Travel through any international airport in the world today, especially during the summer, and you will see them: in numbers large and small, youth, college, career, even senior citizens are headed to or returning from a short-term mission trip. Quite often, you can identify them from across the terminal by their pastel t-shirts that say “ABC Church Summer Mission Trip 2014.” These groups are as ubiquitous as ATMs! I have stood with them in aircraft boarding lines, check-in lines, and customs lines. Short-term mission teams are everywhere and their numbers are growing.
I have a significant personal history of short-term missions involvement. In college, I spent two summers on eight-week trips working on an Indian reservation in Manitoba. After graduation, I assumed the ministry of the missionary I had worked with and so became the recipient of more summer teams over the next several years. During my final eight years in Canada, the church I pastored sent out short-term teams. Finally, in the late 1990s, I started traveling internationally myself, teaching in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa. I have made twenty such trips over the past dozen years and am slated to make four more trips next year. I know short-term missions, inside and out.
There is a lot of discussion about the value of such trips both for the receiving missionaries and for the sending churches. This week and next, I want to reflect on this widely accepted practice and make some observations about the advantages and disadvantages of short-term missions. Are these trips genuinely helpful or is this little more than Christian tourism, as some would argue? This week I want to highlight the positives of short-term missions. These trips can and do serve a good and useful purpose in advancing the cause of Christ—if they are undertaken in a thoughtful way.
First, some definitions and parameters. Short-term missions is generally considered to be any temporary visit to a mission field (international or domestic) for the purpose of carrying out some form of Christian ministry. Admittedly, this is a very broad definition, but it reflects the wide diversity of what is usually called short-term missions.
Short term projects differ in time, purpose, and size. These trips may vary in duration from a few hours to a few months. They might include child evangelism, by hosting a vacation Bible school; youth evangelism, by holding a sports camp or helping in an orphanage; or an adult ministry of helps, by offering free labor for building construction. If the foreign country speaks another language, the team may be limited in their evangelism, although they may stuff mailboxes, hand out flyers, teach English, or do something else designed to help build bridges or make contacts for the field missionary. These trips may comprise large groups of several dozen participants or small teams of one or two; thus, size is not really an issue either, except that larger groups are more difficult to coordinate logistically. Despite these differences, I contend that the positive value of short-term trips center on several key goals that could be true of all these teams.
First, a short-term trip should be a vision trip. A good trip will open the eyes of a Christian to the needs of the world and the opportunities of ministry available to someone considering investing in global evangelism. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but first-hand experience can grip the heart! Several years ago, I took a couple to Africa, knowing the Lord could use the trip in their life. They had a great experience. The husband had computer expertise and helped the college with their IT needs. The wife also got to see the ministry up close. In the providence of God, this man had skills that the school needed at that time and he came away from the experience with a sense of gratitude for how God had used him. Now they are considering this ministry, not because of his IT skills, but to join others who are training leaders in Africa.
In sum, the most productive purpose for short-term missions may not be what the short-termer can do for the missionary, but what the short-termer can receive from a well-planned visit to the field. There is no better way to get a vision for ministry than by making a personal visit to a mission field.
Second, a short-term trip is a ministry of help to the missionary. Some trips do offer genuine help. My travels over the past dozen years have allowed me to teach hundreds of men theological truths that help them in their ministries. Missionaries invite me to do what they think that I can do in a way that they cannot. I may be better equipped to teach some subjects. In the same way, a university student may teach English to help build bridges for evangelism. Countries that do not allow for missionaries may allow English teachers. Such Christians can bear Christian witness in an otherwise closed country. Some laymen may have skills that field missionaries find truly helpful. These things may serve as justification for short-term missions, but these opportunities need to be weighed carefully. Does the missionary really need what I have to offer? Will I be a genuine help if I go? Will my presence distract the missionary from his ministry? These are hard questions that need to be asked in advance of taking such a trip. My willingness to go may not be sufficient reason for going if I cannot truly be helpful.
However, short-term trips have their limitations and their pitfalls. Next week, we will consider some of the more pressing challenges and obstacles for a short-term ministry.
This essay is by Jeff Straub, Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Ascend Thy Throne, Almighty King
Benjamin Beddome (1717–1795)
Ascend Thy throne, almighty King,
And spread Thy glories all abroad:
Let Thine own arm salvation bring,
And be Thou known the gracious God.
Let millions bow before Thy seat,
Let humble mourners seek Thy face;
Bring daring rebels to Thy feet,
Subdued by Thy victorious grace.
O let the kingdoms of the world
Become the kingdoms of the Lord;
Let saints and angels praise Thy name,
Be Thou through Heaven and earth adored.