by Sean Marston
How mission leaders can take the emerging generations and short-term missions and create a “missions ethos” for long-term missions.
“There was a boy who had the faith to move a mountain.
And like a child he would believe without a reason.
Without a trace, he disappeared into the void and I’ve been searching for that missing person.”1
These words are from one of my favorite Christian songs. They remind me of my own faith journey and vulnerability, and about how easy it is to get lost as a Christian. In a sense, we are all perhaps “missing persons.” There were times when our faith was simpler and more trusting. After reflecting intensely on these words, I began to realize that they might also reflect what has happened to many Christians and their experiences in overseas missions.
Indeed, I have met many missing persons; they are individuals who were once so excited about getting out on the mission field that they did a short-term mission trip. They were filled with excitement and passion and wanted to make a difference. They wanted to see God at work in and through their lives as they served in mission situations overseas. It gave them a sense of meaning and purpose.
These missing persons are everywhere. Some are in church; some are not. Most have some semblance of a Christian faith; however, many have no commitment at all to overseas missions. The spark and passion they once had for overseas missions has been lost. The experiences they had on a short-term mission trip are now remembered as a Christian O.E. (Overseas Experience). It is but a nice memory. To mission agencies and churches these are the people we want recommitted to overseas missions. Once upon a time these young people created excitement for those in mission agencies and sending churches. After all, countless individuals were going on overseas mission trips through their organization. It made the organizations feel as though they were involved in a new movement toward overseas mission work. Yes, hundreds of thousands of people have gone overseas; yet, it has not resulted in a completely new movement.
This is not to say that things are not happening as a result of short-term mission work. There have been thousands of people who have become either long-term missionaries or long-term mission supporters. Their short-term experiences created doors of opportunity. These trips changed and molded their lives.
However, for many they have not. Like many things in our Christian faith, we have made short-term mission trips too easy. There are few complications, little responsibility and a lack of accountability. When involvement in overseas missions does not require much from people, little long-term fruit will result. These young people who we were so excited to sign up were searching for an outlet for their faith. Sadly, these same people left their short-term mission experience behind.
As someone who is heavily involved in mobilizing Christians into overseas missions through short-term trips, I am the first person to rave about the potential and impact of a short-term mission program. The problem is that we have not thought enough about the hows, whats and whys of what we are doing. There are tens of thousands of ex-short-term people who have done very little to build on their short-term mission experience. And mission agencies have let it happen. Much money, time, prayer and support has gone into getting individuals out there—and there has been so little practical return. Yes, the Christian walk is not about measuring results. After all, who knows the long-term benefits of all those short-term experiences? I am the last one to want to evaluate and measure the results. In fact, the very idea of trying to evaluate, measure, put into a formula and sell it is totally against the Generation X person that I am. However, this missing persons issue is one that we as responsible mission agency and church leaders must confront.
The facts tell us that the majority of people praying and giving to overseas missions are people over fifty years old. The hope is that the younger people having done a short-term mission trip would have taken over the baton from this older generation; this has not happened.
SOMETHING IS NOT RIGHT
In the 1980s and 1990s we would often find big youth rallies that would include concerts so as to draw people in. The focus was on the younger people and by the end of the night an appeal for individuals to commit their lives to God was made. Within ten minutes, hundreds would be committing their lives to Christ. However, because we were so excited to see all these young people go forward, we did not think about the process and the ethos of Christian understanding that these young people lacked. Unfortunately, many of these people quickly gave away their faith. Although they were drawn in by a glimpse of the gospel, they were given little foundation and understanding for their faith. And they were given no ongoing support.
This is what mission agencies and churches have done to many of the people they have sent out on short-term missions—they have given them a taste but have left them stranded with their experience. Although agencies are committed to the ongoing mission journey in people’s lives, sending people overseas is the easy part. Helping to integrate this experience into the Christian life is the hard part. Admittedly, I have helped to create this sad situation. When I was working in a church, I led many short-term mission teams overseas; to this day I am not sure what the long-term benefits have been. I had all the right intentions. I wanted young people to experience the spiritual and physical realities of the world. I wanted them to step out for God; I wanted them to be used by God. Indeed, we had some amazing times and God did work in us and through us. The problem was that I saw the short-term mission as an experience in itself; I did not consider how to build on this experience so that the people who had gone would have a long-term commitment to overseas missions. Yes, we did debrief and share our experiences with the church; however, my other responsibilities quickly took over my time. I did not understand how new generations take hold of things in their lives. It was too easy to presume that there was a basis and ethos of missions that would be the backbone for their ongoing commitment. Previous generations grew up with an ethos of missions oozing out of their churches, their prayers and their giving. Younger generations predominantly grow up in “non-overseas missions” churches.
