Should We Care about Safety on Short-Term Mission Trips?

The woman on the phone was gripped by that kind of fear that sounds like anger. I, a pastor at a local church, was considering sending her adult son overseas for the summer. The place he hoped to go wasn’t a war zone, exactly. But it was uncomfortably close to a war zone. And mama was not happy. I told her we were trying to be careful, wise, were seeking counsel, and how the risks seemed reasonable given the gospel opportunities. None of that helped.

Finally, in frustration she said, “Okay, if you can personally guarantee he’ll be absolutely safe, I’ll be okay with him going.” I replied something like, “Ma’am, nobody can do that. I can’t even guarantee he wasn’t run over by a bus five minutes ago right here in Washington, DC.”

This was not the high mark for my pastoral sensitivity. There was a long silence as she incorporated this new terror into her already considerable collection of anxieties. She abruptly thanked me and ended the call, no doubt to frantically phone her son to discover if he was lying mangled beneath a bus somewhere. Bad pastor!

“Perfect safety is an illusion, everywhere. Instead, gospel-informed wisdom should be our objective and God’s goodness our refuge.”

While my manner was poor, I stand by my point. Perfect safety is an illusion, everywhere. Instead, gospel-informed wisdom should be our objective and God’s goodness our refuge. This is especially important as we think about short-term missionary efforts in unstable places. Here are six reflections to consider if we intend to join the work in the difficult, unreached places.

1. There is something much better than life.

We can’t think about risks in a Christian manner unless we are convinced the gospel is worth dying for. We must join the psalmist and say, “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you” (Ps. 63:3 ESV). Our people need to understand that in pursuit of gospel ends, death is always possible but never pointless.

I hope we all intend to be wise and careful, but Jesus was clear that faithfulness to his gospel commission would mean suffering (John 15:20) and for some, death (Luke 21:16). If we can’t conceive of this happening in a way that would bring glory to God, then we probably shouldn’t be sending our short-term teams anywhere.

IMB Trips 2017

2. We are not promised safety, anywhere.

One effect of the hellish “prosperity gospel” is that even in churches too biblical to believe Jesus died to give us health and wealth, there is still contamination. Too many Christians now believe that if we are in the “center of God’s will” nothing bad will happen to us. Such a promise is found nowhere in the Bible.

As Hebrews tells us, many believers faithfully committed to God’s will have “faced jeers and flogging.” Others “were chained and put in prison” and “they were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword” (Heb. 11:36–37 ESV). Could God be any clearer? He promises to use our life for his glory and bring us safely to heaven for our joy and his honor. God does not promise us safety anywhere in this fallen world.

3. Taking unnecessary risks is still stupid.

There is nothing especially godly about dying because of a dumb decision. And there’s nothing glorious about bringing on suffering through stupidity. Boldness should be tempered with wisdom. This means taking advice from trusted missions organizations to avoid being foolish. So if we are thinking of sending a group to a location, we should probably trust the wisdom of friends in the country. We may not ask, “Is it safe?” but we should certainly ask, “Is this trip necessary, useful, and wise?” An honest no to any of those metrics is a fine reason to cancel or delay the trip.

Risks for a short-term visitor, who likely knows neither the culture nor the local language, can be very different from those for a well-established long-term worker. If we do go, we should be willing to rigorously follow the advice and directions from long-term partners too. Sometimes the greatest danger is not to us, but to the people who continue to live there after we’re gone.

“If we do go, we should be willing to rigorously follow the advice and directions from long-term partners too.”

4. It’s okay to consider your parents or spouse.

Taking into consideration the fears of your family members is not wrong either. More than once I’ve counseled a young person to delay a trip out of kindness to a fearful parent. While we can’t be ruled by others’ fears or lack of faith, we still need to keep long-term relationships in mind. This is why counsel from godly friends and church leaders is important.

5. Bible-informed risk/benefit analysis is not ungodly.

I remember calling my wife during a short-term project in Central Asia. A friend in an unstable country nearby had discovered a historical site, knew of my interest in history, and asked me to take a trip with him to look at it. There was no gospel project in view, just a fun trip with a good friend, in a country full of land mines.

Unsurprisingly, the response I got from my wife wasn’t positive. In short, she said, “I’m happy to raise three kids as a single mom if you die over there doing gospel work.” My wife is an amazing woman! “But,” she continued, “I WILL NOT be happy if it’s because you were taking a trip in a war zone for no good reason, just to hang out with one of your buddies.” Needless to say, I didn’t go. Of course she was right. Not all risks are worth taking.

Likewise, we should be asking if our short-term trips are useful to gospel work. Given how much trouble short-term trips can be, we should be asking this about our trips everywhere, regardless of obvious risks. Most often we’ll know a trip is useful when our partners actually ask us to do something or at least affirm that what we’re planning to do is useful. But it isn’t wrong to ask whether the risk is worth the potential benefit, and it isn’t wrong for them to tell us it’s not.

6. Unreached places are unreached for a reason.

Finally, realize that places unreached by the gospel tend to be that way for a reason. Many are unstable, hard to reach, and unfriendly to the gospel. Taking the gospel to places like this will entail risk and potentially result in suffering. But we should finish at the same place we started, “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you” (Ps. 63:3 ESV). May we have boldness, wisdom and gospel courage to say that to our faithful God. Someone will have to take risks and potentially suffer loss if the gospel is to reach the remaining corners of our world. Why should we expect others to take those risks instead of taking them ourselves?