Top Ten Mission Trends in the 21st Century: Pros and Cons of Short Term Missions


short-term-missionsOne of the most frequently asked questions is whether I think short-term missions is a healthy or destructive trend in the church today.  Nearly all pastors are aware of the dramatic rise in short-term missions among local churches.[1] Most have either been on a short-term missions trip themselves or they have seen many youth and other groups in the church take off for two weeks or so to participate in some project or activity.  It might be a construction team helping a church in Honduras construct a church building, or a group of young people performing a mime skit on a town square in Europe or parishioners passing out tracts on the streets of a Muslim city.  The question which I am often asked is whether I think these kind of trips are a sign of a church increasingly engaged and awakened to the missionary mandate of the church or are these trips merely another sign of the kind of Western cultural “quick fix” approach to everything which naïvely believes that the Great Commission can be fulfilled through short term missions.

Let me say at the outset that there is no easy answer to this question.  However, I think if we learn to ask the right questions, we can begin to more effectively assess our short-term missions program and, thereby, begin to have more clarity on the central question.  I have developed a six point series of questions for pastors and church missions committees which may help to serve as a diagnostic tool to develop a better, smarter short term missions program.   I call these six questions ‘dangerous’ questions because if reflected on honestly they could dramatically change the way we talk about and do short term missions in our local churches.

Question #1: What is the goal /motivation of short-term missions?

We need to honestly assess what is the primary purpose of our short-term missions program.  To put it very bluntly, is this trip for ‘us’ or is it for ‘them’?  Are we using this trip to help our church to become more globally aware and, perhaps, to raise up missionaries from our church or is it to accomplish a particular goal or task on the field?  We must become more realistic about the nature of short-term missions and what we can realistically expect to be achieved.  Although there are notable exceptions, most short-term missions trips are far more effective in transforming the hearts and lives of those who go than they are in accomplishing long term missional objectives in a cross-cultural context.

I think we should openly acknowledge that these trips are primarily for the spiritual formation among our own group and that their major benefit to the field will be if people are motivated to pray more regularly and specifically for missions and if it results in long-term workers.  This is not intended to be pessimistic about short-term missions, but to more accurately see how they fit into long term strategy.  There is no replacement for long term workers who are prepared to commit years of their lives to the arduous and joyous task of language learning, cultural adaptation and effective cross-cultural witness.

Question #2:  What is the cost of short-term missions?

It doesn’t take too long looking at church missionary budgets to realize that short term missions is an expensive endeavor.  It is not unusual for the cost of a short term missionary going overseas for two weeks to spend more than $2,000 for airline tickets, food, lodging, shots, on-field transportation and other costs associated with the trip.  That same $2,000 might, in contrast, be sufficient to fund a full time national church planter for an entire year or fund other important projects.  As with any allocation of funds, we should be very sober minded about the nature of the investment.  On balance, I think the investment is often worth it, but it does need to be appropriately weighed.  Indeed, I do not support the position that the best way N. Americans can serve the global church is by staying home and writing checks and letting others get their hands dirty with the hard task of cross-cultural witness.  There are well known organizations that raise money in the West based on this premise.  This is not my position.  One of the real advantages of short term missions is that we are re-locating people to another part of the world who can experience first hand the challenges and hardships of missionary service.  I see no Biblical precedent for a church called only to send their “e-mails and dollars” and not their “sons and daughters”.  The Great Commision is about thrusting forth laborers, not just funding.  Nevertheless, we must be cognizant of the costs involved and make certain that our investments are, on balance, wise ones.  A more hopeful point is that most of the money raised by short term missionaries would, in the absence of the person going on a short-term trip, not be available for some of these other needs on the field.  However, a church must set strict guidelines on how much money flows into short term projects as compared with other cross-cultural commitments.

Question #3:  Where are short-termers going?

One of the challenges of short term missions is to send groups to places where they can be the most strategic.  One of the inherent problems in local church missions programs is that due to time and budgetary constraints the destinations of choice are often places where the relationship between the Western church and the mission field is most problematic.  While there are notable exceptions, many of the churches located in nearby places such as Mexico, Honduras and Haiti have, over the years, developed dependency relationships with the larger, more affluent N. American church.  The result is that, while never denying that these trips transform the lives of those who go and, on the surface, are accomplishing some worthy task such as a new roof on a church or a wonderful vacation Bible school, some of these trips also contribute to larger missiological problems which would not be evident by looking at the videos which accompany the group when they return home.  This problem has been called, “doing harm by doing good.”  In other words, we send our short term teams out and undoubtedly accomplish many good things, but in the process may – in concert with dozens of other teams – be contributing harm by impeding the indigeneous growth and initiative of the national church whom we are serving.

