Short-Term Missions: It Really Is the Great Commission

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


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 (

 [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.

Short-Term Missions: Getting from Here to There

(The following is the second post in a two-part series on short-term missions. You can view part 1 here.)

Dan Olinger Missions

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;[1] and they need to pay attention to the costs they’re running up.[2]

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;[3] 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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

 [3] 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.

Misplaced Priorities

Did you hear the one about the hunters?  A dozen guys go deer hunting and, as is common, head out into the woods in pairs. At the end of the day one hunter returns without his partner, but carrying a twelve-point buck on his back.

“Where’s Joe?”

“He passed out about three miles back.”

“You left him, but brought the deer?”

“Well, nobody would steal Joe.”

We all can recognize misplaced priorities—in other people, at least. The problem with misplaced priorities is that it’s hard enough to do what you need to do, without wasting time on things that aren’t going to be important in the long run. You may have a spouse, perhaps children, friends, not to mention professional or academic responsibilities. There are lots of things to do. Some of the more pious among us might deny this, but we all have felt the frustration that Solomon well expresses in the inspired book of Ecclesiastes: “All is vanity and vexation of spirit [or perhaps ‘striving after the wind’].”

That’s OK. God’s providence, even His hard providence that brings pressure into our lives, is good, and He provides what we need in order to do what He has called us to do. But the pressure reinforces the thought that we had better not be wasting our time doing things that don’t matter.

Lots of things are important. But what’s most important? What will you never sacrifice? Are there things more important for the student, for example, than good grades?

On May 21, 2004, the Los Angeles Times reported that under the pressure of performance-based teacher evaluation, some 75 California teachers helped their students cheat in order to get higher grades on standardized tests. Was it worth it?

Suppose that the students actually remembered for a lifetime the answers that their teachers had given them. They learned, didn’t they? Now was it worth it?

What is the most important thing? More than grades? More than efficiency? More than perfect appearances? It’s been summed up in a lot of ways, but it all comes down to godliness. We should want to be what we should be, as well as to do what we should do.

The Scripture identifies three key sources of spiritual growth in every believer. Theologians call them the “means of grace.” More simply, they are avenues through which God gives us the ability to be what we should be and do what we should do:


Paul calls the Scripture “the word of His grace” and says that it “is able to build you up” (Acts 20:32). The Book has a power all its own, and we need to stay in it all the time, reading, memorizing, meditating, applying. This is spiritual calisthenics—not always fun, but always profitable. We must not be a generation of Christians who know “what they’ve always been taught” but are spiritually flabby.


The Bible calls prayer “the throne of grace,” where we “find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). The American church is largely a prayerless church, and believers routinely demonstrate the weakness to prove it. How real is your prayer life? Paul describes his companion Epaphras as “laboring fervently for you in prayers” (Col. 4:12). The Greek word is agonizomai, from which we get our word agonize. When was the last time you took prayer that seriously? (I speak to my own shame.)

The fellowship of believers

Paul says that our words to one another in the body “minister grace unto the hearers” (Eph. 4:29). We are placed together in the body for the primary purpose of building one another up. We were placed where we are because God has designed us with something that fellow believers need to be more Christ-like. That’s why example is so much more powerful than words. That’s why what the California teachers did was far more damaging than if their students had done it on their own. And that’s why our first priority must be to live godly before our brethren.

Misplaced priorities. Nobody wants to waste his precious time. Even as you do less important things, focus on what matters.


This article originally appeared here.