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What Did Jesus Believe About Short-Term Missions?

Why do we do short-term missions (STMs)? There are many answers, but the best is that, as disciples of Jesus, we should try to do what he modeled and taught. We don’t do them because they’re fun, we do them because we serve a Lord who used the tool of STMs to help his disciples grow and comm…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

Why do we do short-term missions (STMs)? There are many answers, but the best is that, as disciples of Jesus, we should try to do what he modeled and taught. We don’t do them because they’re fun, we do them because we serve a Lord who used the tool of STMs to help his disciples grow and commanded that we, his modern disciples go into all the world.

Here are six observations about STMs we can see in Jesus’ ministry.

1. Jesus’ whole ministry was an STM

The gospel of Luke shows that Jesus began his ministry by traveling from town to town. People didn’t want him to leave, but he said, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” (Luke 4:43)

Right off the bat after his baptism and temptation in the desert, his own townspeople rejected him and tried to kill him. As he explained it, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” He couldn’t stay. And if Jesus said it about himself, we can expect to struggle similarly in the comfort of our own hometown.

Jesus traveled from town to town, staying a short time and moving on. Jesus modeled a short-term mission lifestyle, depending in each new place on what he called a “person of peace” – someone who was trusted by locals who could help with logistics and relationships.

2. He brought his disciples along with him

Jesus began looking for traveling companions to teach right off the bat. He told them “follow me” and then he left their town, meaning that they had to leave as well. He said,“no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me…” (Mark 10:29-30

Leaving home was a basic requirement for his 12 disciples. They traveled with him for three years. The requirement to leave home was an important part of their training. It forced them to let go of the things that held them back. 

At various times, people would come to him wanting to be his disciple and he would use the requirement of leaving (to join him on his perpetual STM) as a means of measuring their willingness to commit. (Matt. 8)

3. He sent his disciples out multiple times

Luke 9 and 10 or Matthew 10 show us that after Jesus had preached the gospel, and then modeled what it looked like to go on an STM and minister, he sent his disciples out. In Luke 9, he first sent out all 12 of them. And then in the next chapter, he sent out 72. 

His preparation must have sounded extreme:

“As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give. Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff;”

And it worked! They came back from their STMs rejoicing: “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” (Luke 10:17)

And he continued this practice of sending out disciples on STMs, appearing to Paul and telling him, “I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light.” (Acts 26:17-18)

4. If his disciples were messy, there’s grace for us

The irony is that Jesus took three years to disciple his disciples, yet they still looked like a mess in the end.  Three years of intensive, personal, challenging life together was just barely enough to get them to a place where they were succeeding as much as they were failing.

For much of that time, Jesus’ best disciple, Peter, the rock upon which Jesus said he’d build his church, was like a spiritual toddler falling down as he learned to walk.  There he is walking on water one minute and chopping off a soldier’s ear or denying Jesus multiple times the next minute.

The good news is, if Jesus’ best disciple went on a series of STMs with him that lasted three years, and still at the end he messed up, then maybe there’s grace for us. STMs are meant to be learning experiments. The main problems with them arise when disciples fail to go as learners, lack humility and don’t seek context. If disciples go without these and don’t do as Jesus said and seek the “person of peace,” (Luke 10:6) then they are more likely to make mistakes.

5. Jesus’ teaching process fixed the mess

Peter got plenty of real life faith tests followed by immediate debriefings from Jesus.  Each time he failed, Peter could look at his spiritual reflection and see his brokenness. 

Thus trained, Peter – along with the other disciples – gets to try out ministry for himself (Luke 9:2) before later progressing as a trainer for another acolyte (Luke 10). Subsequently, Jesus pulls Peter aside for spot coaching, encouraging him at points of breakthrough (Matt 16:18) and correcting or rebuking him when his faith faltered (Luke 22:31).

Jesus, ever the consummate spiritual coach, developed Peter over a period of three years to eventually become a spiritual leader. We can do the same for our acolytes if we’ll follow his pattern.

6. Jesus gave us a command, not a choice

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.  We have a mandate – what will we do with it? Just how far should short-term missionaries go with their mandate? 

In this era where global travel has never been easier and cheaper, the logistical complications with going are diminished. Yes, too often STMs are done poorly. Instead of following Jesus’ example, we do our own thing. And we need to learn from our mistakes.

But that doesn’t give us license to reject Jesus’ example. If you’re opposing STMs as a general rule, then you’re opposing a method Jesus used. STMs are an important part of the way he discipled. 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. 

