My evaluation of short-term missions comes from the perspective of one who definitely supports them. I have led short-term trips in the past, and I encourage most believers to participate in at least one serious short-term missions trip (lasting 1-24 months).
I recognize that short-term missions have contributed strongly to God’s Great Kingdom Enterprise. In fact, I can think of 10 significant benefits of short-term trips:
- They provide hands-on, direct contact with cross-cultural missions.
- They stimulate realistic vision for the global task.
- They provide an opportunity to see God at work (in one’s personal life and on the mission field).
- They can stimulate significant intercession by driving home the fact that without prayer, little is accomplished.
- They offer reality therapy for those who see missions with fuzzy, rose-tinted glasses.
- They can convert a person into a lifelong intercessor or missions mobilizer back home.
- They can create within those who go a desire to serve more significantly in their home churches - perhaps using newly acquired skills, and generally with a more global perspective.
- Short-termers can witness the impact they can make through their example, evangelism, discipleship, or the use or transfer of their specific skills. Through their service they strengthen the on-site, long-term ministry.
- They provide the foundation for their own potential long-term commitment to career mis-sionary service.
- They bring glory to the Living God through their demonstrated obedience to the Sending Lord.
In spite of these 10 positive aspects, however, short-term missions also have some short-comings.
Champions of short-term missions sometimes appear to proclaim that they have found the decisive answer to world evangelization. This attitude can be found in some short-term mission organizations as well as some local churches.
Those who espouse this view suffer from a reductionism of the Great Commission/Great Commandment task before us. They are looking at the world through a straw - reducing the totality to a single option - when what we need is a broader menu of alternatives.
Veterans of short-term trips can tend to pass themselves off as missions experts. Just because they’ve been on a brief cross-cultural stint or two doesn’t mean there’s nothing else for them to learn!
Ignored National Ministries
Short-term leaders sometimes bypass the goals and ministries of existing national churches and mission agencies. They neglect to recognize that short-termers tend to make their greatest impact when their work is integrated into long-range plans and programs.
Too Short, Too Expensive
Some short-term trips are just too limited, too short, and too expensive. Often, long-term missions are accused of high cost, low value. For example, you’ll hear that it costs too much to keep a North American missionary family in Japan. “Redeploy them or bring them home!” say budget-conscious Christians.
But what about those nine-day, Easter break, “win Russia for Christ” trips? What does it cost to send 30 high school or college students on such a trip? Is that really the best way to use kingdom money?
Instead of sending a dozen people from Boston to Indonesia for two weeks (discount four days for travel, one for sickness, two for tourism), why not develop a really powerful trip to an inner city, Canada, or Mexico - at a fraction of the cost?
Short-term trips can go to the other extreme by overloading a team’s schedule. This saps the limited resources of national churches and expatriate missionaries.
When I was in Latin America, I finally reached the point where I was so frustrated by the demands short-term teams made upon me that I said, “Don’t send me one more short-termer who can’t get around in Spanish!”
We need to beware of trips that leave little impact or require nothing after their participants return home. Generally, the younger the participants, the less a short-term mission trip will affect their lives and those of others. But if leadership builds into pre-trip training the serious domestic implications of short-term service, then a much better picture emerges.
Short-term missions may also foster an unrealistic view of the national church and existing missionaries. A short-termer can easily spend a few weeks at a location and return concluding, “Wow! These missionaries sure are lazy. We got up at dawn and slogged it out until midnight, witnessing, building the church, and running Vacation Bible Schools for the kids. But those missionaries did so little!”
I recognize that lazy missionaries do exist. Still, the reality is that the intensity of short-term enthusiasm simply cannot be sustained amid the daily grind of long-term ministry. When I think of most of the missionaries I know, several descriptive terms come to mind. These people are gifted, well-equipped, dedicated, committed for the long term, quietly interceding, doing invisible acts of love, patiently learning the language and culture, and building trust and credibility so the gospel can penetrate with lasting power.
One reason many short-term workers have such positive relationships with national believers is because they’re enjoying the benefit of time-tested trust built by the on-site, long-term missionaries.
Overcoming the Limitations
Some short-term groups have been able to avoid most of these problems. Others have not - probably because they have not thought things through adequately or haven’t developed their programs in dialogue with existing ministries on that field.
The situation is complicated by some major changes occurring in North America’s younger generation. Many of our young people have a low commitment to anything long-term and are suspicious of absolute truth - whether that means Christianity as a system or Jesus Christ Himself. But every aspect of the global missions enterprise has its problems. The key is to recognize our limitations, invite and listen to outside input, and be willing to change for the better.
Balancing Our Efforts
Is our approach wrong? Should we view short terms strictly as forums for experiencing hands-on training, and focus on accomplishing the task of world evangelization through longer-term ministry?
My answer to that valid question is simple: an airplane needs both wings to fly. We need both short-term and long-term missions. Short terms should be seen, at least in part, as hands-on training for missions. I would like to see more specific equipping for short-term missions (including what to do upon returning home) and a much larger percentage of short-termers committing to long-term missionary service.
One mission agency that I really respect has staff missionaries who are totally dedicated to working with short-term teams. Due to this emphasis, the agency has seen a higher percentage of its short-termers go on into long-term missions. Still, they want to double their numbers.
Stressing Long-Term Missions
Remember, most of the thousands of unreached people groups are unreached because it is tough to reach them! The reasons could be geographical, ethnic, political, religious, or a combination of these factors. I’m deeply convinced that these groups will hear the gospel in their mother tongue, will respond in the power of God, and will see vital churches established - primarily through the work of long-term, dedicated missionaries.
This breed of missionary - I call them an endangered species - is composed of people who have committed for the long haul. They will be sent by their churches as well-trained servant-leaders, buttressed by faithful intercessors.
They will learn the language to speak it proficiently. They will study and understand the culture, raise their families in that context, and establish credibility with the people. And they will see our supernatural God at work.
Reaching the unreached will take a new generation of Boomers and Generation X’ers who decide to go for broke and serve God in long-term missions work. They will need to intern with their local churches and get the right training for the task. They will still need to be sent out by their churches, to work on vital teams on the field. They will still need to stay on the field for 10, 20, even 40 years.
Most of these missionaries will fit our “traditional career missionary” profile. But a good percentage of them will also be bivocational, serving as teachers, engineers, entrepreneurs, consultants, health care providers. These tentmakers will also need the qualities describing traditional long-term missionaries.
Money Isn’t the Answer
Would it be better stewardship just to send money instead of sending short-term workers? No! That’s a cop-out! It’s related to the ill-advised strategy I hear discussed in some circles - that we should stop sending colonial missionaries and just support native missionaries or send money! I sense the potential of a further dangerous tendency in the U.S. First we diminish the screening, recruiting, and sending of long-term missionaries and send short-termers instead. Then we cut down on both long- and short-termers and send money instead. Then we send nothing!
This approach appears cost-effective and less painful at first. But it is unbiblical and perilous for the soul of the global church.
Missions in the American church may be in need of some serious reconsideration and revival, but it’s far from a lost cause. There’s still time to change our short-term missions mentality. We need to take a careful look at the current status of short-term and long-term efforts, talk to each other, and then see where we can develop strategic partnerships or alliances.
Let’s use both wings to fly!
Reprinted from Mission Today '96 magazine, published by Berry Publishing Services.