Whether long-term or short-term, missions is all about obeying the great commission. Jesus did not specify a period of time during which we need to engage in missions. I believe his call is for a life-long commitment to be light to the nations and the salt of the earth. So from this perspective there should not be any difference between long-term and short-term missions.
However, as we all attempt to fulfill our roles in bringing the gospel to the unreached, we face human obstacles in mobilizing the body of Christ to fulfill the task of world evangelization.
Short-Term Missions is one answer to many obstacles and exposes a large number of people to the mission field with the hope that they would return for a longer commitment.
The Importance of Short-Term Missions
Walk through the aisles of MissionsFest, Urbana, or any of the hundreds of missions conferences each year and you will find it difficult to avoid all the appeals for short-term mission trips. You will be invited to join a team to go to almost any part of the world you wish to explore. Due to its popularity, more and more mission agencies are using short-term trips as a recruitment tool.
Many mega churches have joined the frenzy. A sizable amount of money is spent each year on short-term mission trips. Many young and old people in the church are mobilized to go and explore other lands. Leading an annual short-term mission trip has become part of the job description of youth pastors, mission committees, and mission directors. A countless number of old and young people embark on these adventures annually. According to Robert Wuthnow, 1.6 million US church members traveled abroad in 2005 on STM trips. Billions of dollars go into such trips."
Robert Priest wrote:
“The [Short-Term Missions] Movement is transforming the ways in which global ministry is being done.”
The noted author Philip Yancey threw in his weight for short-term missions by saying: “I support short-term missions. Despite their drawbacks, such trips provide two distinct cultures a taste of the harmony that exists between members of the Body of Christ.”
But not everyone agrees that short-term missions is legitimate. Too much money is spent for the meager results that are gained, critics say. However, no one can deny that short-term missions is here to stay, and is growing.
My purpose in addressing this issue is to face the facts, both positive and negative, and try to make the most out of this growing phenomenon.
Before delving into the topic any further let me cite a quote from the GO manual, published by YWAM as a guide to short-term missions:
“A short-term missionary is one who commits from two weeks to two years of his or her time to spread the Gospel.”
Even though this definition allows for up to two years, Robert Priest noted:
“A majority of these trips last between 7 and 14 days.” Less frequently, some stay a month or two, and even fewer stay up to one or two years.
In the process of recruiting candidates, mission agencies try to woo young people by promising a life changing experience. I have seen the excitement on the faces of young people who have signed up to go. They jump up and down in excitement as though they are going to an amusement park to have fun rather than embarking on a serious rescue operation. Here are two quotes from ShortTermMissions.com:
“If you have never participated on a short-term missions trip, we are excited that you are considering it! You can expect that this could be the beginning of a journey that will change your life. That is, if you make the right choice for the agency that will organize your mission project.”
“We are sorry to say that not everyone has a good first experience and sometimes that is because they chose either the wrong organization for their particular needs or they chose an agency that simply did a poor job.”
Judging from these quotes and similar alluring promotional material, it seems to me that short-term missions is advertised as a self centered, self fulfilling experience, promoting personal enjoyment and improvement.
Why the hype?
Short-Term trips have become popular partly because of ease of travel. A trip that used to take months by sea now takes only a few hours by air, without much discomfort.
In the old days, missionaries sold their homes, uprooted their families, and said farewell to their families and countries. Many never returned. Missions was a commitment to a life-long cross cultural ministry. The trip by sea took months to accomplish. I am acquainted with an orphanage that 50 years ago required a 20 year commitment. Now they are happy if people are willing to stay there even two years. Due to the ease of travel by air it made sense for people with a heart for the world to travel far and wide for a short-term. Many do it in the summer or on vacation.
From the literature that I have read, the success or failure of a short-term mission trip depends to a large degree on the level of expectation and the ability of the organization to develop programs that match any expectations.
Come as you are
It is common for recruiters to make it easy for anyone to go on a mission trip:
“Don’t feel like you have to be a gifted carpenter to work on a construction project. You will be amazed at what novices can do when you add the right amount of on-site coaching and the motivation to serve the Lord. Most mission agencies are happy to have anyone who has a servant heart. Oftentimes, just your presence on the project brings the intangibles such as encouragement and support to the folks you work with.”
- Steve Collins, ShortTermMissions.com
Lowering expectations and relieving stress
“Be realistic about the depth of evangelism you will be able to do in the particular cross-cultural setting you are involved in. Many people expect that their cross-cultural efforts during a 2-week period will result in conversions for Christ. Realistically, a group of high school students working cross-culturally without foreign language skills probably will not see many people accept Christ personally. This should not diminish the impact their participation will have in a process that brings those individuals to receive Christ as Lord.” Steve Collins, ShortTermMissions.com
What do Short-Term missionaries do all day?