Comments (35)

  • I love the simplicity… thank you! Something that I’ve been praying into is, “the clearer my picture of Jesus the clearer everything else will be.” So thank you for showing me another glimpse into who Jesus is!

  • The part about ‘going’ is key. Just Go. You don’t have to change the world, you just need to go. You don’t need to be perfect, you just need to go. Go on a journey. Discover. Grow. That is most definitely the model Jesus gave us

  • This is funny, because under point number 4, you call Peter a spiritual toddler. Then, under point number 5, you call him a spiritual leader.

  • Seth, knowing what this blog post in response to, I don’t think you addressed the key issues that were brought forward to you. Short term trips, when not done well, can cause harm, no matter what the intention was. Going into a situation, any short term missionary must ask several questions and operate in cultural humility.

    1. What is your motivation?
    2. What qualifies you to help?
    3. Is it a responsible partnership?
    4. Are you operating i. cultural humility?
    And a very important to ask people, especially millennials …
    5. Would you go if you couldn’t post about it on social media?

  • There is no wisdom nor discernment in that statement. It is chock full of privilege. Before you ‘just go’ you MUST ask yourself who, what, when, where, how and why things will be affected by your being on a journey of discovery and growth.

  • Seth: We’ve had our fair share of discussions about the silence of the church (more specifically AIM) on human rights issues. So I trust that you have the intentions of listening now like you have before, though we have even discussed before how I don’t believe you listen long enough. And I hope, hope, hope that you can keep the eyes and ears open for much longer on this one.

    There are many believers and non-believers who are trying to express to you that this missions model can be detrimental to communities. No one is saying always or forever, but it CAN and that is enough for folks to listen up, man. Seems like we are all so darn STUCK in what kinds of experiences we have personally had that we cannot even bare to believe that they could be tarnished.

    I see a ton of responses to this discussion: “But my race…” “When I went…” “My journey of discovery…” “I learned…” “When I came home…” “The people in the communities I served…” “I used my professional expertise…” So on and so forth. See a pattern there at all? I, me, my. That is a problem.

    You HAVE to be a leader here. You have been given a huge voice and calling in the church and must use that to speak out against injustice and also make bigger change. This blog post is either poorly timed, considering you wrote it before and had it scheduled, or is extremely passive aggressive toward a conversation that you have been invited to.

    The floor is open and you have the opportunity to listen to hard questions and thoughts. Surely you don’t believe that AIM has reached its fullest potential or is done growing. Listen, listen, listen. You are so quick to respond. Muddle it around, ask actual people who are affected, speak to people of color or those who don’t identify with your beliefs. And then of course, take to the Lord without being blinded by your own strong opinions. Stand down and in humility, tell the people of the church that you are listening. That you may not agree right now but are willing to evolve.

    In love and hopefully truth but I screw that up sometimes, too: Riah

  • Thank you for your thoughts, Seth. We know that biblical leaders such as Paul, Barnabas, and the disciples were missionaries. My questions is were “ordinary” members of the early Church also missionaries or expected to travel overseas? If not, has that only changed because travel is faster and cheaper than ever?

  • Former racer here…

    It’s great that you’ve thought through criticism that might come up against STMs. It’s valuable to be able to clearly articulate why you think that STMs are still worthwhile and mandated by Jesus. This post is very similar to a few blog posts that you had up in 2008. What have you learned since then, and as you’ve gained more knowledge, can you share what you’ve learned and how you’re trying to do better as an organization?

    What steps is AIM taking to mitigate damage that is often done by STMs? What changes have you made from how you’ve done things in the past? Are you training racers now on how to respectfully share photos and tell stories from the field without perpetuating the white savior myth? How are you informing alumni racers that you’re aware of past missteps and what you’re doing differently?

    This could be a great opportunity for AIM to lead out on this as an organization. Thankful for the way that my WR changed my life.

  • I’m curious about how the “abandon everything, perpetual short term mission” approach used by Jesus and his disciples can honestly be compared to today’s young people “serving” for 1-2 weeks in poor brown and black areas of the world, then going back to their suburban picket fence homes.

    This is the short term mission people are having issues with. And everyone standing by watching (and criticizing) AIM, would like to see the organization show they’re acting with responsibility in the communities where they’re serving, acknowledge that they’re not perfect, and explain how they are working to make improvements.

    This post comes off as all knowing, and ends with calling people anti-Jesus if they disagree with your view… Maybe look into the rhetoric you’re using to approach this issue and seek to bring solutions and unity rather than condemnation.

