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What Did Jesus Believe About Short-Term Missions?

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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

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. 

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