Recruiters stress that whether you have skills or no skills you can come. “Come as you are and we will put you to good use.” In the literature of one organization I read this quote: “You do not have to be an evangelist”
The messages communicated are these:
- Come as you are.
- No special skills needed.
- Don’t expect any spiritual results such as conversions.
- Do not have high expectations lest you get disappointed.
- Your presence is enough, whatever you can do is great.
However, many agencies do try to recruit people with special skills. Here is a list of activities most agencies promote. Short-Term mission trips fall under these categories:
- Prayer walks.
- Manual labor: building, painting, maintenance etc.
- English teaching.
- Medical or other aid projects.
- Skilled labor such as bookkeeping, cooking, office work, and computer help.
- Evangelistic: Bible distribution, preaching, and street witnessing etc.
One agency listed 14 projects, out of which two were directly related to evangelism or spiritual work.
My own experience with short-term missions goes back to when I was 17. It was a trip to Arab Jerusalem in 1967 with Operation Mobilisation, just two months before the 6 day war that resulted in Israel occupying Jerusalem and the West bank of the Jordan, the Sinai desert, and other Arab lands. That was a very significant trip in my life. For one, there I met a beautiful woman who 9 years later became my wife. There I also came in contact with Roger Malstead who was instrumental in my choice of a college. I had received a full scholarship from Dr. Bob Jones, senior, who delivered it to me personally with a handshake when he visited Lebanon that year. Roger challenged me to go to a local college where I came in contact with a Navigator man who became my mentor. Because I remained in Lebanon, I was able to remain active in the three churches that I had planted in North Lebanon by then. But beside these personal benefits, I gained a heart for the peoples of the world. The trip challenged me to think outside my Lebanese box and to expand my vision to include all the peoples of the world, particularly Muslims.
However, It was not until I have made several short-term trips to a number of countries that my vision for the world took root. In my over 40 years of ministry I have been part of numerous short-term mission trips to 97 countries. Short-Term trips are pretty much all I do even now.
What I share with you today are observations and lessons I have learned. I will also make recommendations for maximizing the potential of short-term missions.
So let me start with the negatives and end on a positive tone:
Negatives and Drawbacks
1. Many who go on mission trips have no cross cultural experience and due to the shortness of the trip, they are sent with little or no preparation or training. As a result they are likely to behave in ways that are not culturally appropriate or sensitive. I have seen young men dress in shorts and women in tank tops in conservative countries where men and women cover the majority of their bodies. Young people also tend to behave immaturely, with coarse joking, flirting, and inappropriately touching others of the opposite sex. On the other hand, some come with their expensive clothes, expensive gadgets, computers, phones, ipods, Cd players, BlackBerries, and flash money around while people in the target culture cannot afford such luxuries. This results in either disgust or adoration of the missionaries. In either case, it is not healthy.
2. Many go on short-term mission trips in response to short-term guilt trips laid on them by preachers or missions speakers, who rightly challenge them to do something about the unreached people. For many, going on a short-term mission relieves them of their guilty feeling. Rather than consider a longer term commitment, they settle for a trip or two here and there. Some feel that they now have missions checked off on their “To-do in my lifetime” list.
3. Due to the excitement associated with going to a foreign country, some fall in love with the new culture and do not see beyond the facade of its external expressions. Rather, they become enamored by the culture’s music, folklore, dress, and lifestyle. In fact, some expect to see a much darker side of other cultures than they discover. As a result, they fail to see the lostness and spiritual depravity of people from the target cultures.
4. Recruiters who are anxious to sign up people for these trips tend to exaggerate how great these trips are. They raise the expectations too high. The result of unrealistic expectations is usually disappointment. Some expect to love the people in those counties but find out they are not as kind or attractive as they were promised. Some expect to see many people saved. They end up painting walls and laying bricks and hardly seeing any natives. Some return from a short-term mission disappointed because they did not lead anyone to Christ and they feel that they have failed and that they are not made for missions.