  • Seth:
    I get what you are trying to say, but…
    The short term mission is a Western thing. It has become a vacation or a spiritual experience. The church is good at sending people to dig wells, live among the poor, etc. But what about sustainability? A big word. What’s the church’s role in sustainable development around clean water? How are we addressing the questions connected to that big word instead of simply spending a week or two somewhere on a project digging, painting, etc. and coming back saying how WE feel so blessed? Are WEstaying long enough in the small towns to make a difference? Do they acquire skills to dig their own wells? Do we watch and listen and find out what they say they need, or just go in with our own ideas? Years ago I did STM to Mexico for a week. it was good being there, but we accomplished nothing. The following group another group arrived and so on for every week in the summer. I hope that your organization doesn’t fall into that. Be honest. A trip around the world is an exciting adventure done for Jesus or ones own learning. But I do hope your volunteers visit those places with open eyes, listening ears and develop follow-up plans and even connect with other organizations who are there for the long term. What sets your organization apart from others who do STMs. How are these trips not just vacations?

  • Thanks for the comment, Linz. I don’t know if people understand why I wrote the blog. They think it was in response to critics. It was not. There will be both a personal dialogue with critics and we will commit ourselves to do a better job of engaging in conversation with alumni.

    I wrote it because in the past we have not done a good job of equipping racers in ways that ultimately hurt them and their witness. In particular, we have not helped them as much as we should to understand who Jesus was and what he called us as disciples to.

    As to your questions, they are great. 24 years ago, I began wrestling with them in depth. I gathered a group of STMs together and we started SOE.org as a means of asking and answering such questions.

    Sadly, we could do much better at the WR. If I had it to do over again, I would have grown more slowly. All I can say is that substantive change has been underway for 3 years now and we will be sharing much more with alumni in the weeks ahead.

    Again, I appreciate your questions – we seek to answer those with every partnership.

  • Seth,
    I recommend that the people in your organization and your volunteers read: Thirst, a story of redemption…., Scott Harrison. A lot in there about making connections, sustainability, what not to do, learning frommistakes, seeing the need from thru an unbeaten lenz, and how to give help. A very inspiring book.

  • Thanks, Riah. I love the tone of your comment. You write because you care.

    And your exhortation to listen is a good one. I went back and looked at your last WR blog – you were exhorting leaders to listen well then too. It’s a good lesson, and yes, one I’ll forever be working on till I die.

    One thing on our side: we declared early on that FEEDBACK would be a value. So I have no choice but to try to listen if I’m not to be a hypocrite.

    And the feedback resonates. I have been watching with chagrin for these 12 years now since the WR began at all the ways we mess up. So many ways!

    My biggest mistakes have been with people. My mistakes have cost so much heartache. I would do things differently.

    I wouldn’t change my principles – I’ve articulated the ones you share about partnership since the beginning. But we have made many a mistake in execution.

    The good news is that at least there is a strong conversation and some passion out there on FB and on this blog now. That’s good. We won’t squander it. Feel free to reach out to me by email or phone with your suggestions. I promise to listen.

  • Well, Jesus called us to go to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth. There’s plenty to do in Jerusalem. I think we start there where we have the most context.

    It’s my belief that the call to go in Luke 9 and 10 was more about producing faith/dependence on God than it was anything else.

  • Thanks for the questions, Chelsea. I do so value the dialogue! The concerns are ones I share. No one is more disappointed than I am when we do a bad job of being partners. For 12 years, we’ve been working at this. But disappointments still arise. And the scale of our enterprise make our errors potentially stand out more.

    I am thankful that we’ll have the chance to do a better job of sharing the ways we have been working hard to learn and improve. I’m proud of our staff – they care a lot. Like me, they hate it when we mess up.

    We will be using this opportunity to share a lot more about how we’ve sought to improve. Stay tuned…

  • I agree with you, Kari. So often STMs are done poorly. AIM subscribes to the 7 standards of excellence articulated by SOE.org.

    Thanks for the encouragement to seek solutions and unity.

  • Hi David. Thanks for caring so deeply as you do. And you are right, so many STMs are done poorly.

    You challenge me “what sets your organization apart from others who do STMs?”

    I can’t judge others. I know that for most of my career, I have been asking the questions you ask.

