeing, and it allowed them to expand the hours of the family medicine physician to full-time.
After seeing what they were able to accomplish in building a hospital with a small annual donation from the municipal government, a generous donor gave them a $25,000 donation and brought a construction team to help finish the building. They installed convenient features, such as centralized bedside suction and oxygen in the walls, and some of the best operating room facilities in the city.
Another donor saw the need they had for equipment, so he collected used medical equipment and supplies, donating a container that included all of the major furnishings, including beds, bedside tables, over-bed tables and operating room lights and tables that are still in use today. Through Bob Coulter, a team leader, and Dr. Dave Cromer, a team physician, they received a $15,000 grant to purchase needed supplies to open a dental facility.
And the transformation is even more apparent outside the walls of the clinic, because they have seen such a cultural change in the local people. It was only after GHO teams began arriving in Cuenca that the local doctors were motivated to help their own people. They saw the dedication, time invested and love of Jesus shown by the foreigners to “their” people, and they were inspired to do the same. The clinic now has a full roster of national healthcare professionals who sign up to see patients in the clinic. Plus, many of them are active members of the local church and now hold leadership roles.
They work outside in the community to help provide ongoing healthcare to the children of La Esperanza, a home for at-risk children. In fact, the clinic’s administrator went back to school to get a degree in social work after becoming involved with this aspect of the ministry. In addition, a pastoral care person is available to minister to patients on a daily basis.
Because of the sphere of influence of their relationship with GHO, John and Marilyn have made connections with several institutions in the U.S. They are now a rotation site for Ohio Northern pharmacy students, Midwestern physician assistant students and Taylor University semester-abroad students. And plans are in the works to strategically become a rotation site for a U.S.-based family medicine residency program.
|“I learned many lessons during the mission but two things seem to stand out. First of all is the realization of just how evangelism is such an essential element of a Christian life and how it is not enough to wait for opportunities to spread the word of salvation; that in my daily life, I must focus on those who do not yet have the glory of God in their lives as I do. Secondly, was the realization of how critical it is to fellowship with other Christian people such as the wonderful group that comprised our team in Ecuador.”
When it comes to evangelism, our partnership has helped to grow the local church in ways we couldn’t have even imagined. The local church in Cuenca now has more than 2,000 people in attendance each week. They have numerous ongoing ministries to attend to the needs of these people, and GHO team members have directly impacted some of these ministries. For example, SOS, a ministry to addicts, was helped by Eric Valentine who shared his testimony several times with both leaders and members of that group. It was so encouraging and inspiring, and they now have an ongoing group of around 60 people who meet several times a week.
The men’s ministry and the ministries of other churches in our area were impacted by the efforts of Downline Ministries, which came with a team to provide biblical training in how to make disciples. Many of the men involved with this ministry learned how to disciple others, while they also learned more about how to study the Bible and teach others.
Dr. Grat Correll helped lead teams to the province of Chimborazo, and the number of churches in the area doubled. In the province of El Oro, there was only one church when the first team arrived. There are now seven churches in the area. The church in Cuenca planted a church in El Guabo, which is now the largest church in the province with more than 900 members.
Influenced by members of the healthcare teams, the local church members developed relationships with the local authorities and became involved in municipal projects, and the churches are now allowed to use buildings rent-free. The churches have a presence in citywide celebrations and parades. Through GHO teams, we have donated close to 30 wheelchairs as part of a campaign to eliminate begging in the streets. These relationships with government authorities and local health professionals have increased the testimony of the local churches, and this influence in the community is fortifying evangelistic efforts in these towns and many others.
The church in Manta was also able to see influence locally, and it is now is stable and strong. The church in Gualquiza had land donated for their building by a former patient, and they now have a building and will be opening a branch of the clinic. I could go on and on—about the growing churches and evangelism in Loja, Vilcabama, Malacatos, Catamayo, Naranjal and even more cities and provinces. The Lord is using the work of our healthcare teams to open more and more doors and grow His kingdom more and more through the country of Ecuador.
|“I have never considered myself ‘called’ to the mission field and felt fine with leaving even short excursions like this up to others—more experienced Christians or people who have more of a passion for helping others. Going on this trip required me to finally stop finding excuses and just say, ‘Yes.’ And it seemed like almost every day there was a new challenge or opportunity that required me to say, ‘Yes.’ God was right there with me and giving me confidence to do stuff I’d never done and wouldn’t dream of doing: get up close and personal with a team of total strangers, ask patients if I could pray with them and lay hands on them or play and sing with a whole church full of people. And it was fantastic!”
—Pharmacy Student, Ecuador
STRATEGIZING FOR THE FUTURE
This is only a small window into the countless ways the Lord is influencing and impacting the lives of people in Ecuador through GHO’s healthcare mission teams. And there are so many ways we can continue to use programs just like this one to further the gospel in this country. It’s hard to calculate the impact, and in the end only God knows.
Programs just like this are being replicated in countries all around the world through the national partnerships we have cultivated. And that’s why we continue to strategize and plan for sending more teams to more countries that are desperately in need of God’s love.
Limited access countries have become our priority, as that is where most of the unreached people groups still live. These countries by definition are further away, so it’s harder to get there and more expensive in terms of travel and time costs, but these are the countries where we are needed and are blessed to go.
These countries have been bound for centuries by false religions, religious political structures and pagan and animistic beliefs, and they need to hear and see the supernatural power of a risen Savior, the Great Physician. Teams to these countries are smaller, under the radar, more like special ops teams that require mature, culturally sensitive, wise and courageous members. Prayer must guide us, inform us and cover us in order for spiritual breakthroughs. As our long-term strategies begin focusing more and more on these closed countries, we rely on the successes of our short-term work in places like Ecuador to guide and direct us. And, of course, we depend on our Lord to bless our efforts so that we are truly making a difference and transforming the world for His glory.