6 Dangerous Questions re: STM

by Dr. Timothy Tennent (Professor of World Missions and Indian Studies and the Director of Missions Programs at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

One of the most frequently asked questions I receive as a missions professor at Gordon-Conwell is whether I think short-term missions is a healthy or destructive trend in the church today. Nearly all pastors are aware of the dramatic rise in short-term missions among local churches. Most have either been on a short-term missions trip themselves or they have seen many youth and other groups in the church take off for two weeks or so to participate in some project or activity. It might be a construction team helping a church in Honduras construct a church building, or a group of young people performing a mime skit on a town square in Europe or parishioners passing out tracts on the streets of a Muslim city. The question which I am often asked is whether I think these kind of trips are a sign of a church increasingly engaged and awakened to the missionary mandate of the church or are these trips merely another sign of the kind of Western cultural "quick fix" approach to everything which naïvely believes that the Great Commission can be fulfilled through short term missions.

Let me say at the outset that there is no easy answer to this question. However, I think if we learn to ask the right questions, we can begin to more effectively assess our short-term missions program and, thereby, begin to have more clarity on the central question. I have developed a six point series of questions for pastors and church missions committees which may help to serve as a diagnostic tool to develop a better, smarter short term missions program. I call these six questions 'dangerous' questions because, if reflected on honestly, they could dramatically change the way we talk about and do short term missions in our local churches.

Question #1: What is the goal /motivation of short-term missions?

We need to honestly assess what is the primary purpose of our short-term missions program. To put it very bluntly, is this trip for 'us' or is it for 'them'? Are we using this trip to help our church to become more globally aware and, perhaps, to raise up missionaries from our church or is it to accomplish a particular goal or task on the field? We must become more realistic about the nature of short-term missions and what we can realistically expect to be achieved. Although there are notable exceptions, most short-term missions trips are far more effective in transforming the hearts and lives of those who go than they are in accomplishing long term mission objectives in a cross-cultural context.

I think we should openly acknowledge that these trips are primarily for the spiritual formation among our own group and that their major benefit to the field will be if people are motivated to pray more regularly and specifically for missions and if it results in long-term workers. This is not intended to be pessimistic about short-term missions, but to more accurately see how they fit into long term strategy. There is no replacement for long term workers who are prepared to commit years of their lives to the arduous and joyous task of language learning, cultural adaptation and effective cross-cultural witness.

Agree or disagree? Can you come up with a case for STM benefiting the "field" more than ourselves?