Just as I was mistaken, so too were many mission agencies. They hooked into the experiential nature of Generation X and Y (people born between 1965 and 1990) and thought that they could use this to build on the work of overseas missions. They hoped that after the short-term mission experience, young people would just be hooked. Perhaps many of these young people thought this as well. For many, this was simply not the case. They either got distracted into thinking their Christian life was about themselves or they came up against issues and questions about life—including God’s will, relationships, finances, etc.—that they could not fit into their mission journey. Mission agencies were not around to answer these questions. They did not necessarily see it as part of their role. Mission agencies were used to being sending agencies and struggled to change their role to that of mentoring, discipleship and training.
MAKING IT RIGHT
We have not fully understood the emerging generations. We have made it easy for people to get into and out of their short-term mission experiences. Short-term missions builds on what is good and bad about the younger generation. It builds on their desire for adventure and spontaneity; at the same time it is instant, easy and includes little accountability. This is a visual and experiential generation and to get them on-board with overseas missions requires they get a feel and taste of the reality. It is time to consider how we can take both the emerging generations and short-term missions and create a “mission ethos” for those who go on these trips. There are five things we need to remember.
1. Each individual we work with is on a mission journey or a “journey of going.” Younger generations are just as interested in the process of getting to the end point as they are about the end point. They tend to be more process-oriented than task-oriented. The outcome is just part of the process. Younger generations also understand better than previous generations that you cannot separate the spiritual from the physical, emotional or mental aspects of life. They all impact each other. Therefore, when helping to develop a person’s mission journey, often you are helping to develop other aspects of his or her life as well.
2. The short-term mission is just one aspect of a person’s mission journey. A short-term mission trip is just one tool used to disciple people on that journey. If we recognize this, we will end up with a longer term focus. About fifty percent of the focus of the short-term mission trip needs to be on what happens in the person’s life. Preparation and follow-up are therefore just as important as the trip itself.
3. In order to connect these missing persons into overseas missions, mission agencies need to change their role. Re-creating a mission ethos in churches and individuals is a key responsibility agencies now have. If we do not help influence the churches and communities which short-term people return to, how can we help them maintain a mission ethos? Sending organizations need to focus on recruiting, discipling and mentoring. The long-term missionaries of the future will not just turn up on our doorstep, ready to go overseas. This is a thing of the past. Mission agencies must help create and mold people into long-term mission commitment. This could impact the type of staffing agencies need. It may require specialized staff who know how to recruit, mentor and disciple.
4. The glue that makes a young person committed to an organization and overseas missions is relationship. What makes people committed is totally different for each emerging generation and therefore agency ethos and style need to change to suit this transition. Younger generations are committed to relationship and meaning. If they sense a connection with an organization or the staff of an organization, they are more likely to make a commitment. There is a fine line in trying to help people feel accountable and involved and still allowing them to feel as though they have freedom to choose. This present generation wants a sense of commitment, but only enough to make them feel connected.
5. Mentoring and discipling people into overseas missions is the best way of drawing people into a long-term commitment to overseas missions. In the same way in which we understand people being discipled in their Christian faith, we need to disciple people in their mission journey. People who have completed a short-term mission trip need help in developing a personal mission track to help them either go overseas on a longer term basis or to create a mission commitment. The tools that drew a person into overseas missions (i.e., mission weekends, books, mission speakers and promotion) are not as effective for emerging generations.
There are too many missing persons who have been through one short-term program or another. They have not taken on the underlying values and challenges of overseas missions. For short-term missions to make a lasting impact in the lives of the emerging generations requires a better understanding of how this age group thinks and responds. There is no use in running a short-term program simply because people are responding to it. Mission agencies cannot afford to place large amounts of staffing, finances and time into a program that does not create people with a mission ethos. Understanding that people are on a journey and that a short-term mission trip is just one step in that journey will change the way mission agencies treat short-term mission trips. This will mean that agencies will use short-term mission trips as significant tools in the mission journey, rather than an entity in itself. Perhaps then, and only then, will we have less missing persons.
1. Michael W. Smith. 1998. “Live the Life.”
Sean Marston is the short-term mission and communications coordinator for SIM (Serving in Mission) New Zealand. He has been involved with mobilizing young people for mission for twelve years.
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