The smell of spices was so heavy in this part of the open-air market we could smell and taste what the vendors were selling. Rows of baskets overflowed with red-orange baharat, golden brown frankincense, garlic cloves, brownish-green cardamom, reddish-brown cinnamon, golden cummin, peppers of every hue from green to yellow to red.
“Where are you from? Amir-i-ka? Frans-ee? Jar-mann-ee?” kids in the street asked us, ecstatic to practice English.
We were a team from the church I worked at walking through ancient cobblestone streets in a Middle-eastern country that boasted to be one of the oldest, continually inhabited cities in the world. Ancient Bible characters came from this city, yet this highly populated country, – 50% under 25 years old – had the smallest Christian population in all Arab speaking countries. There was one recognized church building in the entire country and it was built during the Crusades. We weren’t allowed to name the country to our American friends because working as a missionary in this country was illegal. We weren’t allowed to say the “M” (missionary) word while in the country under any circumstances.
This was not a country where missionaries stayed – on average – for more than five years at a time. Much of what got done there for the sake of the gospel was done by short-term teams working with expats living in-country. Those that stayed for too long eventually became targets for expulsion, kidnapping, or murder. This isn’t an exaggeration. This is a fact.
I felt like electricity was running through me. Working in this country with a short-term team from our church was surreal and invigorating. As the leader of this team, my senses were on high alert. As a team, we trained together for three months. We learned about culture, we studied the work the in-country missionaries we doing, we practiced some local language, and we honed our personal Jesus story down to two minutes, ready to share it in a moment’s notice on a bus, in a cab, or on the street.
We had one mission: to bring credibility to the efforts of local missionaries as they reached the local community.
Short term missions has been a developing trend in the Western Countries for the past several decades. The trend has become a movement that a cottage industry has developed around to service. Technology has shrunk the world. Political instability has made much of the world impossible to put down long-term roots. In the past, missionaries needed to make missions their life career because geography and slow communication required it. That’s not the case anymore.
Missionaries have learned niche specialties utilizing fast moving teams. Vast, far-reaching programs have been neatly carved into projects with specific goals, timelines, and end-dates.
The need to send missionaries away to missions sending organizations and societies disconnected from the local church is being replaced by local churches rising up, identifying needs or adopting people groups, then training and sending their own to launch, staff, and manage their own Great Commission initiatives.
The mission pastor/director responsible for leading and staffing short-term teams needs to keep these four things in view:
- The aims and goals of an in-country missionary are paramount.
- Exposure to a different culture is an invaluable learning experience.
- They will be exposed to the enormous difficulties faced by Christians and Christian Churches due to isolation, persecution, being in the minority.
- God has a call on their lives.
Ultimately, short-term mission team members need to understand that they are in the role of a student, not a teacher. The mission pastor/director needs to model this better than anyone.
While the country described above is dangerous and Christians are in the minority, one of the cultural values of this country is hospitality. People there are naturally friendlier there than any country I’ve visited. Religion is a common topic of conversation. In that environment, when you as a visitor adopts the position of a student – listening and learning – the opportunities to discuss why you follow Jesus present themselves much more often than they do in our regular, work-a-day lives here at home. This is something we need to both teach and model.
Chances are, those who are on the trip have never been out of the country. This may be their first international or cross-cultural experience. Short-termers have a tendency is to make the trip about “what I’ll get out of this.” The mission pastor/director needs to facilitate what each team member gets out of it. In a foreign land, all human senses are on high alert. This is the perfect environment for the short-termer to really hear from God. This experience needs wise guidance.
You, as the leader, have a unique and unprecedented opportunity to influence and train people along their journey with Jesus while making His Name famous among the nations.