Churches do them. Para-church ministries do them. All kinds of organizations are doing them. If you’ve been on one, the experience was so outside your normal life your worldview has probably been shaped significantly by it. If you’re a ministry leader, you probably view them—whether domestic or in a global context—as a sort of rite of passage for those you minister to. If you haven’t been on one, you might think you need to go on one to be a good Christian.
As short-term mission (STM) trips have become more common in Christian culture in the West, criticism of them has flowed from many sides. In describing how STM programs often intersect with those they plan to serve, Edwin Zehner writes, “there is concern about the cultural imperialist assumptions underlying many short-term projects, and criticism that shorttermers tend to be overly goal focused . . . and unrealistically positive about the effectiveness of their missions.”
As part of the team that oversees and implements short-term Global Projects with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, I’m acutely aware of the criticisms of these types of programs. Many of the criticisms are very valid and I grieve over the missteps that have been made in the name of missions. That said, I’m very excited about the work God is doing through short-term programs around the world, especially when they partner with those who have a long-term vision.
What Makes a Good STM?
First and foremost, good short-term teams are grounded in an understanding of God and God’s movement in the world, or the missio Dei. David Bosch describes it this way: “Mission [is] understood as being derived from the very nature of God …the missio Dei is God’s activity, which embraces both the church and the world, and in which the church may be privileged to participate.”
In other words, mission is part of the very character of the God who is Love. Mission is not just something that God decided to take on; it’s in God’s DNA. When we are able to understand that a loving God is the primary initiator and actor, we can begin to embrace our humble and privileged role as receivers and co-actors. Our relationships, then, with those who receive STM groups can be healthy cross-cultural partnerships in which both partners receive from the other.
When teams embrace the missio Dei, they move from “doing a service project” to serving alongside. Sometimes service on short-term trips can be one-directional: “we built a house” or “we painted a classroom”. But embracing a fuller understanding of God’s work can change what service means.
Letting Go of Power
Last summer, I traveled with a group of college students to Nairobi, Kenya. Our director had built a strong relationship with a church and school which was ministering in one of the slum communities. Because our director understood that God was already active and moving in this slum through this church, his question was not “What can we do?” but “What are you doing, and how can our team be a part of it?”
When we arrived, I could see many needs in the community, and many things our team could have done, but instead of asking us to address any of the needs I saw, the local pastor instead directed us to simply play with the children. He explained that the children had few opportunities for organized play, and that our visit was an opportunity for them to rent a local schoolyard and gather the community children for a day of games. Because our team understood that we were participating in what God had been doing before we arrived and would continue doing after we had went back home, our day of playing games could rightly be understood as missions to the community.
After that day in the slum, we didn’t have the traditional missions stories of the conversions we facilitated. Indeed, it was uncomfortable for many of us to step out of a position of power in evangelism. But in embracing the missio Dei, we were able to receive the gift of mutual conversion; everyone grew because it was God who was doing the work, not us. When short-term teams assume they are bringing the gospel with them, they can miss out on the way God wants to transform them. But a broader vision leads to transformation all around.
Recently InterVarsity sent college students to the Caribbean to work alongside Christian college students as they shared the gospel on their campuses. Not only was it an opportunity for more students in that country to hear the Good News of Jesus, but the students from the United States were challenged to share the gospel more boldly, a challenge that can extend to their own campus when returning to the United States. Because the team went, Caribbean students who may not have otherwise encountered a Christian community on campus were called to consider Jesus. And because the team went, United States students became bolder evangelists.
Teams who go on short-term projects and are outside their “everyday lives” are often listening to God more intentionally, and have the opportunity to change, take action, and follow a call in ways that have not been visible to them previously. When teams understand that God is already at work, they are open to the ways God would transform them and call them to action through their experience.
Many former participants in InterVarsity’s Global Urban Trek have said that seeing the value of communal living and resource sharing expressed in their host families has moved them to live differently upon returning to the United States. Sometimes those with whom they lived and worked were not followers of Jesus, but were expressing Kingdom values in the lives they lived. These participants had their vision widened, and are living lives more closely aligned with the Kingdom of God because of their experiences.
On the InterVarsity Global Projects team, we send students out with our primary focus on the God who has created a beautiful world and goes out into that world in mission. With that focus, we can partner with the long-term ministries in the places we go—whether that is an indigenous student movement outside the United States, western missionaries serving in closed countries, or Christian community development leaders in urban slums. Our presence, instead of being a burden to their ministry, can creatively benefit their long-term work as long as our focus is on God as the primary actor and our team’s role as a small piece of the overall work.
Sometimes our short-term projects are integral in the planting of God’s work around the world. Many student movements have been planted or advanced in places like Eurasia and East Asia because short-term teams were part of longer-term planning and vision for ministry to college students. In this case the presence of short-term teams who come for a specific purpose over many years adds to the strategic vision and work in that area.
God is the Primary Actor
When teams believe that God is already at work in a place—even through the very culture, people, and circumstances they encounter—teams are more willing to learn about that place and understand the core values of the people there. This learning posture is often the main antidote to the cultural imperialism short-term trips are criticized for. In embracing the missio Dei, short-term teams move away from collecting badges of honor and exotic experiences and can instead develop a broader vision of God’s person and work in the world.
Short-term mission, with its beauty and it foibles, is a gift of partnership to those who go and those who receive them. Those who lead short-term trips need to be aware of the pitfalls inherent in these sorts of trips, and need to build a practical theology and mission mindset which sees God as the primary actor and initiator.
God is in the business of engaging with the world in its beauty, diversity, and brokenness. When we engage in short-term projects in light of the missio Dei, we encounter some of the world’s beauty, diversity and brokenness and have the opportunity to work alongside God and those whom God has beautifully and wonderfully made, doing the things God has called each of us to do.
David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. American Society of Missiology Series (Marynoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011).
Edwin Zehner, “Short-Term Missions: Toward a More Field-Oriented Model,” Missiology: An International Review 34, no. 4 (October 2006): 510.