    Here’s a response from eSwatini where 300 of our staff (more than 90% Swazi) care for more than 7,000 vulnerable children. Our website details the many ministries there, which include wells: https://www.eswatinirising.com/

    Or here’s the response from Guatemala where our team has deep partnerships with local churches: http://www.adventuresguatemala.org

    Or Nicaragua where our team stayed while almost all the other missionaries fled the civil unrest: http://reapgranada.com/

    Or the DR: https://vimeo.com/40673898

    Still, even with great partnerships, we mess up given our entitled American perspectives and frequent lack of understanding of local contexts. What to do? We keep seeking to learn and dialogue and train. I often feel like giving up. It is hard.

  • I hear your point about economics, Madison. It’s a good one. Too much privilege and too much abuse of it.

    On the issue of who is going, I must respectfully disagree. The biggest practitioners of STMs are poor and not white. They come from China and India and Latin America. They look like Uche Izuora, a Nigerian who travels to Uganda to help South Sudanese refugees.

    They look the thousands of missionaries in Andhra Pradesh going to unreached villages.

    I just received this email from our Guatemala team:

    “We’re about to board a plane next Saturday with 31 Guatemalans as we head to Nicaragua. The next week we’ll have a team of 4 Guatemalans going to Costa Rica and a team of 8 Guatemalans going to Belize. This past week, we got commitments from 17 Costa Ricans to go to Panama.”

  • Praying for you, brother, and for AIM.
    God has given you wisdom and discernment- I know you will continue to grow and learn from the past as you fight for those who have yet to hear the gospel.

  • I think it’s both.

    Yes, do research. Plan. Pray. Check your heart and motives. Invite others with different perspectives and experiences into the “going” to shine a light on your blindspots.

    Then just go. No one can know the full impact they will have on a community or situation. We, as believers, should be walking in the Spirit… there is an element of faith required to bring Kingdom.

  • This completely ignores and diminishes the economic plight of so many people, including millions in the US. I’d be very interested to see AIM release statistics about the demographics of their participants. My experience was that a high majority were middle to upper middle class white folks, many from the south.

    I also find it interesting that you bring up the Guatemalans going out. I wonder how many of them would be able to go on expensive, American-style mission trips if they didn’t have a team of Americans planning for and fundraising with them.

  • If Jesus can change our life and eternity in an instant because of one encounter with Him, His Spirit can do it through us as well through Short Term Missions or one trip to the market.
    I remember in 2006 I was on a week long mission trip with teenagers to a small village in Elias Pina, Dominican Republic. I met “Nani” who was the sister of “Mary”(who loved Jesus). We were building a shelter for Mary to lead kids church and programs on her land. Nani had been arrested for stealing from a bank so lost her job, she had children and was now living with her sister and family and only in her mid 20s. She didn’t believe in Jesus. As I sat under a tree with Nani who kept her distance from the group, we cracked a few jokes and I told her my story of redemption. As tears filled her eyes she realized she wanted the same freedom. She didn’t know the Jesus that I knew. She accepted Jesus under a tree. After that week we lost touch and a year later a missionary from that area told me that Nani was leading women to Jesus, sharing her story and changing her village. She was completely different. No thanks to me but to one encounter with Christ. One conversation in one week… a life changed and then many others after hers.
    I believe my mission is not to impact the world but to transform it.

    So Ill add a #7… Jesus showed us what one encounter in His presence can do and we are to offer the same thing with (no short or long term time restraint)

  • Seth,

    I am encouraged to say that your passion and values are in fact, helping to shape a generation. As a world race alumn, and one who travels to help with various short and long term mission goals I have been deeply impacted by the time I spent on the World Race. However short or long a trip is, I have learned that the Lord can do anything in the time that he chooses when he has willing vessels. Sometimes that requires much planning, and sometimes it just requires radical faith to step out.

    I want to thank you Seth for being faithful to your call and passion. As you have said previously there are many areas in which to grow concerning AIM, and with the time I have spent with Adventures it is not hard to evaluate. However many the failures, Adventures has pioneered vast territory and shepherded many new and old believers in the faith and given them perspective and hope for the future and the call to the nations. I have seen too much fruit in short term missions personally to label all of short term missions as bad or harmful. People are broken, and short term missions are by far not the only area of the church that has at times failed and brought more harm than good.

    As for me, short term missions have shaped my perspective for loving the world and learning how to adapt my preferences and letting fall to the wayside some of my “religion” (religion here referring to the shortsightedness of living without Godly perspective and only operating in a critical and judgmental spirit- for not all religion is bad as the bible clarifies).

