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

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

4.  SHORT TERM MISSIONS IS ONE OF THE BEST THINGS AND THE WORST THINGS WHICH HAS EVER HAPPENED TO MISSIONS IN THE LOCAL CHURCH

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:  www.missionscenter.org.  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.

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