In her article, "The Cost of Short-term Missions," Jo Ann Van Engen shares some good suggestions on how to tighten up the sloppy short-term mission work going on. She also raises several serious criticisms. While I share her concerns and grieve over the gross oversights of some short-term mission trips, I am much more generous in my assessment of the place short-term missions could have for the Church. I will first address two of her key criticisms and then suggest the strategic role I believe short-term missions ought to play in the ministry of the Church.
Why not take just a fraction of the millions of dollars being spent on short-term missions to fund an army of locals in that country who could do the work more effectively? Of course, that question must also be asked of long-termers as well.
Why not shut down the Western missionary effort altogether and redirect the money to local agencies reaching their own people within their own cultural framework? Of course there are Westerners in places where there is no local church. And the numbers game is easy to play.
Why not take the money Americans spend on cosmetics (8 billion dollars) and fund a basic education for all the children of the world? Or if we could just redirect the 17 billion that Americans and Europeans spend on pet food each year and provide much needed grain for the world's destitute?
While these numbers should be used to sober us up and jolt us out of our lifestyles of conspicuous consumption, shifting money spent by millions of people from one thing to another is not so neat. The stewardship question is one all agencies (rich or poor) should continually ask. But the financial cost of short-term mission is not a key concern in my mind.
First of all, many short-term missionaries contribute from their personal resources for the trip, sometimes taking on extra work in the months prior to their mission. Second, those that do give to short term missionaries often do so because they have a personal relationship with the person going on the trip. The donor has a prayerful conviction that the trip will serve as a catalyst for change in that person's life. Most of them are delighted to contribute in this way to the person being sent.
Finally, at least one study on short-termers revealed that the giving pattern for those that go on short-term trips changes dramatically. On average, short-term missionaries give twice as much after going on a trip than before going, releasing over the course of their life many times what it took to send them, often to the ministries they engaged on their trip.
For me, the question of money in short-term missions is not so much about trying to reallocate donations away from American short-termers and toward local workers. My friend, Gideon Yung, Regional Secretary for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students for East Asia puts it this way, "Why are rich countries the ones sending short-term missionaries? Are Christians from rich countries more gifted than those from poor countries?" Obviously not. But the answer is not in sending fewer rich Christians.
Rather we should be encouraging greater faith and creativity on the part of all Christians in order to send those with the gifts and calling no matter their financial circumstances. In fact, I would guess that there is far more short-term missions activity emanating from poor churches worldwide than many Americans are aware of.
Americans should not stop sending short-term missions; we should just follow the example of brothers and sisters in the two-thirds world. They practice the kind of mission Jesus encouraged with his disciples—take very few things along with you, rely on the goodness of God and the hospitality of his people, preach the gospel, heal the sick, cast out demons. Conduct short-term missions in an itinerant, low cost way while trusting God at each juncture. Poor and rich alike ought to be using every means at their disposal to extend the Kingdom and to be a blessing to the nations.
That having been said, I think it would be fair to establish some guidelines for good stewardship. Those of us with many resources are liable to be wasteful if we don't create some helpful boundaries. I think, for instance, that mission trips under two-weeks long ought not to leave this hemisphere given the time, jet lag and money necessary to do so.
We must also be careful not to under-challenge people with these short trips. We need to be bolder in asking why those who are considering going for two weeks are not considering going for two months or two years. And we need to be much more willing to say "no" to the immature that go just because they can or they want the thrill, requiring us to ask hard questions in order to get at motivation.
2. Are receiving countries really served?
I will not argue with the fact that the prime beneficiary of the short-term mission trip is the short-term missionary. But that's not such a bad thing. To me the mission of the Church is to prepare the Bride for eternity. This has an external, numeric dimension expressed in church planting, evangelism, justice to the oppressed, sight to the blind, decent housing, etc. But it also has an internal, qualitative dimension expressed when each member of the Church deepens their relationship with the Bridegroom.
Jesus doesn't just want a BIG Church; he wants a Church of character. That character is developed in significant ways on short-term trips. If I were Jesus, I'm not sure I'd be too excited about marrying the part of the Bride located in North America if she remained insulated from the world and never stepped out in risky, unfamiliar situations for his sake. Pushing North American Christians into places of dependence on God is accomplishing part of Christ's mission. In so doing we are discipling others in just the way he did – through experience –teaching them to obey everything he has commanded us.
Of course this discipleship through experience should not be at the expense of those Jesus has sent us out to serve. When Jesus sent out the 12 and the 72 (probably for no longer than many summer mission trips) there was fruit to their trip beyond their own maturation. They saw Satan "fall like lightening from the sky" as they healed and preached and cast out. All without the benefit of local agencies ready to follow up their itinerant work. Why should we not expect the same from our short-term missions today? I really believe short-term missions can and should be "real" mission.
The problem with most short-term mission trips is not that they expect too much from them but that they expect too little! If short-term mission leaders are gifted and called then the groups they lead can be very effective. I have seen short-term groups go into unreached areas for a month or two and leave behind a few new Christians that eventually become a self-sustaining, self-financing, self-propagating body of believers who send out their own itinerant, short-term missionaries.
Perhaps just as powerfully, I have seen trip participants loan solidarity to the oppressed and dignity to the marginalized. The participants on these trips were not seasoned church planters or community developers. In fact, they were university students from secular campuses. So far as I know, none had Bible School training or missionary "boot camp" experience. They did have three elements I consider key to conducting fruitful short-term missions
Each participant had prepared to develop a serious friendship with at least one other local person in the city to which they went. The focus of the trip was relational. Both the local host and the visitor gave themselves to building a relationship. The more participants on a missions trip can remain in one location with the same group of people, the better chance that relationship will lead to incarnational ministry.
American students were coached to adopt the posture of a learner and a servant. Their orientation helped them to see that many of their values (i.e. time vs. event) were culturally influenced and not necessarily morally "right" or "wrong." They were encouraged to become a student of the culture they entered, with curiosity, openness and trust.
This quest for cultural understanding prevented them from "writing off" the host culture at the first sign of cultural difference. They sincerely sought to understand the host culture and in the process ended up embracing some host culture values and reevaluating aspects of their own.
Being Over Doing:
The students we send on these trips we pare down to the bone - very few possessions, very little spending money, no cameras, computers and ipods, and an attitude of giving yourself to listening to other people’s stories and sharing with them your time and affections.
Most of the Biblical examples of missions are more like short-term missions than residential missions. After all, Jesus did not even complete a full, four-year missionary term. And most of his ministry amounted to spending only days or weeks at a time in each town with at least as much social time as teaching time. Paul's journeys were itinerant as were Peter's. Roland Allen, a missiologist in the 1920's believed that this non-residential form of missions ultimately served to make the church indigenous. It forced the believers left behind to carry on without expatriates. In certain pioneering settings, I believe that short-term missions should be a preferred strategy.
So what about short-term missions in places where the church is established? As Ms. Van Engen suggests, where the Church exists, short-term mission must be preceded by careful advance work to find out just what true partnership could look like. When the initiative for a short-term project comes from the host country and the trip design is a truly collaborative, holistic process, the result is fruit that lasts: fruit in the character of the missionary and fruit in the quality of their work.