by Stan May
Are short-term missions trips the panacea for missions, or are they part of the larger problem of missions? Actually, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
After the brilliant sun set in the Zimbabwe sky, the cooler night air forced the locals, a missionary, and several preachers just arrived from America indoors. The best seats along the wall of the imba were offered and taken, food was brought, and talk began around the table. One of the American guests, noting that the host’s wife was obviously with child, began to ask pointed questions about the pregnancy.
A noticeable quiet descended. Excusing himself, the missionary took the volunteer from the States outside and explained that women and men did not discuss these things in this society; to do so was rude. The volunteer persisted, arguing that this was the “20th century.” The missionary urged the man to accept the society as he found it, but the volunteer muttered in front of the national brethren, “I’ll drag them kicking and screaming into the 20th century.” One volunteer’s “wisdom” nullified not only all that he had hoped to accomplish, it tainted much of the missionary’s labor.
The trend in recent missions history has been toward the international short-term trip. The veritable explosion of short-termers on the field has been fueled by several factors, not least of which is our ease of access to the far-flung regions of the world.
As a former missionary to Zimbabwe and now a teacher of future missionaries, I regularly hear discussions concerning the usefulness of such trips. Are short-term missions trips the panacea for missions, or are they part of the larger problem of missions? Actually, the truth is somewhere in the middle. They can make a useful contribution to the missions effort. In fact, they can even be great, if they meet certain conditions.
1. Short-term missions are great if volunteers remember that the career missionary knows the field better than they ever will. Stories like the one at the top of this article abound. Volunteers who seek to “drag the nationals kicking and screaming into the 20th century” only add to the career missionary’s already difficult task of learning the language and culture to build relationships of mutual trust and ministry.
The wise short-termer listens to the missionary and labors knowing that the veteran will be there long after he or she is gone. I have two scenarios in mind. First, some volunteers hurt relationships between missionaries and locals by breaking their well-intentioned promises to the latter (such as to help their children go to school in America or to send back certain gifts). The nationals may think that either the missionary’s friends are unfaithful, or that the missionaries have taken the things sent for them.
Second, some volunteers may, despite the missionary’s warning, use certain American illustrations or wear certain things that don’t communicate the same message in that part of the world. A missionary who was to interpret for an American preacher told the man not to use jokes, as they did not apply in the culture. In the middle of his sermon, however, the preacher told a joke anyway. The missionary, in his translation, told his congregation, “The preacher is telling an American joke. If I told you, you would not understand it. But if you want to make him happy, when I count to three, then laugh!”
2. Short-term missions are great if participants remember that their primary responsibility is to be servants to the missionaries and national partners. This second aspect builds on the first. The most effective volunteers in our work in Zimbabwe wanted their work to fit into our schedule. They did not come with a secret agenda; they willingly fit into our plans, were flexible, and worked hard during their stay. They were a blessing, and we remember them fondly. All volunteers, however, do not come as servants. Some, accustomed to giving orders, come as generals, expecting to be fawned over and given the opportunity to do things the way they would be done in America. National partners perceive this as arrogant and condescending. A servant reflects the Lord Jesus and enhances the ministry by helping both missionaries and national partners fulfill their God-given ministries.
3. Short-term missions are great if they increase the missions spirit of the church back home. An important objective of short-term missions for missionaries is allowing senders to see and participate in the work. When this happens, the volunteer returns with a renewed appreciation for the missionary and a greater zeal for the cause of Christ globally. This makes short-term missions an effective missions advertisement to the church. Churches involved in short-term missions trips generally give more to the missions effort than those without similar involvement.
4. Short-term missions are great if they call people into career service. Every missionary who participates in short-term volunteer projects wants to see others come as career missionaries. While not all participants are qualified for career missions, some are. In fact, many pastors who ought to be on the field catch “the bug” of missions while on these trips and begin applying for international missions once they return home. Others, by their enthusiasm, may encourage their children to consider missions. Missionaries who pray that the Lord of the harvest will send forth laborers into his harvest see the long-range benefits of giving people a view from the field.
Many of the latest crop of missionaries, and many of those in the process, have been awakened to the call of God by going on a short-term mission trip. One missionary couple, now serving in southern Africa, was initially divided. She was an MK who wanted to return to the field, but he wanted to be a pastor in the States. After a trip to Zimbabwe, however, his heart was stirred, and they are serving today as career missionaries not far from where he caught the missions spirit.
5. Short-term missions are great if volunteers remember to give God all the glory and the missionary the credit for the planning, preparation, and labor that made their trip a success. Missionaries, of course, are not looking for accolades. But those who travel to Africa, Asia, or some other part of the world where great crowds will gather and decisions will be made should not rush home to steal the glory that belongs to God alone.