5. A percentage of those who have a positive experience on short-term mission trips end up returning for a longer term. They often discover that living in that country long-term is not as exciting or intense, so they get disappointed. They reason that if they had so much fun for two weeks, living there would be even better. By some estimates, half of those who go on long-term trips return home disillusioned. Long-Termers cannot maintain that level of intensity and excitement over a long period of time. It is like going on a honeymoon or vacation; you do not have to go to work, and you enjoy every moment. Then reality hits and you are back to real life, where there is work, tiredness, shopping, cooking, cleaning, and countless other things that keep you busy. Many missionaries expect that when they return full time and for a long time, they would have the same experience as they did when they went short-term. They end up disillusioned and frustrated. Some missionaries do not realize that just figuring out how to live in a foreign country takes up a huge chunk of their day. I know missionaries who have taken a year or more to settle down, spending time looking for a house to live in, furnishing the house, dealing with shopping, transportation and doing many more things.
6. Short-term trips are expensive. Once I was on a prayer walk trip in Morocco. Four hundred came from many parts of the world for the five day journey. I estimated that no less than one million dollars were spent on travel alone (400 X $2500). Some have argued that it would be better that we send this money to the mission field where it can make a much greater impact.
7. The impact on the national church is not always positive. Some churches are inundated by short-term teams that demand a lot of attention. This takes national pastors away from their regular routine and disrupts the ministry.
1. A good percentage of short-termers end up going long-term. Some statistics claim 50%. Many would never go to the mission field were it not for these short-term opportunities.
2. Many gain a heart for missions, and they return often and/or become supporters, prayer partners, and mobilizers.
3. Short-Term mission trips are eye openers for many. It is one thing to read missions newsletters and reports, it is another to actually be on the mission field and see the poverty, the hardships, and the spiritual depravity of people of other cultures.
4. Some who have never witnessed back home become bold in witnessing when they are with a like minded team witnessing in a cross cultural context. This can even help them begin to witness when they return home.
5. Those who are hesitant because they are not sure about their calling use short-term trips to test the waters and see if career missions might be what God is calling them to?
6. Some cannot be career missionaries because of job and family considerations. However, they do want to make a difference, so they use their vacation time or a break from school to do something for the Lord, rather than spending it on themselves.
7. Many who go on mission trips come from affluent families. They are not used to doing dirty work. Manual labor gives them an opportunity to serve others and to experience hard work like they never have before.
After looking at some of the pros and cons of short-term missions, let us see what the Bible says about this.
Missions is a word that came out of the Greek Apostolos, a messenger who is sent to accomplish a certain mission. To better understand the meaning of Apostolos, we must look at the life of Jesus and the apostles, and what they did as missionaries.
Jesus and Paul, the short-term missionaries
By today’s standards Jesus came to earth on a short mission trip. In fact, his three years of ministry were a series of short-term trips as he went from village to town to city, from region to another. He was on what some call a traveling team.
Likewise Paul was constantly traveling on short mission trips. He typically stayed from weeks to a few months. His very first assignment was in Antioch, which lasted for one year (Acts 11:26). He spent one and a half years in Corinth (Acts 18:11), three months in Greece (Acts 20:3), and his longest stay was for three years in Ephesus (Acts 20: 31).
Looking at the life of Jesus reveals three aspects of his short-term mission trips:
Teaching, Preaching and Healing
“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.” (Matthew 9:35)
In training his disciples, he instilled in them the attitude they needed to take with them to the world. He told them that were to be fishers of men, light of the world, seed planters, disciple makers, and that they were to preach the gospel of the kingdom. Jesus also asked them to care for the non-spiritual needs of people. He mandated that we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and take care of the widows and orphans. (Matthew 25:31-46)
But learning from his example and how he ministered to the needs of the crowds, we observe that his humanitarian work was always accompanied by his teaching and preaching.
“For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel —not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” (1 Corinthians 1:17)
“He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify” (Acts 10:42)
“How will they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14-15)
Short-Term mission trips are the wave of the future. Trying to stop them is like swimming against the tide. Having also seen that the principle of short-term missions is biblically based and supported by the life of Jesus and his apostles, we need to encourage this movement and expand its effectiveness.
I believe we can influence the movement and help it to avoid many mistakes and improve its effectiveness.
Here are some principles and guidelines I would like to propose.
1. Each trip must be God-centered
Whether short-term or long-term, missions is not about us. Although there is fulfillment and joy in serving God, the only objective we have is to love God and serve him. A mission that is not God centered is no mission at all. “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)
“Do not get involved in missions, even short-term, if you merely seek to feel satisfied and good about yourself. Missions work is work. It is fundamentally service, not self-fulfillment.
The ‘vacation with a purpose’ can be astoundingly devoid of God’s purpose. The currents of our self-seeking culture can drift overseas quite easily. It’s a subtle tendency. Short-term missions become an expensive summer camp, a career-shopping expedition, or an alternate context for personal soul-searching and career searching. Be careful of viewing your short-term mission too narrowly for what it will do for you, the short-termer."
