The Three Biggest Barriers to Effective Missions and Service #3 – Motivations

Author’s note: This is part three and final blog of a series, Barriers to Short-term Missions. You can read part 1 – Biases and 2 – Assumptions.

I was recently sitting with a ministry leader who hosts short-term mission teams and as we were talking about the challenges of groups he looked at me with pain in his eyes and said, “You know what? They just don’t care about what they do here. They only care about themselves.” The ministry leader went on to explain how they complain about not having hot showers, enough outlets in the bathrooms, uncomfortable mattresses, and they do whatever they want regardless of what we ask them to do. When we hear about what communities endure because of short-term mission groups we need to ask, what is our motivation? Why are were going on these service trips? Is it really to serve or is it really about us?

Motivations can be tricky as we can go with a good heart and a desire to serve others, but we need to be aware of the undercurrent, unconscious motivations we might not even be aware of in our minds and heart. There are many reasons why people say they are going on a trip:

– “I am following Jesus’ call to go into all the world and preach the Gospel.”
– “I want to go serve and love others.”
– “I want to be more grateful for what I have.”
– “I want to share my testimony with someone who needs it.”
– “I just need service hours to graduate.”
– “I want to learn about another culture.”

These are not all bad reasons for going, but are they the best motivations?

Our unconscious motivations can best be seen when the host community or ministry asks you to do something different or change your plans because their needs may be different than when you started or what you want to do.

I recently visited a missionary in Thailand to learn about his ministry of reaching marginalized people. I was also interested in learning about how Be2Live could partner with them in supporting their work. As we spent the week together and our relationship was built, this missionary shared this story with me. 

This missionary had been hosting a medical team of doctors for a number of years. They would come and see many patients in the northern part of Thailand. These well-meaning doctors were doing good work in treating the sick and meeting people’s needs. The government came to the missionary and asked him to ask the doctors to do two things: Stop issuing these “exotic” medicines that they don’t have in Thailand because they were unable to refill these prescriptions after they ran out. More importantly, the government asked the American doctors to train Thailand doctors so that they could more sufficiently meet their own people’s needs. To the missionary’s surprise, the American doctors refused to train the local doctors. A request like this, although complicated, would have a deep and lasting impact. The following year the doctors stopped coming. 

What did the actions of the doctors reveal about their motivations and their heart for the Thai people? Who was this short-term medical trip really for? 

The missionary then told me, “People want to save the world, but they don’t want to save Thailand.” What a profound statement! We can substitute any country, city, or community: “People want to save the world, but they don’t want to save Mexico.” “People want to save the world, but they don’t want to save Chicago.” It’s more glamorous and exciting to “save the world” than it is to do the hard work of eradicating one issue in one place over the long haul. It can be more exciting to travel the world, than to invest in one place, one community, over a long period of time.

Motivations must be discussed before the trip, during the trip, and after the trip. We must be checking our words and actions as we go through the trip. We need to expect that it will be uncomfortable, it will be out of our element, there will be changes to our plans, and we need to be ok with it because service is NOT about us. It’s about those we go to serve and work alongside. Here are some indicators that our motivations may not be what they should be:

  • Are we complaining about the cold showers, food, or living conditions of our team? 
  • Are we refusing to comply with the orphanage, ministry, or community’s dress code? 
  • Are we making noise in the housing area past quiet time? 
  • Do we care about the quality of our work? 
  • Are we honoring local customs, laws, and relationships? 
  • Are we allowing the host community leader to lead our team? 
  • Do we devalue the work of the locals because it is not how we would do it in the United States? 

Jesus has called us to go and model His behavior as we serve others wherever you go:

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself” – Philippians 2:5-8

Be humble, work hard, go to serve others before ourselves.


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