by Don Parrott
Short-term missions has moved from being part of a larger missions vision and instead has become the primary goal of many missions programs. What was once a preparation step for long-term service has become the final destination.
Missions-minded churches in North America have been swept away by short-term missions mania. Thousands of people from all over the US are doing the “short-term thing” every year. Missions pastors have become Christian tour operators, traveling the world to set up their adventures, advertising their upcoming packages, recruiting missions tourists, preparing them for real world experience, leading “survivor” teams on life-changing trips, and hurrying home to get next year’s program underway.
Visit almost any North American church on Missions Sunday and you will more than likely be inundated with the latest and greatest in missions strategies, exciting new targets, strategic partnerships and cutting edge ministries. From these scores of missions strategies and programs emerges a trend toward prioritizing short-term missions programs and trips that can be summarized as follows: “In the next five years, we want to see seventy-five percent of our congregation go on a short-term missions trip.” Too often, the goal ends as abruptly as the period ending the statement, “go on a short-term trip,” and that is all.
In recent years, the North American church has made a major paradigm shift in its missions vision. Short-term missions has moved from being part of a larger missions vision and instead has become the primary goal of many missions programs. What was once a preparation step for long-term service has become the final destination. There are both negative and positive implications of such a shift in the church-based missions community.
Financial shift. The short-term missions market is consuming a large portion of the available resources for the total missions effort. A sample study of one Central American country showed that a little more than ten million dollars was being spent annually on short-term trips to that country alone. Fifteen years ago the amount of money set aside for travel by church missions leadership personnel was minimal or non-existent. Today it is nothing to see budget figures of five digits dedicated to this area. Church staff and church missions leadership people are regular frequent flyer participants. This subtle change in the use of mission funds usurps an increasing number of our churches’ dollars for the missions community as a whole.
Anti-long-term sentiment. Fifteen years ago a missions-minded church could identify the people from its congregation who were preparing for long-term service. Today, many of those same churches cannot name one such person. Of greater concern, they seem content with this disparity. Their priority on so many people in short-term trips seems to replace any need to prepare people for long-term service. Simply stated, the number of people being challenged to long-term cross-cultural ministry is declining every year.
Not only is it declining, but an anti-long-term sentiment is subtly apparent. For instance, many churches are caught up in a craze for partnerships, usually described as “strategic,” “significant,” “new paradigms” and “relational.” They have grown beyond the old, ineffective approach of simply sending money to missionaries. Now they have formed a partnership and are connecting with nationals, a national church or an organization. They are returning time and again, building relationships, and making an impact—not just supporting some long-term missionary. While these types of relationships are not inherently negative, the mentality that funding is better used to support short-term partnerships over long-term missionaries is often a fundamental blow to the long-term missionaries’ economy.
Part of this anti-long-term problem is that many North American missions pastors are really missions managers. A surprising number of missions pastors, in spite of good, professional business experience, have had little or no cross-cultural experience, and many have had no ministry experience at all. They administer a program well, but seem to miss the pastoral aspect. Pastors are given to us to “equip the saints for the work of the ministry” (Eph. 4: 7-11). Without this ministry leadership approach, people become managers, administrators and producers of programs, but they are not equipping people for what God has designed them to do. Without a shepherding passion, it is almost impossible to have a vision for nourishing and preparing harvest workers for their next ministry steps. As a result, the North American church is losing its perspective on why it does missions in the first place.
Uncertainty among field workers. Increasingly churches are sending short-term teams to places field workers are actively working, thus affecting their ministry. Sometimes the field workers are asked to host short-term teams, help find ministry projects for them, or stop what they are doing and care for them for a week or more. This affects the worker’s time, budget, family life and emotions. Many missionaries have had less than perfect experiences with these teams. Some have said, “never again!” To be fair, many experiences have also been good and had an overall positive effect. But the negative aspects remain and create uncertainty about the value of short-term teams.
Less than noble Christian image. The sheer numbers and amazing amounts of money involved in short-term trips have made a deep impression around the world. Several years of pouring these kinds of resources into world evangelization have created an image of the Christian faith. If someone described Christians by analyzing worldwide efforts, we would be called wealthy people who build small concrete block houses worldwide. Rather than the Great Commission, this might be our call: “Go therefore into all the world, and make block houses, painting them, finishing them and commissioning them in my name, and lo, I am with you always, even until the end of the trip,” or some description significantly less noble. One way or another, shoving this much money around the world is changing the face of the Christian faith.
