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The case for short-term missions

I am a progeny of the short-term missions movement. My life was shaped by trips I took as a teenager to Guatemala and Peru. And here’s the ripple effect: in addition to sending tens of thousands to the field, my family has been profoundly affected. My daughter Estie just left with her college gro…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

I am a progeny of the short-term missions movement. My life was shaped by trips I took as a teenager to Guatemala and Peru. And here’s the ripple effect: in addition to sending tens of thousands to the field, my family has been profoundly affected. My daughter Estie just left with her college group to Costa Rica, my son Seth Jr. is in Swaziland caring for orphans, and my parents are returning from three months of medical ministry in Kenya during a time of great civil unrest.

Building on that early experience as a teenager, I’ve spent 25 years doing short-term trips and it seems that my blog “Are short-term missions becoming faddish?” has made me something of an “authority.” Over 20,000 people have looked at it since I wrote it a year ago. And the tide of emails in my in-box like the one I just received made me realize that perhaps it’s time for a considered response.

So, be warned, this is gonna get long – hang in there!

A random person recently wrote me saying, “Hey, I am doing a speech opposing short term missions [STMs] today, I was wondering if you have any data or statistics that would work for this?”

I’m afraid my response wasn’t too encouraging: “You may have mis-read my perspective.” I wrote. “I believe your position is unbiblical. Luke 9 and 10 is a clear biblical precedent. My issue is not STMs, but STMs done poorly, which is most of the time these days. If you’re ‘opposing STMs’ then you’re opposing Jesus.”

What’s going on here? Is this a tempest in a teapot, or do we need to trash short-term missions and start over?

On the one hand, STMs have become over-the-top faddish when you can now sign up for a “missions cruise,” – I wonder whose “have-your-cake-and eat-it-too” thinking produced that? On the other hand, when you go to a bad restaurant, do you give up on eating food? Many of us attend dull churches, but believe in the concept of church. Everywhere in life there are examples of excellence contrasted with poverty of imagination and execution.

STMs are a necessary part of discipleship. The people who would do away with STMs are missing a big chunk of Jesus’ pedagogy. Jesus was big on faith – asking us to do a trust-fall with the Father. How else are you going to learn faith if not by being thrust into unfamiliar territory with an overwhelming assignment? You can study diving all you want, but until you jump off that high dive, you don’t know diving.

STMs are also a necessary part of missions. Paul went on a series of STMs and jump-started the long-term mission movement. Usually when planting a long-term work in a community, those planning it are going to begin to establish relationships in a series of forays that culminate in a long-term commitment. 

STM teams work – sometimes spectacularly. The uneven results they can produce open the door to criticism. Here are the most prevalent criticisms:

*They cost too much.

*Short-term missionaries can’t do a missionary’s job.

*Short-term missionaries should help the needy people in the U.S. first.

Jesus tells us, “Go into all the world spreading the good news.” The passive approach to faith is an oxymoron – we can’t sit still and practice the kind of risky faith steps that Jesus advocated. Christ sounded a clarion call to battle. Religion for couch potatoes placing a premium on safety or formulas doesn’t sit well with our Lord. We’ve been commanded to get out of the malls and into the streets. The question before the court then is not one of a mandate. The questions are: What we should do with the mandate we’ve been given? And, just how far should short-term missionaries go with their mandate? Are there any limits?

Sometimes, the critics score a bullseye. Mission trips too frequently are costly. By definition they can’t incorporate the follow-up work that only someone with a long-term commitment to a particular mission field can. Often they are overly ambitious, aspiring to pierce the darkness in a place like Romania, when the light may be dimmer next door in Philadelphia.

Other criticisms are more easily countered. Some critics dismiss short-term missionaries out of hand with the comment that “They’re not really missionaries.” To which I say, if being a missionary means something other than sharing the love of Jesus cross-culturally, then it is true, short-term missionaries may not measure up. Yes, often they do have a quick-fix mentality in a world where change may be measured at a glacial rate. However, I suggest that labels are a peripheral issue. Jesus called us all to be missionaries. He sent his disciples out in pairs as the first short-term missionaries (Mark 6:7-13). To judge the validity of the STM movement, we need to dispense with old preconceptions and look at the fruit, not the duration of the term or even the commitment of those involved.

Another criticism in the same vein is that the ministry on a mission trip is more to the short-termer than it is to those to whom they’re ministering. To which I say, “So what?” It’s true that STM leaders may seem more focused on the needs of their group than they are on the ministry they’ve undertaken. Often the changes that occur in their lives are profound. It may frequently be the case that short-term missionaries are the primary beneficiaries of their trip; however, the most successful models of STMs emphasize a partnership in which both participants and nationals benefit equally as they develop relationships with one another.

These kinds of criticisms persist and confusion flourishes when STM leaders embrace questionable models of STMs. Because there are so many flawed models floating around, they inevitably tarnish those models of STMs whose fruit has stood the test of time.

When STM groups come in for criticism, most often it is because they have adopted one or more of the following flawed models of short-term missions. Let’s look at the six worst:

QUESTIONABLE MODELS

1. No Preparation

2. No Prayer

3. No Jerusalem

4. No “Ends of the earth”

5. No Stewardship

6. No Perspective

Some critics see STM groups as being on a kind of philanthropic sightseeing tour. An STM team can be a negative experience for both long-term missionary and participant alike if the team is inadequately prepared and is seen as a necessary inconvenience. The same team can have an incredible impact if they are trained and come to the field with the right attitudes.

For more, read: The case for short-term missions, Pt. 2

Comments (6)

  • Thanks for this, amazing thinking.

    Your three common criticisms aren’t mine. Mine would be (and realize I am a fan of STM’s, and am making some generalizations. I know many STM’s that rise above the fray)

    1. STM’s destinations share a striking similarity to vacation spots and “churched” countries. Less the unreached, unchurched parts of the globe.

    2. STM’s are framed in the same context as long term mission work, attaching themselves to a narrative that is not necessarily that STM’s to share.

    3. Research is revealing STM’s do not necessarily produce missionaries, stronger giving, prayer, or better connections with indigenous people.

    4. Resources used for STM’s are cannibalizing the resources needed for long term strategic mission work.

    5. STM’s often focus on the benefit to the goer, not the receiver.

    While I offer these criticisms, I do not believe STM’s should be abolished or looked down upon, but rather, it is time to re-evaluate them and “up” the level of kingdom work taking place.

    Wat is more, we have much to learn from our brothers in sisters in other countries. STM’s perhaps in the context most are now, should be framed as discovery trips to see the work God is presently doing and how we might join that work.

    Mark

  • You had mentioned taking mission trips to Peru? Could you just say alittle about that. I’m taking a mission trip to Peru this summer and I’m very excited to go but alittle apprehensive. I wuold really appreciate it. Thanks.

  • Well i guess i dont really know. I guess to start like how different was it? Like going from being in the United States to Peru. i have never really traveled and so i dont know what to expect. Also are the people friendly? i mean im sure they are but its just something i am wondering. i feel like i have so many questions but i cant think of how to write it.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.



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