First Baptist Church of Orlando saw a steady increase in overseas short-term missions come to an end in 2009. Not only did designated giving for missions decline 12 percent, low participation forced the Florida megachurch to cancel two overseas trips and postpone a third.

Global impact pastor Bill Mitchell believes a trend toward more domestic short-term trips might be under way, and expects participation to increase this year.

"It's better to get people doing missions with a $500 to $1,000 trip than having to continue to cancel $3,000 trips because people can't afford to go," he said.

Mitchell's comments reflect a development first noticed by David Armstrong of Mission Data International (M-DAT) two years ago. His sampling of leading agencies showed that overseas trips have decreased by 15 percent since 2008. That is the first downturn since M-DAT began measuring in 2000. Further, groups sending people overseas sent fewer and smaller teams, he said.

This paralleled another trend Mitchell noticed over the past four years: inquiries to M-DAT's search portal about domestic trips have steadily increased, while searches for international trips have steadily decreased.

"I expect to see a further increase in the percentage of people choosing a United States trip over an international trip," Armstrong said.

Georgia-based Adventures in Missions saw participation in its international short-term trips shrink from 57 percent of all mission volunteers in 2005 to 26 percent in 2009. It expects the numbers to rebound in 2010, primarily because of trips to Haiti.

The impact of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the Great Recession have all played a role in dimming overseas missions, said executive director Seth Barnes. So has drug violence in Mexico. "The statements issued by the State Department have killed what used to be a big destination for projects," he said.

Other experts think the evidence is scant. When missiologist Robert Priest of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School surveyed 405 megachurches in 2007, he found a median of 100 persons going on trips abroad, compared with 70 domestically.

"First you have to convince me there is a trend," he said.

The United Methodist Church, which sends 100,000 volunteers around the nation and world annually, saw no appreciable change across several jurisdictions in 2009. Wycliffe Associates actually saw its overseas volunteers increase by 23 percent last year, thanks to retiring baby boomers.

If domestic trips do become more popular, Armstrong sees mixed results. Such a trend could mean fewer multi-week trips and less exposure of young people to other cultures. "[Yet] it might help people comprehend the needs in the U.S. more," he said. "Coupled with the [ethnic] diversity that's taking place in our country, I would consider that good."

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Christianity Today articles on short-term missions include:

Missions Boot Camp | As these teens prepare for short-term trips, they learn more about how to talk about Jesus. (February 15, 2008)
Short-Term Troubles | Lessons from the South Korean kidnappings in Afghanistan. (November 7, 2007)
Support Strong for Danger Zone Missions | Despite kidnappings, active U.S. Christians still encourage mission trips to embattled nations. (September 10, 2007)
Are Short-Term Missions Good Stewardship? | More than two million teens go on such trips every year, and giving may exceed that given to long-term missionaries. But is short-term ministry built to last? (July 5, 2005)
Study Questions Whether Short-Term Missions Make a Difference | Missionaries don't keep giving after they return; hosts prefer money to guests, Calvin sociologist finds. (June 20, 2005)
Agencies Announce Short-Term Missions Standards | A coalition of evangelistic and missionary organizations has released a set of new "Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Mission." (October 1, 2003)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.