Where do field missionaries go from here? First, they have to recognize that the short-term phenomenon is their present reality. It is happening. They are coming. It cannot be stopped. What positives can be drawn from the experience?
Potential for stronger church relations. Short-term team members who have had positive missions experiences with field workers will more than likely remember those experiences for a lifetime. Not only will this benefit future team members, it will also open doors for field workers in those churches. When they return, they have a group of advocates—people who have been on their field, with whom they have a friendship born of shared experiences, both difficult and joyful. The missionaries’ ties to the church are strengthened by their interpersonal relationships with the short-term teams. They become partners with the church, not just people to whom the congregation sends money.
One field worker recounted how on his furlough, a couple in a church gave a testimony about how much he had touched their lives when they were on a short-term trip in his country. His only recollection of input into their lives was one afternoon during their trip when he asked, “How are things going?” The rest of their time together, the couple did all the talking, yet they were profoundly affected by that conversation. They became strong prayer and financial advocates and still support his ministry today.
Beyond that sense of camaraderie comes a church’s greater identification with the field workers’ needs, made evident in increased prayer and financial support. Congregations become better equipped for prayer. They will pray more and concentrate on specific needs. They’ve seen field workers in their ministry and culture. They’ve seen them at their best and worst and still love and appreciate them for how they were treated. Some short-term participants will financially support these missionaries and the projects they promote. God brought them there to observe what he wanted them to help support. When the church seeks new partnership possibilities or projects, they will be drawn to what field workers are doing and consider helping financially.
Potential for broader outreach. Sometimes field workers are reticent to receive teams because they don’t know how to fit them into their regular ministries, or they just don’t know what to do with them. If this is true for you, I suggest a team brainstorming session on types of ministries a short-term team could do in your country.
These do not all have to be your ministries. Make use of other groups who may provide a good short-term opportunity. But, don’t hand the team completely to someone else. Stay in place as the group’s main caregiver by doing the orientation and debriefing. They need to bond with you. Keep someone with them even when they are involved in other settings and travel with them as time allows.
In the follow-up, someone should ask, “Is the Lord maybe preparing you for future longer term service cross-culturally?” Sadly, this simple step is often overlooked in the overall strategy of such trips.
Potential to generate full-time workers. Field missionaries need to get on board. Even though present short-term goals may not include long-term vision, most of the future long-term personnel will come from these groups. Many of those people will return to where they served short-term, and work through groups that provided a good experience for them. We need to receive them and give them a quality experience, challenge them to return for the long-term, and pray for them by name after they’ve gone.
It is our privilege to interact with people during a fertile time in their spiritual growth. Field missionaries need to see this as a part of their ministry, not as an add-on. Short-term teams can be an opportunity to multiply ministry in others’ lives. Even though they are not lives from your host countries, they are potential change agents. Honor them by treating them how others have treated you at significant times in your growth. Embrace a larger vision than the immediate trip. Build into your objectives ways you will receive one team, or two, or whatever works in the coming year, so you can allocate properly.
My agency has had to shift its outlook on prospective candidates because the future force of North American missionaries will come from this short-term pool. By far the majority of candidates who work through OC International are leaning toward going to a field for anywhere from one month to two years before taking the step of long-term service. This presents new challenges to us and our teams. However, in the coming years this may become the standard operating procedure. In the past, our organizational perspective was to look for long-term people, and we might have made exceptions to accommodate short-termers of one to two years. We now see the need to speak from a short-term perspective, and assume that the long-term people are the exception.
I want to challenge you full-time field workers to do what is necessary to think positively about receiving and ministering to short-term teams from your supporting churches. I believe it is vital to the future of cross-cultural ministry. We have a tremendous need for personnel and most of the potential to fill those needs will be on short-term teams in the next few years. Will they be with your team?
As the director of mobilization for OC International, my challenge is to study ways we can open our arms to prospective short-term participants and determine which current position openings might allow for a short-term person or couple. We hope that if they live and work with us for a time, they will return for a longer term there or with another of our teams elsewhere.
After being on the field end of this scenario for several years, I understand the implications for field missionaries who host short-term teams —housing, oversight, language, transportation, etc. I do not mean to minimize those realities. My desire is that you and your team get on board and be flexible enough not to miss the train. It is moving. It has been moving. We have been slow to adapt and get on board, and it’s time we do so together.
Don Parrott has been the CEO of Paraclete in Mesa, Ariz., since December 2003. Formerly, he was the director of mobilization for OC International.
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 3, pp. 356-360. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.