Short-Term Missions: It Really Is the Great Commission

(The following post is the first of a two-part series on short-term missions.)

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When Christ finished His earthly work and returned to His Father, He left a job for His people to do. We call it the Great Commission, and it appears in all three Synoptic Gospels as well as in Acts. The classic statement of it is in Matthew:

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen (Matthew 28:19-20).

Our Primary Task

It has been often observed that this passage’s structure emphasizes making disciples; the passage is literally arranged as follows:

 Going, therefore,

Make disciples of all nations,

Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

Teaching them to keep whatever things I have commanded you.[1]

Our primary task is to make disciples. We do so by going, then baptizing those who repent and believe, and then teaching them the way of Christ. According to our Lord Himself, that is what we are here for.[2]

Other accounts of this command, most specifically the one in Acts 1, make it clear that the “going” is to be progressive and global. We start where we are (“Jerusalem”), then move outward to “Judea” and “Samaria” and eventually to “the uttermost part of the earth” (v. 8).

Church History and the Great Commission

The church has obeyed this command, more or less, throughout its history. According to tradition, the Twelve traveled as far as India and Ethiopia to make disciples. The gospel was in China long before Marco Polo, and the great outburst of the modern missions movement, initially focusing primarily on Asia and Africa, has become legendary. Names such as William Carey, Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael, and Mary Slessor are well known to modern Christians.[3]

The movement experienced a surge in the years after World War II, when soldiers returned as men from a war to which they had gone as boys. The postwar Christian GIs were passionate about taking the gospel to the lost. This passion was augmented early in 1956 when five American missionaries were killed by Huaroani natives (then called Aucas) in Ecuador.[4] Hundreds of young Christians stepped forward to take their place.

Decline in Motivation

Many in recent years have noted a decline in missions interest in the last 25 or 30 years. It’s indisputable that many more missionaries are coming home—due to retirement, discouragement, or medical necessity—than are arriving on the field to replace them. Many reasons for this decline have been suggested. Probably the easiest factor to spot is the rampant materialism and prosperity in the United States, which for the last century or more has been the leading nation behind the world missions movement. American Christians are generally not in spiritual shape, because they rarely get any spiritual exercise. Another factor is the fall of the Soviet Union and the consequent perception in the States that persecution of Christians overseas is declining.[5] Add to that the recent growth of the internet and satellite broadcasting, which have made communication across political borders much easier, and you have a recipe for decline in motivation to go to the ends of the earth.

One Hopeful Sign

One hopeful sign, however, is the significant increase in popularity of short-term missions, whether 1- to 4-week mission teams or 1- to 2-year mission assignments.[6] In the summer of 2014 Bob Jones University is planning to send 6 different mission teams across the globe. It’s not unusual for half of an incoming freshman class to have done some sort of short-term mission work with a local church before starting college.

Since I began teaching, I’ve tried every summer to find a Bible college or institute somewhere overseas, where I could teach for a few weeks during the academic break. It’s a luxury afforded teachers, who have options for that portion of the year. It has been my privilege to teach in a number of cultures and climates and to see the Lord work in remarkable ways.[7] There are few practical barriers to such efforts; the time is available, there are scores of institutions that are eager to use willing teachers, and many churches have mission funds set aside for just such short-term efforts. I find fund-raising quite distasteful, but I have found raising support to be the easiest part of the process. Individual or family travel for qualified people, in whatever needed skill area, is not at all difficult to accomplish.

More common, however, are teams assembled for the purpose of working on a specific project. The team might include anywhere from 6 to 25 people who travel to a specific mission site for a week or several weeks to accomplish a specific task. The most common tasks are construction and child evangelism, since these are always needed and allegedly require the fewest technical skills.

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?

These questions will be dealt with in Part 2 of this series.


[1] Translation is mine.

[2] I am of course not forgetting that mankind’s larger, eternal mission is to bring glory to his Creator: “Whether, therefore, ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). My point here is that during our time on earth, which providentially lies between the ascension of Christ and His return, we glorify God primarily by devoting ourselves to His specific commandment for this age, which is the Great Commission.

I am also aware that some hyperdispensationalists teach that the Great Commission was given to an earlier dispensation. That obviously is not my view, but I cannot devote the space necessary here to delineate why.

[3] One very helpful history of missions is Ruth A. Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983).

[4] The definitive work on this event is by the widow of Jim Elliot, one of the martyred missionaries. Elisabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1996). The original edition was published in 1957.

[5] This perception, though common, is thoroughly inaccurate. A reliable source of information on persecution of Christians worldwide is the free newsletter Voice of the Martyrs (http://www.persecution.com/).

 [6] Some would question whether this is a positive development. Some see in it further evidence of the prosperous church’s general lack of commitment. While this point is well worth considering, it is difficult to disregard the benefits of short-term work or the potential it has for developing long-term talent.

 [7] I suspect that I was the first person ever paid by a Communist government for the publicly stated purpose of teaching Christian doctrine to its own people—but that’s a story too long to tell here.

This article originally appeared in publication “Teacher to Teacher: Balanced Perspectives in Education,” vol. 12, no. 2, May 2008. Headings have been added.

Dan Olinger

Dan Olinger

Chair, Division of Bible in the BJU School of Religion. Elder at Heritage Bible Church, Greer, SC.

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