Dr. Dan Olinger
The subject of short-term missions raises a number of questions, both philosophical and logistical. What are the benefits of short-term work? What are the dangers? Who should go? Who should not?
The benefits are great. A brief experience gives the student an opportunity to experience mission work up close and reasonably realistically, at relatively low cost. It certainly makes sense for the student to find out that foreign missions is not his calling before he has gone through the effort and expense of candidate school, deputation, and language school. On the other hand, a large number of career missionaries testify that it was a mission trip that either initiated or confirmed their recognition of God’s calling for them.
A significant benefit for American students is that it attacks the insularity with which most American teens develop; they are separated from the rest of the world by two large oceans, and they really believe that trending issues in pop culture and American sports are significant news stories. They can very quickly learn otherwise if given the opportunity. The student will benefit from this exposure whether or not the Lord eventually calls him to foreign mission work.
Pretty much everyone can benefit from team-oriented activity. Sports provides most young people their primary experience with teamwork, but mission work provides a team experience that is different in many ways from what they’ll learn on the athletic field. Most obviously, the work they’re engaged in is overtly and primarily spiritual; they’re helping one another tell the story of Christ and disciple younger believers. They learn to make sacrifices, encourage one another, and share failures and successes as they go about the business of taking the message to the ends of the earth. That is precisely preparation for life in the church.
Often overlooked is the benefit to teachers of gathering foreign mission experience. It rejuvenates the jaded teacher, and it places into their toolbox a set of experiences that will both shape their teaching techniques and enrich teaching content for the rest of their life.
Any work that can be done well can also be done badly. Mission trips are no different. And the price of failure is high—waste of financial resources given in good faith by God’s people, which could have been used instead on something worthwhile, not to mention the spiritual damage that can be done both to team members and potential ministry recipients if the job is done badly.
A great danger, obviously, is that the trip becomes simply pious tourism; the members are interested primarily in experiencing something new, in gathering experiences for their own selfish purposes. There’s nothing wrong with tourism, I suppose, but there’s also no reason why the church should pay for it. Teams need to understand that they’re there to work, and they need to be held accountable both by supervisors on site and by the sending churches back home.
Another danger with short-term work is that it gives the impression that you’ve “seen missions,” but it typically isn’t long enough to provide a realistic experience. In a week or two, you don’t really have time for the adrenaline to wear off. It’s all a whirlwind and very exciting. But that’s not what missions is like. Missions is all about being faithful through drudgery, routine, and perhaps the occasional moments of terror. Lust for adventure is a lousy reason to become a missionary. My most recent mission team experience lasted 8 weeks, and intentionally; I wanted the students to have enough time to get really tired. That’s part of what they needed to learn.
My greatest fear in short-term mission work is that I or the team will turn out to be more of a burden to the missionary than a help. Most short-term “missionaries” don’t realize how much work it is for a missionary to prepare for and supervise the work of a team. I know of cases where teams ran up significant expenses for the missionary (I hope without realizing it) and then left the missionary to pay the bill. The team leader needs to discuss frankly with the host missionary whether what the team is doing is really worthwhile from the missionary’s perspective; the team needs to ensure that the missionary lets them do as much of the work as possible; and they need to pay attention to the costs they’re running up.
A very significant danger of short-term work is the fact that in a short stay, team members cannot learn to work effectively in a strange culture. They don’t have time to learn the language; they are unknowingly being strange and offensive in virtually everything they say and do; and their effectiveness at carrying out the Great Commission will be significantly hampered.
One more danger worth mentioning is the temptation to cut corners on qualified, discipling leadership. Team leaders need to know how to disciple believers, how to discern what’s happening spiritually in the lives of team members and confront them biblically. There are all kinds of leadership styles, of course; some leaders are very intense and driving (in a healthy way), while others lead with a lighter touch. But whatever their style, leaders need to lead, and they need to be proactive in spotting and addressing spiritual needs as they arise. Not everyone can do that well; knowing a lot about the country or the culture or the cuisine or the airline is simply not enough. This is a mission trip, not a cultural exchange program.
Short-term missions is not a substitute for career missions, but it is an important ingredient in an overall missions strategy when done well. Most Christians would be surprised at the positive impact it can have on the spiritual walk and effectiveness of almost any believer.
The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.