Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Short Term Missions

(nb. this is just a few of my thoughts and opinions on STM - not intended to be critical of any particular program or group)

It's easy to be critical. It's harder to suggest how to change things. At present, this is largely an issue for the Western Church although God knows that we need missionaries here too. I usually like to start with where I'm coming from: I have been on a short term summer team to Romania. I have lived as an
MK in Nigeria and seen teams come and go. I've travelled a good bit and I (humbly) know a bit about the global church. I believe in Missio Dei - that mission is part of God's nature. I believe that we have good news and that we are commanded by Jesus to go into all the world and preach it. I also believe that we are called to a missional day-to-day life in our own community and local church. (See here for a interesting discussion on the word 'missional')

I was motivated by a link (HT:
TSK) to this Washington Post article which contained the following information:

"A Princeton University study found that 1.6 million people took short-term mission trips -- an average of eight days -- in 2005. Estimates of the money spent on these trips is upward of $2.4 billion a year. Vacation destinations are especially popular: Recent research has found that the Bahamas receives one short-term missionary for every 15 residents. At the same time, the number of long-term American missionaries, who go abroad from several years to a lifetime, has fallen, according to a Wheaton College study done last year. A 2006 study in Honduras found that short-term mission groups spent an average of $30,000 on their trips to build one home that a local group could construct for $2,000."

Here are some problems I have with (badly done) Short Term Missions:
  • In my opinion, most short term teams are more for the benefit of the people on the teams more than the people they go to "serve". If they are only about us going, then we're exploiting another culture for our own benefit.
  • Religious tourism. I have seen this. It's easy to jump on the summer short term mission bandwagon - get to see the world, get a great tan, get some photos with some poor kids and feel like you're making a difference! It's harsh, but in my experience is sometimes close to the truth. I have met these people on mission trips. They have no real interest in the people they meet but are there for the experience. Think: Prince Harry or Madonna celebrity photo ops.
  • Expense. Could the money raised be used to support longer term missionaries or local church workers? Admittedly, it might not be possible to raise any money for a cause people know nothing about unless these people go on the trip.
  • It takes up valuable time and energy at the receiving end looking after the team.
  • They should not be seen as a substitute for supporting or going on longer term mission.
  • They are done with wrong motives. They should never be a status symbol in the church or as a salve for a guilty conscience.

Good things about Short Term Missions:

  • They can work. Jesus sent his disciples out on short term teams. (Mark 6:7-12) The fruit of mission does not necessarily depend on the duration of the commitment.
  • The people going on the trips do benefit. That's not a bad thing. With good leadership, the whole process is a form of discipleship for (usually) young believers. Benefits include: developing faith; developing healthy relationships with other Christians; giving people an opportunity to serve others, bringing hope to the needy, expanding horizons, and giving people cross cultural experience. It is hard to get involved and usually care about making a difference somewhere unless you have seen it for yourself. And they are better and a less selfish way of spending a summer holiday than just going on a foreign holiday.
  • Foreign mission trips can change perspectives. Travel and cross cultural experience broadens the mind and helps us to see that God is at work across the world. They can propel people into longer term missions and increase their passion for home mission. It is also good to realise that poverty is not close to becoming 'history'. Worldwide, there is a lot of daily deprivation/sickness/suffering that money shelters us from. It raises questions: Why am I so blessed? What is my duty? How is God calling me to make a difference?
  • They benefit the sending church by making them more outwardly focused.
  • When done right, they can impact churches and communities across the world.

Short term mission teams should:

  • Be God centred. They should seek to honour God. They should seek to bring him glory. They should seek God for his guidance about where/when/what to do instead of just going with a set agenda. God can powerfully use anyone who submits to him so they must go in prayer and seek His annointing. Above all the team should love and be a witness of God's love - acts of service must glorify Him, not the team.
  • Build relationships between the sending body and the people who live there. I believe that the aim should be one of developing a longer term commitment to future teams/ future missionaries/ financial support as appropriate. Everyone would benefit more from longer term teams (but then they wouldn't be short term teams!). Short term teams can be a springboard to something better. Go with a perspective of what God is doing before, during and after you show up!
  • Know their purpose. This should be something needs discussion with the local church/ receiving partners. If the purpose is evangelism then the this is essential so that any new believers will not be abandoned when they leave. If the purpose is a service team - like Habitat for Humanity - the team goes to accomplish a task which will benefit local believers. Again best if this is suggested by the local church eg. something they need or which they could not afford themselves. Questions: Will this take work away from local people? Would the community benefit more from the money spent to get the team there? How can the team also work to build relationships?
  • Be aware of the culture. This is true for any kind of missions. The relationship between the west and the developing world is complicated. Historically and today this is often one of exploitation. Mission teams can change this but also can foster anti-western feeling through insensitivity and arrogance. We have a lot to learn from the developing world church about faith and relying on God.

In summary, short term teams should not be a substitute for a life of mission. However, percieved criticisms of them should not be used as an excuse not to go. If you're thinking about mission (and you should be!) - go on a short term team. Then go long term. There are many different types of short term teams. Go with an established mission organisation who have developed local partnerships. Be inspired by getting to know some missionaries. Click here to read some missionary blogs!


Nelly And I said...

well put pete. i remember chatting with you about this years ago. still as true as it was then.

hope you and the family are all well.


Rowan said...

Fantastic article Pete! The value of short term missions is a really interesting question.

I despair at those mission trips which are all about the people going - the one's where people don't make any effort to educate themselves about where they are going - they have their matching mission t-shirts and they get their photos with some black babies and off they go back home to show off all their videos about how they brought Jesus to Africa.

But I wouldn't be going to Rwanda for a year if I didn't spend 2 and a bit weeks there earlier in the year.

Course the one thing worse than pointless short-term missions is pointless long-term missions