- Steve Hawthorne (Adapted with author permission from Stepping Out: A Guide to Short-Term Missions. Copyright © 1987 by Short-Term Missions Advocates, Inc. All rights reserved.)
2. Divine calling
The starting point for missions is not the need in the world but rather God’s calling on our lives. Guilt trips will produce quantity, but responding to God’s calling will result in quality as well as quantity.
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. (Ephesians 4:1)
With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith. (II Thessalonians 1:11)
Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess.(Hebrews 3:1)
3. Adequate preparation
There was a time when no missionary was sent until he or she had finished a theological degree. The urgency of finishing the task has put pressure on mission agencies to send people with little or no preparation beyond a short orientation.
Pre trip preparation should include instruction in witnessing as well as cultural and social adjustment issues. (1 Peter 3:15)
Contrary to the common practice of accepting just about anyone, standards of conduct and maturity need to be met. Missionaries represent the heavenly kingdom and must live lives worthy of the calling. (Ephesians 4:1)
Mary was recruited to go to Kazakstan to share the gospel. When she arrived her team leader assigned her a job of teaching English with this warning. “They do not know we are a Christian organization. Please do not jeopardize our presence in the country by your witnessing.” She was crushed. If we tell people they are going to reach the nation for Christ, then they need to engage in witnessing.
Recruits who are new to missions and to the culture need to be adequately mentored on the field. Inexperienced workers need to be paired with mature successful workers to model appropriate conduct and ministry.
Since the purpose of short-term missions is long-term missions, it is extremely valuable to take time to debrief in order to identify positive and negative factors in the short-term experience. Ideally, debriefing should be done daily on the field as well as at the end of the trip.
Into the Future
If a short mission trip starts and ends at the airport, then it has failed to instill a missionary mindset into the participants. Missions is a lifestyle. That is why it is crucial that the agency or church involved in sending people on these trips start preparing them weeks and even months before the trip. Weekly Bible studies, orientation, training, and team prayer are necessary in preparation. At the conclusion of the trip, the church or agency must find ways to plug the short-term missionary into ongoing opportunities with ministries. This way the money and time spent is not wasted but utilized to have an ongoing and increasing impact.
Mission agencies need to rethink short-term trips and call them by their real names.
A medical trip is a medical trip. A construction project is a construction project. They can call it a cross-cultural excursion with a purpose, but they should not call it missions.
The word missions should be reserved for apostolic spiritual ministry.
Does that mean that we cannot do humanitarian work? Not at all, since Jesus mandates that we care for non-spiritual needs as well. However, for a mission trip to merit the word mission, it needs to include a spiritual element that is a vital, not marginal, part of the trip.
This presentation is in the process of being evaluated and has the potential of being improved. Any comments and suggested will be greatly appreciated.
Before You Pack Your Bag, Prepare Your Heart
Cindy Judge, Campfire Resources, 2000, 48-page spiral bound
(Short-term mission pre-field devotional.)
Mack & Leeann’s Guide to Short-Term Missions
J. Mack & Leeann Stiles, InterVarsity Press, 2000, 186-page paperback
(Practical advice, hard-won lessons, and hilarious stories.)
Maximum Impact Short-Term Mission
Peterson, Aeschliman, & Sneed, STEMPress, 2003, 288-page paperback
(A systematic, analytical, integrated approach to short-term missions.)
Reentry Guide for Short-Term Mission Leaders
Lisa Espineli Chinn, Deeper Roots Publications, 1998, 75-page spiral bound
(Short-term missions re-entry and post-field debriefing.)
Short-Term Missions Workbook — From Mission Tourists to Global Citizens
Tim Dearborn, IV Press, 2003, 126-page paperback
(Cross-cultural understanding and preparation for reentry.)
Stepping Out: A Guide to Short-Term Missions
Gibson, et. al., YWAM Publishing, 1996, 216-page paperback
(Multi-author narratives on short-term missions; Ready? Get Set, Go! and Going On.)
The Essential Guide to the Short-Term Mission Trip
David Forward, Moody Press, 1998, 227-page spiral bound
(A-Z guide: Getting Started, Funds, Travel, Preparing, and Reentry.)
Vacations With A Purpose: A Planning Handbook for Your Short-Term Missions Team (Leader’s Manual)
Chris Eaton & Kim Hurst, Cook Publications, 1991, 220-page paperback
(Entry-level “Short-term Mission 101” )
What To Know Before You Go: A handbook for short-term missionaries