To say that times have changed is an understatement especially when it pertains to the short-term missions phenomena. I am very excited about some of these changes, yet others leave me a bit conflicted, even wondering if the value of our “one-week trips to Timbuktu in order to paint a school” honestly matches the price tag involved. Don’t worry; I’m not writing to propose we totally scrap international short-term mission projects. I’m simply suggesting that if we’re going to do them, we need to do them well. In this article, I hope to clarify some practical ways that we can effectively and faithfully live out the missional calling that Christ has given us.
A Morphing Missions Model
Over the past twenty years, my husband and I have led more than twenty international mission projects, and we have noticed some gradual changes taking place. First of all, the opportunity to go has grown exponentially. As many as four million Americans take short-term missions trips out of the country annually, and short-term missions have outpaced long-term missions both in personnel and budget.
Second, more people are going farther away for shorter periods of time. Today mission trips that exceed ten days are uncommon, and an increasing number of people are crisscrossing the globe rather than serving in neighboring countries. Also, the age of the participants is getting younger. George Verwer, known as the father of the short-term mission movement, developed his model nearly forty years ago with college students in mind. Today about one-third of all high school students participate on some kind of international missions experience.
Finally, the focus for many of these trips seems to be more about adventure, travel, and the experience rather than service, sacrifice, and the gospel. I felt convicted when talking about our most recent trip to Belize as I told students in detail about the “day away” we would have snorkeling at the reef as though that were the “hook” that would get them to come on the trip. Yet as I survey promotional materials from various mission agencies, the words “adventure” and “experience” and “fun” are repeated again and again.
A Cause for Reflection (and Redemption?)
As the short-term mission trip bandwagon goes rushing on and we consider our responsibility to support it and jump on or else avoid it, I think it is good to pause and consider two questions: How effective these trips are in their mission? And what are the ways that we can utilize these trips to accomplish God’s ongoing mission in the church, both locally and globally?
Maybe it’s just me, but I am concerned with the predictability of mission reports that are given in our churches and Christian schools. Yes, there are many people who get a glimpse of what God is doing, but it seems that the majority report mainly on the superficial aspects of the trip—the food, the weather, the physical work they did, and what time they left for the airport. I have also heard students say that they went on the trip because they didn’t have anything else to do that summer. I wonder if our short-term mission trips are anything more than a vacation with a purpose, a temporary cure for wanderlust, or another stamp in our passports.
David Livermore notes that in spite of the huge increase in people going on cross-cultural mission trips, our exposure to other cultures does not seem to have significantly reduced our sense that we have the “right” culture and everyone else has a “weird” way of doing life. My desire for my students is that they will act as a “bridge” to the global community, being equipped linguistically and with cultural intelligence in order to serve others beyond ethnic barriers. Since this is one of the objectives I have for planning and organizing trips for my students, I feel compelled to ask if the current model for short-term mission trips is truly accomplishing this purpose. And since the churches are investing an ever-increasing amount of their resources in short-term missions, we would all do well to consider whether or not the maximum impact is being realized. The heartbeat of all of our endeavors should be the missional call to love God and others, so it may be time that we check our motives and expectations concerning short-term missions and consider whether that these trips are not just about us and our personal experiences.
Adjusting Our Motives and Expectations
What if we expected short-term “missionaries” to contribute some of their own resources for their trip? What if the trip were longer? What if we required every participant to undergo study of the language and the culture of the country to which they are planning to go? What if we were as intentional about serving in our own community as we were elsewhere? Would short-term mission projects dwindle in their popularity? Would people have different motives for going? Would that be a good thing?
My husband and I love short-term mission projects! We hope to keep organizing trips, but we want to do so in a way that promotes biblical motives and realistic expectations in those that participate.
One of our favorite projects is to the village of Cristo Rey in Belize, Central America, where we have a longtime connection with Dorothy Meyer, who serves there with Christian Reformed World Missions. Our desire is not to go there and do work for the people, but to work alongside them. We also make an attempt to serve with our hands and connect with the people through our words. This past summer, our team helped with construction and painting at the Presbyterian Day School during the day and led a vacation Bible school program in the evening.
I purposely chose a Spanish-speaking region of Belize because I am a high school Spanish teacher, and I actively promote this experience to my students as a way of using what they have been learning in a relevant way for the cause of Christ. We also go repeatedly to Belize because we know the culture of that country better than any other foreign country. Having lived and served there ourselves for two years, we feel prepared to brief our team ahead of time on some essential insights into Belizean culture.
One of the guidelines we share as we prepare for our trips is to be honest and realistic about what we have to offer and the true needs of the people we are serving. Can the people of Cristo Rey manage without us? Absolutely! North Americans are not the “saviors” of the world in the way we often see ourselves. Short-term mission projects, by their very nature, have more of an impact on those being sent than on those to whom we are sent. And even on this level, we need to have a balanced view of the effect the short-term experience will have on a participant’s life.
As I mentioned before, a one- to two-week mission project is hopefully much more than a personal vacation at the church’s expense, but it also probably won’t be the instantaneous, life-changing, “burning-bush” experience that many are craving. In order to get the most out of the short-term missions opportunity, we need to see the trip for what it is within the context of God’s broader mission in the world.
True Participation in Missio Dei
Short-term mission projects are an essential part of our spiritual formation through which the Holy Spirit is invited to stir within us a desire to make a deeper commitment to missions and to awaken a greater awareness of global needs and our connection to the church worldwide. These trips are a way for us to join a long legacy of God’s people who have worked to make Christ known among a particular group of people.
This truth was made explicitly clear to us this past summer in Belize after we had spent a day climbing the Mayan ruins of Lamanai, learning about the ancient history and religion of that region. The following Sunday our team participated in the twenty-fifth anniversary service of the Belizean Presbyterian Church. During the four-hour long celebration, the history of the Mayan people being impacted with the gospel was recounted. I was awed by God’s power to transform a remnant of the Mayan civilization, bringing them out of darkness into light through the testimony of faithful evangelists and missionaries. I was also humbled to be able to participate in a very small way in God’s ongoing kingdom work, knowing that God is bringing about the same kind of transformation in the North American church, and our calling is to join in that work as well.
Mission projects are only part of our call to fulfill the Great Commission, but missions, as a whole, is part of the “good works” we’re created to do (Eph. 2:10). My encouragement for short-termers is to take the opportunity to go on a mission trip. View the experience as part of God’s larger plan for your life. Reflect deeply on what God is showing you and how you can apply what you’ve learned. Open your eyes and your heart to see what God is doing so that you can make the most of your short-term mission trip.
- Livermore, David. Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-term Missions with Cultural Intelligence. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006.
- Priest, Robert J. “Should Churches Abandon Travel-Intensive Short-Term Missions in Favor of Local Projects?” Christianity Today (June 2012): 60.