by Michael Chung, Enzo Saavedra, Mike Jorgensen
One trip changes the way the author sees short-term ministry. The key to effectiveness, he says, lies in three basic ideas.
For years, our church has been sending short-term mission teams. Often, their reports would read something like this:
Our 34 North Americans worked with . . .
27 ministry partners (translators) and . . .
83 local Bolivian believers who saw . . .
1,044 professions of faith and helped start…
6 new churches and helped strengthen . . .
6 existing churches and saw . . .
37 new Bible study groups formed.1
Having been on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ (CRU) for eight years, I had been exposed to quite a few short-term mission trips. Participants would often share the gospel and see people come to accept Christ as Savior.
I have also been on the other end, the one who follows up from short-term teams. I discovered many of the numbers people stated were false and many of those hailed as “future leaders” were in many cases still unbelievers. Additionally, other nationals—both believers and non-believers—were left with a bad impression of short-term team members. Whether an un-kept promise to stay in touch, being offended or treated rudely, or being taken advantage of or taken for granted, many issues arose which required cleanup by the long-term team.
Indeed, much has been written academically on the pitfalls of short-term mission trips. Jo Ann van Engen writes:
Because short-term groups often want to solve problems quickly, they can make third-world Christians feel incapable of doing things on their own. Instead of working together with local Christians, many groups come with a let-the-North-Americans-do-it attitude that leaves nationals feeling frustrated and unappreciated. Since the groups are only around for about a week, the nationals end up having to pick up where they left off—but without the sense of continuity and competence they might have had if they were in charge from the beginning. (van Engen 2000, 22)
Another charge against short-term missions is that nationals become dependent upon outside aid. Robert Reese writes,
Short-term missions may unwittingly contribute to a feeling of powerlessness among the very people that they seek to help. This in turn creates dependency….the unhealthy reliance on foreign resources, personnel, and ideas, which stifles local initiative. It is expecting someone else to do for you what you could do for yourself. In mission history, dependency resulted from western missionaries importing foreign forms of worship, church organization, institutions, and theology during the colonial period. Indigenous people could not operate such foreign systems and found they had to depend on outsiders to run them. It is for this reason that some churches in developing nations continue to be weak and ineffective. (2009)
What factors create dependency? Reese writes,
Short-term volunteers are currently supplying pastors in Zimbabwe with all sorts of money and equipment from computers to cars, without accountability for their use. Church members become amazed that their pastor is driving a new car and has money to send his children to the best schools, or to visit foreign countries, while they remain in poverty. (2005, 151)
There are many issues that argue against the validity and utility of short-term missions. Should short-term missions stay? Is it time for a missiological movement against these trips?
Despite all the criticism, short-term missions are not going anywhere. Gary Corwin explains, “The enormous popularity of short-term missions is a reflection of local churches’ desire to be involved more directly in global missions” (2000, 422). Each year, over one million are sent out. And not only can short-term missions contribute to preaching the gospel, but if done well, they can also model effective long-term church planting.
It was only when I went with e3 Ministry Partners to Bolivia that my attitude changed. I must confess that I originally did not want to participate in the trip. The only reason I even considered it was because my wife was the youth director of our church and was using the trip as her summer mission opportunity for the youth.
Despite my attitude and previous experiences, I was pleasantly surprised and found myself in deep thought throughout the week. There was nothing earth-shattering about this particular trip, but I can say that nothing has taught me more about church planting. After much reflection, I realized that the trip’s effectiveness and efficiency can be summed up in three words: simple, biblical, and transferable.
Simple. We were not required to have a theology degree or training. We were not subjected to a week-long or even all-day training. We were simply taught the uncomplicated ministry multiplication practices that we were to model for our national partners. For example, the day of our arrival, our training simply consisted of doing the same Bible study we would use the next day to lead the nationals who were interested in learning more.
The Bible study was focused on Luke 10:1-9. We discussed six questions2 that we also used when we led nationals in a Bible study. The first two questions were:
1. What did you like?
2. What did you not like or find confusing?
After some discussion, we read the Luke passage again. We then discussed two more questions:
3. What does this teach about people?
4. What does this teach about God?
After more discussion, we read the Luke passage again. The final two were called the “Live and Tell” questions:
5. How will you live this out? Be specific.
6. Who will you tell about what you have learned? Give a name.
We did the same thing the next day with the nationals who came to our meeting. We modeled inductive Bible study for our national partners, helping them to learn, and then teaching new believers how to effectively study the Bible for themselves. We did not need any books, pamphlets, or videos outside of the Bible. Because Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America, resources were limited anyway. So the fact that our only necessary resource was the Bible made the study simple. T. Aaron Smith writes,
True community Bible interpretation occurs when the urban poor discuss the text themselves, while the Bible study leader operates as facilitator. He or she guides the study ensuring that everyone participates, maybe giving some interpretation hints, and ensuring that their observations come from the text. Community Bible interpretation is not a Bible study done with a group that is being led by someone who did private Bible interpretation and is sharing his or her personal insights with the group. True community Bible interpretation happens when, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the hermeneutical community reads and discusses the passage in order to determine the author’s intended meaning and then discerning what the passage means for them. (Smith 2010, 177-178)
This is exactly what we did. We had no commentary from a prominent scholar, no systematic theology, no materials from the West. Our only possessions were the word of God, the Holy Spirit’s power, faithful hearts, and guided discussions.
