(The following is the second post in a two-part series on short-term missions. You can view part 1 here.)
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? And what should be the primary goals of anyone directing such an effort?
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 Miley Cyrus and the Super Bowl are significant news stories. They can learn otherwise very quickly 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 not to swing a bat or kick a ball, but to tell the story of Christ and to disciple younger believers. They learn to make sacrifices, to encourage one another, and to 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 his toolbox a set of experiences that will both shape his teaching techniques and enrich his teaching content for the rest of his 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 to 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 only 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 him 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, how to confront 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.
Experienced business people will tell you that a business rises and falls on hiring; if you hire the right people, everything else about the business is a lot easier. Mission teams are no different. Leading a team that gels and works proficiently is one of life’s greatest joys; herding a bunch of cats around a strange country is one of the worst experiences imaginable. So who should be on the team, and who should not?
As was implied earlier, you want to weed out the tourists. You also want to filter out the abysmally selfish, the secretly sinful, and the well-intentioned but largely useless hangers-on. This can be difficult, obviously, because we can’t see hearts, and people who want to go on a mission team tend to be on their best behavior when around those who are deciding who will go. Many team leaders have found that the simplest way to discourage the insufficiently or improperly motivated is to set up the team so that it costs something in personal effort before the team leaves. Team members are required to read certain books, or memorize verses, or prepare and perform a children’s Bible story or two—not busywork, mind you, since these are things that they’ll need and use during the trip—but things that require some discipline and sacrifice. Have potential team members engage in exercises or ministries where you can watch for their willingness to put self aside and prefer someone else.
It should go without saying—but unfortunately it can’t—that team members need to be qualified for the work they’re allegedly going to do. Many people think that construction work doesn’t require skilled help—but people who think that don’t do construction work. Not everyone can work effectively with children; not everyone can teach even basic courses in a Bible institute. You need to show up with people who can get the job done, and well. There’s no excuse for sending missionaries the personnel equivalent of used teabags.
Different teams will obviously have slightly different goals, depending on their type and location. But a few basic goals should serve as the foundation for any short-term mission work:
- Carry out the Great Commission as effectively as possible, given the cultural limitations.
- Lighten the load of the host missionary both while you’re there and after you leave.
- Expose the team members to as realistic an experience of missions as possible.
- Disciple the team members in their spiritual walk as they are experiencing and assimilating what the Lord is teaching them on the trip.
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.
 I have no wish to stereotype, but many missionaries are used to working alone and thus are not particularly skilled at delegating. Teams need to encourage their hosts to let them do as much of the work as possible—and then they need to do the work well.
 On one trip I had to press the host fairly hard to get him to let me buy him a tank of gas after he had been driving us around for most of a day. I’m not sorry that I insisted.
 Yes, I’m exaggerating, but not by much. On one trip to South Africa, I was setting up two-person teams to distribute flyers for a youth rally. I suggested that each of the “Americans” team up with one of the “Africans.” But this was a Coloured (mixed-race) church we were working with, and they unfortunately took offense at the word “African,” which to them was a synonym for “Black,” a different racial group in South Africa. I meant simply someone who lives in Africa, with no thought of race. I should have known better; this was not my first trip to South Africa. But it illustrates how easy it is to be well-intentioned and yet inept.
This article originally appeared in publication “Teacher to Teacher: Balanced Perspectives in Education,” vol. 12, no. 2, May 2008. Headings have been added.