It is a fact that short-term mission trips often do not go to those places nor work  among those peoples who most need long-term workers.  This is often due to the cost difference between sending a group to Honduras, for example, as opposed to Istanbul.  The growing disparity between where short-term mission trips are going and where our long-term mission commitments are directed is, in my view, an issue which every church should address.

Question #4: What is the witness of short-term missionaries?

Many non-Western peoples only regular exposure to Christianity is in the lives and witness of those who travel on short-term missions.  This underscores the tremendous opportunity which is afforded by short-term missions teams.  We actually have the privilege of being a living example of what Christianity actually is on the field.  However, this also underscores the need to make sure that we send reasonably mature Christians onto the field.  There are several embarrassing examples whereby youth groups or other church or college groups who have be sent out on short-term missions have sometimes unwittingly discredited the very gospel they are seeking to bear witness to through they way they interacted with one another or they way they dressed.

All teams should undergo careful pre-field training and be exposed to any areas which requires cultural sensitivity.  This means teams should be particularly aware of how a country might wrongly interpret the way N. American males and females interact, address their elders, dress and so forth.  There are excellent guides written for local churches preparing short-term mission teams which can be extremely helpful in avoiding giving a negative witness abroad.[2]

To assure a more mature representation of Christian witnesses, I have encouraged churches to require not only a few pre-field training sessions, but also that they should have already served their only local community in some way in order to be eligible to go on a short-term missions trip.  Why do we think someone who has not served in their own community will be transformed into an effective cross-cultural witness just because they board a plane and then find themselves on the soil of another country.   Youth groups, in particular, should be asked to complete some basic home service prior to going on a short-term missions trip. It might be something as simple as helping in a food kitchen or mowing the grass of an elderly person, but it can very effectively underscore that the purpose of these trips is to serve others and, in the process, to allow God to change and transform our own lives – and that begins right where we are.

Question #5:  What is the impact on field resources/ personnel?

Having hosted many short-term teams who have visited India, I am aware of the impact of any short-term team on the resources and field personnel who are working long term in the field.  I can say that, almost without exception, those who host short-term teams do it with joy and fully realize the vital role they are playing in raising up long-term workers, helping people to gain more global awareness and to facilitate the best possible experience for the short-termers who come onto the field.  I am also aware that short-term visits can also cause the long-term workers, both missionaries as well as nationals, to suspend many of their own ministries during the visit.  I also know the many hours which are spent in arranging vehicles, providing translators, accompanying teams to various tourist areas within the country, and so forth.   Most field workers will tell you that it is a privilege to provide such services, but we should never underestimate the cost (financial and personnel) of this.  Many visiting teams need to learn to be more modest in their demands on their host and to make sure that all expenses allocated by the host are fully reimbursed.

Question #6: What is the impact of short-term missions on long-term missions?

Any church involved in missions should recognize that, in the long run, the real strength of our missionary efforts should be measured by our long-term commitments on the field.   One of the most strategic and useful benefits of short-term missions is in the recruiting and raising up on long-term workers.  It is very unusual today for someone to commit themselves to becoming a missionary without having been on a short-term missions trip.  Therefore, having a short-term missions program is a vital part of any long-term strategy.  However, some churches have failed to see the vital connection between short-term and long-term missions.  I have even seen some churches who boast of their growing missionary budget but, upon close examination, their missions budget reflects an increasing emphasis on sending short-term teams at the expense of their support of long-term workers.  This, in my view, is a myopic and tragic development which needs to be addressed.  Churches should be more intentional about how their short-term missions trips connect with long-term missions commitments.  The former should always serve and support the latter.   When this gets out of balance, we may actually be undermining the long term goal of the church which is to plant and nurture viable, self-supporting, self-governing and self-replicating churches around the world.

None of these “dangerous” questions are intended to discourage or to downplay the vital role of short-term missions in the church.  I am a strong supporter of short-term missions and believe that they should be an important part of a church’s global outreach.  Nevertheless, reflecting on these questions can help local churches build a smarter short-term missions program and stimulate a more mature outreach which, in the long term, will assist the growth and development of churches around the world.[3]

[1] David Barrett and Todd Johnson, World Christian Trends, (Pasadena, CA:  William Carey Library, 2001) 377.  Barrett and Johnson cite the dramatic growth o                f short-term missions.  However, they are only counting missions trips between three months and two years in length.  The number of two or three week trips has never been fully documented, but would certainly swell the numbers into the millions.

