The Many Faces of Short-Term Mission

Take another look at...The Many Faces of Short-Term Mission

Have you ever been to a health club? Why did you go? Did you want to get into better shape? Improve your health? Lose weight?

If we were to survey all the people in a health club on a given day, most would tell us they were there for reasons of health and fitness. Yet that would be only partially true.

Someone who works at a difficult job may go to the health club after work to release some of the day's stress. A mother who stays home with young children may work out twice a week to have some time to herself while the kids play in the on-site nursery. Other people go to health clubs to visit with friends or meet new ones. Still others go because they do their best thinking while swimming laps in the pool. Although these people go to the health club to pursue health and fitness, they're also motivated by reasons that have little to do with fitness.

Like health clubs, short-term mission teams attract a wide variety of participants with a number of motives. Some want to taste genuine missionary service. Some go to use their professional skills. Some go for fellowship.

Some people go overseas to visit missionaries they know. Others wish to form cross-cultural friendships. Still others seek personal spiritual growth or an opportunity to disciple another person.

The list could go on; when I ask this question at seminars I usually get at least 25 different responses. People go on mission trips to fulfill the Great Commission - but that's usually only part of their reason for going.

Praying for a Vacation

I'll tell you a little secret. The first time I went on a short-term mission, I didn't even know it! I thought I was taking a vacation with a group of single people from my church who wanted to spend time together while also having fellowship with a Christian community in another country.

To prepare for our trip a handful of us met weekly for six months, praying for God to show us how He could meet our need for community while we served Him. We asked the Lord to guide us into a relationship with a body of believers from another culture. He answered our prayer by sending us on what I would not call a short-term mission trip to Mexico.

At the time, though, none of us thought to use the term "mission." We hadn't been praying to be sent on a mission, we had been praying for a vacation - a vacation with a purpose.

We did not take that first trip out of obedience to the Great Commission but rather for fellowship and to redeem those precious two weeks of vacation from our jobs. Were we wrong to do so? Short-term mission is about "mission," is it not?

I suppose the answer lies in the fallout from that trip. While we were in Mexico, we ran a Vacation Bible School. We painted a schoolroom. We built a roof on a clothing distribution center and played with children at an orphanage. We formed relationships with missionaries and Mexican nationals which have continued for 10 years now.

When the trip was over, one team member sold most of his possessions and vowed to live more simply. Several others became Sunday school teachers, fellowship group leaders, deacons or elders. I changed my plans to attend law school and went to seminary instead.

Eventually our singles group was sending scores of people on short-term trips each year. The singles' pastors used short-term missions as their primary discipleship training and leadership development strategy. The senior pastor recognized and utilized former short-termers as one of the church's greatest resources for new leaders and teachers. The missions department sent many former short-termers to the field as career missionaries. Several former team members moved on to become missions mobilizers and key lay leaders. All this happened because 20 singles wanted a worthwhile vacation!

Who's Going and Why

Although short-term missions involve a wide variety of people who take part in a broad range of activities, we find that some factors are common to certain groups and activities. Although not exhaustive, the list below describes the most typical short-term mission participants and activities.

  • Youth teams from churches and Christian Schools;
  • Student teams from colleges, as well as individual students who make arrangements through mission agencies;
  • Singles from churches or para-church singles ministries;
  • Seniors, including individuals, church-based teams and so-called "RV gypsies" - retired couples who travel independently from mission site to mission site in their motor homes;
  • Intergenerational teams whose participants range from teenagers to seniors. Family teams which include young children are a growing sub-category;
  • Multi-racial teams, often with members from more than one church;
  • Professionals - doctors, dentists, engineers, builders, etc. This category includes teams as well as individuals who apply their professional skills to outreach or support ministry;
  • Sports teams and professional or amateur athletes who compete at sporting events, then share their testimonies with the assembled crowd.

What Are They Doing?

Just as there are several types of short-term missionaries, there is a wide variety of activities. Below is a sampling of possibilities:

  • Construction and maintenance;
  • Teaching English, health care or other skills or information;
  • Medical/dental clinics;
  • Evangelism, including literature distribution, drama, puppetry, music or showing the Jesus film;
  • Spiritual warfare and prayer-walking;
  • Church planting;
  • Mission awareness, which generally involves visiting mission sites to educate short-term missionaries;
  • Youth ministry - summer camps, vacation Bible schools, tutoring, sporting events, etc.;
  • Inner-city involvement and 'urban plunges';
  • Agriculture/farm work;
  • General assistance at mission sites, involving participation in the day-to-day activities of the career staff and national workers.

Enlightening Reading

The articles in this Special Report were written by leaders who have worked with a variety of the people and situations described above. In their experience they have seen great successes and horrible failures. In spite of the differences in their involvement in short-term missions, their writings and reflections involve several common themes.

The short-term missions movement is no longer new; its benefits and shortcomings are now well known. Speaking to the shortcomings, the authors each describe, to a greater or lesser degree, the need for adequate preparation, genuine reciprocity with the host communities, thorough debriefing and purposeful follow-up.

Some of the articles make for challenging reading. Some readers may come away convicted. All will come away enlightened.

Not by Choice

The health club/short-term mission comparison is useful only to a certain extent. We join a health club by choice; we go on a short-term mission trip because we are sent. Jesus prayed to the Father "As you sent me into the world, I have also sent them into the world" (Jn. 17:18). Days later He repeated this to the disciples: "Go therefore into all the world" (Mt. 28:18).

Regardless of people's individual motives for service, God is accomplishing tremendous results through short-term missionaries. Lives are being changed, new missionaries are entering lifetime service, churches are being planted, new disciples are being nurtured. God uses short-term service in the long-term work of the church.

Here are some of the creative approaches He is incorporating into the task of worldwide evangelism. For example, teams of surfers are spreading the Gospel among their counterparts on the beaches of South Pacific islands. A team of rural villagers from the Dominican Republic recently built homes for destitute families. This year, a team of children from a Mexican orphanage traveled to Quebec to witness through music and preaching.

Certainly there are problems - after all, short-term mission teams are comprised of sinners. As the short-term mission movement matures, we are recognizing and addressing many of these problems. Some still await solutions. Yet God continues to accomplish His purposes through short-term missionaries - even unsuspecting vacationers.

by Kimberly Hurst

Kimberly is the director of WorldTracks, conducts seminars to train Christian leaders who wish to create or improve short-term mission programs for their ministries. She is co-author of the book Vacations With a Purpose.

Article originally published in Mission Today Magazine & Missions Fest Alberta Resource Magazine.