An estimated 1.6 million North American Christians will go on a short-term mission this year. They will spend close to $2-billion in the process. That is a lot of time, treasure and talent being invested by the goers, senders and receivers of those teams, so it seems good to explore why we send and receive them.
For the sake of clarity, most missions involved churches and individuals would define a short-term missions team as a group of people who travel to a country outside of the United States for a period lasting from a few days to a few months for ministry purposes.
From the stewardship angle, we must ask the basic question; why do churches send, and missionaries receive, short-term mission teams? I propose that because the mission of God is long-term, short-term missions are primarily done to support on-going missionary and national works as they live out the Great Commission among the nations. This makes the purpose of these teams to come alongside an established missionary or national overseen work to increase its impact. It is important to note that a short-term team is not a pastoral visit, member care field visit, or a pre-field missionary survey trip.
While Shepherd’s Staff exists to facilitate local churches to send their full-time missionaries well, we also recognize those same churches, and others, often send short-term missions teams to the full-time missionaries we serve. I suggest churches send and full-time missionaries receive short-term missions teams for many good, but ultimately misguided reasons. Here are three reasons why many may continue with short-term missions programs, but find they are not producing the fruit they desire.
Because STM Teams Produce Career Missionaries
The modern short-term missions movement began with Operation Mobilization and Youth With a Mission in the '60s. Before long, campus ministries like InterVarsity as well as local churches began developing short-term missions programs. In all those years and with all the millions of people who have gone on a short-term mission, the total number of career missionaries from the United States has steadily hovered around 130,000 (as stated by The Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary).
While the vast majority of full-time missionaries we serve cite a short-term mission trip as critical in their decision making to go to the field, it is far from the only factor. It makes sense that people with a passion for God’s glory among the nations would go on short-term missions. But it also makes sense they would pray for laborers, be more open to God’s call on their life and read about missions. All of these, and other activities are more likely to confirm a call. The short-term mission is surely not counter productive to calling career missionaries, but it is not a reliable method of recruitment either.
Because STM Changes Those Who Go
The moment we make short-term missions about those who have the blessing of going and taking part in the work, we miss the whole point of going. Surely there is often great benefit and blessing to the individuals on the team and their sending church or campus ministry, but those are the by-products and not the primary goal of short-term missions. Serving the greater mission of God being played out through the full-time missionaries and national workers must be primary. If the goal is to bring impact to the goers and not increase the impact of the work already on the ground there is detachment from the given purpose.
The Bible clearly teaches pain and suffering are often part of the plan to advance God’s mission among those waiting to hear. The Great Commission is never about taking people out of their comfort zone, teaching the goers a lesson or helping them appreciate America. Such views are at best imperialistic and self focused. At the worst it makes going on a short-term mission for the purpose of change for the goers ungodly and contrary to the Biblical model of missions.
Because the STM Helps People in Need
Missions is largely about making disciples and helping plant churches where there are none. Short-term missions surely can help with these and other parts of the mission endeavor. To send, go on or receive teams with a stated goal of helping needy people may actually usurp the roll of the existing local churches. In some cases it may cause them to develop methodology based on outside help.
Jesus was compassionate towards the hurting and expressed hope came from the Father. Sending and receiving short-term mission teams with compassion is right, but many missionaries and national works can compromise because hope may seem to come from the outside.
While serving as full-time missionaries in East Africa my family once hosted a short-term mission team of 14 who spent about $34,000 for 10-days of very fruitful ministry. It was a large investment of time, treasure and talent by the goers, senders and receivers. All could say lives were changed and all believed God was glorified through evangelism, discipleship and pastoral training. The long-term work was advanced. The by-product of impact and growth in the team and blessing to the sending church was evident.
While we purposely only received a few small short-term mission teams, I purposely shared the above testimony to say I believe in the value of short-term missions. I’m a fan. My concern is we do them for the right reason. Why they should be done is to glorify God by supporting on-going missionary and national works as they live out the Great Commission among the nations.
Ed Compean, along with his family, served as missionaries in Kenya and Mexico for more than 12-years. He is now engaged in church relations and communications at Shepherd’s Staff Mission Facilitators.