    Seth, you and all those who have and are working to further the vision of adventures and more importantly the gospel, have aided in pulling a sleeping generation (and culture mind you) particularly in the United States but also elsewhere out of it’s sleep and into a deeper revelation of what the Lord desired for his disciples, that being a passion to reach the world and to walk completely and utterly abandoned to him. Not all are going to accept the path of a disciple, as Jesus said, if we desire to be a disciple of his we must die to ourselves and let go of what we cling to as “our own lives” for his sake.

    Without taking up much more space, in short, I wanted to encourage you Seth, and thank you for your perseverance and staying firm to the faith especially when obstacles come. You and those you have worked alongside have been an inspiration to many even though at times there have been mistakes, of which even I have felt and endured the results on various occasions. And I pray healing for all of us who have felt the brunt of the churches’ failings in all parts of the world.

    • Thanks for taking the time to write this encouragement here, Casey. It’s been great to follow you and to see God work in and through you.

  • WOW – So, I don’t know your name, but I’m sorry that I seem to have caused you pain. You have my attention – if there’s something God wants to communicate to me through you, I’m all ears. Maybe it’s to stop blogging. I have been sensing that it is something I should consider.

    If you’d ever like to talk to me, I’d be open to just listening.

  • Thanks, Melinda. It has been such an encouragement to watch you minister for 30 years now. You represent Jesus so well. I appreciate your the example you set for the rest of us!

  • Seth –
    I also want to encourage you and the leaders at AIM. It’s a good thing when caring critics talk and caring leaders listen. I personally look at the STMs as a means for different cultures to come together for the benefit of both. We in the “advanced economies” often come from a place of material wealth and (an unrecognized) spiritual poverty. We travel to places thinking we are going to “fix things and help people” (materially) and end up seeing our own brokenness, and get challenged to fix ourselves (spiritually). Sure STMs can be a mess and do damage, but I’m seeing people recognize the meaning of the Gospels, and become disciples. Keep striving to do STMs that enhance, not damage, the awesome hosts that AIM partners with! It’s the call to “Go and make disciples”. Let’s make it better. Any one saying stop STMs misses the point. The work is both spiritual and material, and both the traveler and host are changed by the STM. Keep making AIM better…….the work is not easy, but it is fruitful.

  • I’m not sure if I agree the “logistical complications are diminished” of STM trips. I think that line is only true in regards to middle class and upper class members of society. I have family in Colombia and Nicaragua who struggle daily to raise large families and feed them all. While I do believe they too are called to missions, if I were to tell them to “just go” as I did, they would be deeply hurt. They simply don’t have access to the resoources themselves- nor in their community or church. Not to mention the vast number of people living in poverty who never leave there home town because financially they can not afford to leave their family home. This is where I believe it gets a little more complicated. Yes, short term missions are getting more and more global, but they are and historically have been strictly wealthy people who are often white utilizing their resources. That doesn’t seem biblical to me.

  • After reading these comments, I feel glad I’m not in charge of a big organization as many of these assumptions and judgements made about AIM are short-sighted. I’d probably just grow weary of continuing to have to try and give people the long and wide view (all the while acknowledging there are imperfections too of course).

    I understand some of these comments may be born out of of genuine passion and caring, but the arrogance and lack of humility in too many of them is troubling. I don’t know the ages of the commenters, but I’m wondering if some of them lack wisdom (and I do get that wisdom is not age-discriminatory, but often it does emerge out of longer life experiences). It’s not that the points brought up aren’t worthy of being discussed, but many lack a spirit of reconciliation and dialogue, and instead just seem designed for judgement. And many just seem to be parroted points from a movement or book, rather than emerging from deep personal diving into the complexities of these issues.

    I can say as a long-term missionary in a developing world nation rated in the bottom ten of the world, that I and the nationals I partner with have been very grateful for short-term teams and how they enhance Kingdom goals. And of course, I’ve seen examples of STM’s done wrong too, but that doesn’t mean they are all poison. The cross-cultural relational beauty that STM’s can draw out is worth going after. Staying in our own ’tribes’ and avoiding interactions with different-looking/thinking/acting people leaves all of us diminished.

    (And it is simply not true or even remotely true that historically STM’s have been strictly wealthy people who are often white utilizing their resources. Maybe those are the ones talked about on social media the most, or maybe those are the ones relatively wealthy white people hear about, but all over this world there are multitudes of extremely poor people who ‘go’ to neighboring villages and towns time and time again for the express purpose of sharing about Jesus. The passion, commitment, fervor and missionary efforts of some of the world’s poorest people who are Christians is inspiring and instructive.)

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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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