Biblical. In Luke 10:1-12, Jesus sends out the 70/72 into the harvest to do the work of the Lord. The 70/72 were to find a “person of peace” who showed significant interest in the work. During the day, we went into the community and shared the gospel with people on the streets or in their homes. There was also an eye clinic that was advertised in the neighborhood. Members of the short-term team and local believers were trained to conduct eye checks and distribute reading glasses of different strengths. Afterwards, people receiving glasses were invited to sit down with someone and hear a gospel presentation. Although they were free to leave with their new glasses already in hand, most stayed for this spiritual counseling.
After we shared the gospel, we extended an invitation to the study in the evening. During the studies conducted over a few evenings, we were to identify the person of peace. This would be an individual who displayed noticeable interest in the Bible, coming to the study and often bringing others along with him or her. Many Christian groups emphasize evangelism and discipleship, but the person of peace concept directs people to take special note of those who show a lot of interest and could be future leaders of the new church plant.
Transferable. The ministry was done alongside partners from the local church. Local pastors recruited members of their church to work with the short-term teams. Enzo Saavedra, e3’s national director, visited the city several weeks before the short-term team arrived in order to train local believers with the same principles and methods with which the short-term team would be trained. The members of the church would be with the team throughout the week.
The first few days, the church watched and helped translate as the gospel was shared and the evening Bible studies were led. Gradually, they took more responsibility, doing more of the evangelism, helping with the evening Bible study, and eventually leading the study on their own.
On the last night of the mission, the pastor of the partnering church, along with the members, conducted the first church service of the church plant. Nationals themselves were encouraged. According to Saavedra,
Short-term missions are great motivation for the churches, because it helps them to assume a commitment in accomplishing the Great Commission. We believe that 80% of the churches planted continue growing, which shows us the positive and good result this type of strategy brings to our country. I believe it is very important to continue supporting and having these teams continue coming for three reasons.
First, it is a life-changing experience for those who come to do the work from outside Bolivia. It helps them to see the needs of people, cities, and the country. It is also a life-changing experience for the nationals who are challenged to do ministry outside their zones of comfort. Second, it helps to find new leaders and develop their leadership potential. Third, the strategy motivates the churches to do God’s work and the training is not overbearing. It is not necessary to have days and days of training before the churches can begin the work.
Clearly, Saavedra has challenged us to continue the work because it benefits everyone, both expatriates and nationals.
Recently, I was informed that the church we started in Bolivia is still meeting. Ten children, six youth, and a number of adults are meeting with three members of the church with which we partnered. I was a skeptic before my trip, but I have seen God use short-term missions to plant a church in a week. These principles can be applied to any setting over time. With determination, a church can indeed be birthed.
1. Personal email from Mike Jorgensen, June 30, 2011. Thanks also to Julia Rodriguez de Luna and Edgar Guerreiro, Bolivian ministry partners for their input on this article. Julia helped translate for Pastor Enzo as well as called churches planted by our team.
2. This methodology comes from the orality movement, where similar discussion questions are used to engage oral people groups with Bible stories. This methodology also has been embedded into the small group curriculum developed for the I am Second project of e3 Partners Ministry. A mission trip participant with e3 Partners can use tools available at www.iamsecond.com/groups.
Corwin, Gary. 2000. “The Message of Short-term Missions.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 36(4): 422-423.
Reese, Robert. 2005. “Dependency and Its Impact on Churches Related to the Baptist Convention of Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwe Christian Fellowship.” PhD dissertation. Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary.
_____. 2009. “Short-Term Missions and Dependency.” World Missions Associates. Accessed July 12, 2011, from www. wmausa.org/page.aspx?id=242674.
Smith, T. Aaron. 2010. “The Bible and Urban Poverty.” Journal of Asian Mission 12(2): 171-187.
Van Engen, Jo Ann. 2000. “The Cost of Short-Term Missions.” The Other Side 36(1): 20-23.
Dr. Michael Chung is an adjunct professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary in Texas and Bandung Baptist Theological Seminary in Indonesia. He was a missionary to Asia from 1999-2002.
Enzo Saavedra is the Bolivia national director for e3 Partners Ministry and has served as a pastor and evangelist in his native Bolivia.
Mike Jorgensen is vice president of e3 Partners Ministry and serves as executive director of e3’s I am Second project.
EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 1, pp. 82-87. Copyright © 2013 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.