[2] See, for example Robert L Kohls’  Survival Kits for Overseas Living and Sherwood Lingenfelter’s Ministering Cross-Culturally.   Patrick Johnstone’s The Church is Bigger Than You Think is also a helpful introduction to many basic facts about Christianity outside of the United States.

[3] For more help in building an effective short-term missions program visit  on of Gordon-Conwell’s web-sites:  This web-site is one of the ways  the J. Christy Wilson Center for World Missions at Gordon-Conwell is helping local churches be more effective in their missionary efforts.

Top Ten Mission Trends in the 21st Century: Wisely Investing Our Resources


globeWith the growing interest in the globalization of Christianity and the unprecedented travel of Christians around the world, it is not unusual for churches to be overwhelmed with financial requests to support various missions projects around the world.  Since resources are limited, churches must be careful to make sure that they are wise stewards of the funds which have been committed to their care to promote missions.  Unfortunately, valuable resources are often wasted because they are being sent to projects or ministries which are not truly furthering the global advance of the church or, in some cases, actually helping to perpetuate dependency on the more affluent church in the West and thereby hindering the growth and development of the indigenous church.

In order to improve the church’s investment in mission giving, I propose two simple criteria which, if followed, will greatly enhance the effectiveness of our missionary budget process.  These two criteria, if applied when a new proposal is brought before the missions committee, will assist in the decision making process.  The first is what I call the Access Criteria.   We should ask the question, “does the people-group which will receive this potential funding currently have reasonable access to the Christian gospel?”  If a people-group already does not have reasonable access to the Christian gospel then it is likely that resources may, indeed, need to be invested in order to promote the gospel among that particular group.  If, the people-group does have access to the gospel, then it may not be a wise investment of our scarce missionary funds.  However, a second criteria will help to further clarify the strategic potential of the request.  If there are already Christians among this people-group, what is the current state of the church among that people-group.  This is the second criteria, known as the Viability Criteria. Is the church among this people-group viable?  In other words, can the church be reasonably expected to disciple its own members, train leadership for the church and to further their own evangelistic mandate?  While judging viability is not easy, a helpful rule of thumb is to ask what percentage of a given people-group is Christian.  If the overall percentage is less than 5%, then it is likely that the church has not yet reached viability.  There are some people-groups in the world who have neither reasonable access to the gospel and the church is either non-existent or lacking in viability.  There are others where there is vibrant conversion growth occurring, but the church is not yet able to keep up with the growth by providing basic pastoral training and leadership development.  These are the people-groups who must be given a priority.

All too often churches invest money, resources and personnel in places where people have access to the gospel and the church is already viable.  This simply does not make sense when there are other groups who have no access to the gospel.  In fact, we may even be doing harm to the indigenous church even while doing something which appears quite good.  If, for example, there is a people-group in Nigeria where there is vibrant Christian growth and the church is viable, then why should a church in the West invest resources to send someone to Africa to do the evangelism which is the responsibility of the Nigerian believers?   There are some churches in close proximity to the United States that do not believe it is possible to dig a well or have a Vacation Bible School unless a group from the USA comes down to do it.  This kind of dependency is not healthy.  If, on the other hand, there is a request for funding to assist in bringing the gospel to a people group with little gospel witness, few Christians and no viable church, then it is likely a very strategic investment of our resources.  Thankfully, with the help of resources like Operation World and the World Christian Encyclopedia, this kind of information is now available to any church who takes the time to do a little research.

Top Ten Mission Trends in the 21st Century: Urban Context of Missions



Many people still conceive of the typical mission field as a remote jungle area with half-dressed natives who have never heard of a telephone, much less the gospel of Jesus Christ.[1] This mental paradigm has been reinforced through the biographies of Western missionaries from the 19th century who often did live in remote areas with peoples whose lives seemed to be unchanged by the modern world.  However, global demographics have dramatically changed since the turn of the 19th century when only 4% of the entire world lived in urban areas.  Today nearly half of the world live in urban areas (See, Chart B).[2] In fact, the largest cities in the world are no longer found in Europe, but in the non-Western world.  Great cities such as Tokyo, Jakarta, Lagos, Delhi and Cairo represent the new face of the mission field.[3] These are people who more often than not already belong to a major world religion like Islam or Hinduism.  The lost peoples of the world today are more likely to carry cell phones than spears.  What are the implications for this?  Much of our missionary preparation is still based on sending people to remote areas.  We still show missionary videos at our conferences which reinforce this notion.  Our church planting strategies are often based on reaching rural peoples and starting churches in non-urban areas.  We need to focus more on the great sprawling cities of the world where most un-reached people groups now live.  We need to pray that God would give this next generation of missionaries a real heart for the cities.  It is no understatement to say that the Great Commission cannot be fulfilled until we learn to embrace the city!

Chart B


[1] This image is re-confirmed in many ways missionaries are presented to the church.  See, for example, the front cover of the Bob Jones University Review (Winter 2002).

[2] Barrett, Johnson, ed., World Christian Encyclopedia, vol. 1, col. 27-29, page 883.  In the World Christian Encyclopedia, this data is analyzed into three constituent parts:  rural, urban and metropolitan.

[3] According to United Nations projections, the top ten most populated cities in the world in 2015 will be:  Tokyo (28.7), Bombay (Mumbai) (27.4), Lagos (24.4), Shanghai (23.4), Jakarta (21.2), Sāo Paulo (20.8), Karachi (20.6), Beijing (19.4), Dhaka (19.0) and Mexico City (18.8).  All figures are given in millions.  See, Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom, 93.

Rise of the Non-Western Church: Top Ten Mission Trends in the 21st Century

We live in a rapidly changing world.  What is not as evident is how these global changes influence the church’s role in the world.  This is particularly true in the area of missions.  Many people still think about missions as it was in the 19th century. While the missions mandate itself remains unchanged, the context of missions today is quite different from what it was even fifty years ago.  To be effective, churches need to be aware of these changes and discuss how these changes can practically influence and shape the policies and procedures which shape and guide our missionary thrust.  This blog series will be highlighting the top ten things which a church should know about missions in the 21st century.  None of these points are intended to be exhaustive, but rather to stimulate discussion and reflection in the church about missions today.


communionOur generation has experienced the largest demographic shift in Christian affiliation in history.  In the last fifty years the church in the non-Western world has been dramatically increasing.  Traditionally, missions has been primarily conceived of as someone from the Western world saying good-bye to kith and kin and re-locating to another part of the non-Western world to share the gospel.  However, today we can no longer regard the non-Western world as a monolithic block which is equally in need of the gospel.  To be sure, there are hundreds of people-groups in the non-Western world who have no viable witness of the gospel in their midst.  However, we are also seeing the growth, sometimes, dramatic growth, of the church in many parts of what was formerly known as the missions field.

To put it plainly, the church is shifting southward and is growing in the southern continents of Latin America, Africa and South Asia.  When William Carey went to India at the threshold of the 19th century, only 1% of the entire world’s Protestants were found in the non-Western world.  That means that 99% of all Protestants lived in the Western world!  It is no wonder that some people called Christianity a “white man’s religion”. Even one hundred years after Carey at the turn of the 20th century, only 10% of the world’s Protestants lived in the non-Western world.  However, the 20th century witnessed a dramatic shift Southward and Eastward such that today approximately 67% of the world’s Protestants live outside of the western world.[1] That means that today the majority of Protestant Christians are non-white and non-Western in their ethnic and geographic orientation.

As the below chart indicates, one can see the percentage of where Christians live in each of the major spheres of the world.  (See,  Chart A).

What are the implications of this?  This is not a call for a moratorium on missions from the Western world.  This is no time for us to sit back and declare that the job is done.  It is a time to be thankful that the seeds which our missionary forbearers planted have taken root in ways undreamed of by those early pioneers.  However, there are still people groups in the Middle East, Central Asia, China and N. India who have very few or no known Christians.  This should call us to re-double our efforts among those peoples.  Nevertheless, it does mean that the remaining job is not to be done only by initiatives from the West, but in genuine partnerships with Christians from around the globe.  It is quite common, for example, to meet Korean or Brazilian missionaries on the field working alongside or independent of Western missionaries.[2] Churches in the West should be more aware of the existing work being done by our non-Western brothers and sisters and, wherever possible, engage in creative partnerships so that together we can more effectively obey the Great Commission.  This has been summarized best by the statement issued at the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in 1974 which stated, “It takes the whole church to bring the whole Christ into the whole world.”  May this reminder always be before us.

Chart A


[1] For a full account of these demographic shifts see, Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom:  The Coming of Global Christianity, (Oxford University Press, 2002).  The Southern shift of Christianity is addressed beginning on page 83.

[2] For a discussion of the growth of the Korean missionary movement see, Steve S. C. Moon, “The Recent Korean Missionary Movement,”  International Bulletin of Missionary Research, vol. 27, #1 (Jan., 2003) 11-17.