Further, they should recognize that their brief sojourn has been preceded by months of work on the part of the missionary and will be followed up by the same amount of work, if any lasting results are to follow. Some who go abroad may seek to use their experiences to raise money for their own ministries (“I was in Africa and preached to thousands. If you give to my ministry, you will be part of that.”). Using the missionary’s hard work as a platform to raise money for one’s own travels is unethical.
6. Short-term missions are great if they are never viewed as substitutes for career missions. Some people may think that they can go on regular short-term trips to answer God’s call. While some who are otherwise unqualified may be involved in missions as short-termers, those considering career missions should answer God’s call and go overseas as soon as they can. Delay, even for short-term trips, only puts off obedience. For those called to missions, there is no substitute for learning the language and culture of a people. The frustration short-termers experience when working through a translator or leaving just as the results become visible ought to awaken their sense that God has something more in store.
God seeks incarnational missionaries, who know a people’s heart language and culture, and who pour their lives into them. This is the heart of missions. When short-term missions advance this agenda, they are great.
Stan May was a missionary in Zimbabwe with the Foreign, now International, Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1989 to 1995. He is assistant professor of missions at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary.
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CODE OF BEST PRACTICE IN SHORT-TERM MISSIONS
After more than a year of building consensus among missions leaders, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada has developed a Code of Best Practice in Short-Term Mission. The Code has been designed through the EFC’s Task Force for Global Mission and for use with all mission visits, teams, and experiences of up to two years organized by Canadian mission agencies, churches, and Christian organizations. The Code outlines aims and objectives for short-term mission programs. It also presents general principles and standards of excellence for publicity, field management, pastoral care, and reentry support.
The EFC says it hopes that all agencies and church bodies involved in short-term missions will consider formally adopting the Code, but it is not binding legally. The Code of Best Practice in Short-Term Mission was officially launched at The Short Term Mission Forum 2000, a training and equipping conference, on September 22, 1999.
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada Code of Best Practice in Short-Term Mission is designed to apply to all visits, experiences, teams and placements of up to two years duration, organized by Canadian mission agencies, churches and other organizations. Though formed initially with cross-cultural contexts in mind, it can apply to both same-culture and cross-cultural situation (sic) in Canada and overseas.
It is a Code of Best Practice. Our motivation is based on our desire that God be glorified in all that we do. We also recognize our responsibility toward all participants and partners in our programs, that we serve them to the highest standards possible. The Code does not necessarily indicate current achievement, but rather our aspirations towards high standards in short-term mission practice. Nonetheless some minimum accomplishments are implied in the Code. The Code is not intended to establish legal standards or liability. Adopting the Code should therefore be seen as a step in a process rather than an end in itself.
It is recognized that not every situation permits a literal application of every element of the Code. For example, on rare occasions the involvement of a local church is not a reality. Nevertheless it is desirable, and so must be included in a Code of Best Practice. In every case where literal application is impossible, consideration must be given to the question of who may have equivalent responsibilities.
In addition, this Code has some underlying core values, which include:
1. A commitment to culturally appropriate expressions of lifestyle and ministry activities.
2. A commitment to all the stakeholders in short-term mission, such as the participants, sending local church, mission agency, and host church and/or ministry.
3. A commitment to partnership and co-operation.
4. A commitment, wherever possible, to communicate between the stakeholders as early and as fully as possible.
Section 1: Aims and Objectives
1.1 A Short-Term Mission program will have a defined purpose within Christian mission.
1.2 A Short-Term Mission program will have clear and realistic aims and objectives, which include viability, expectations of outcomes, and consideration of how the program serves the long-term objectives of all those involved.
1.3 The benefits to, and responsibilities of, the participant, the sending organization, the sending local church, the host organization and the host local church will be clearly defined and communicated.
1.4 Partnerships will be established, as far as possible, with host local churches and communities. These relationships, in the context of unity and love, will be defined in terms of agreed-upon priorities, ownership, and expectations.
1.5 Appropriate sending local church involvement will be sought. A partnership will be developed, as far as is feasible, between the agency, participant and sending local church.
1.6 There will be a commitment to the participant to provide opportunities for personal and spiritual development throughout the experience.
Section 2: Publicity, Selection and Orientation
2.1 Publicity materials will be accurate, truthful and used with integrity.
2.2 Publicity will clearly represent the ethos and vision of the sending organization. It will not reflect negatively on the host culture or ministry. It will also define the purpose of the program in the terms of service, discipleship and vocation.
2.3 The application process, including timeline, all financial obligations and use of funds, will be clear and thorough.
2.4 A suitable selection process will be established, including selection criteria and screening. A pastoral care element will be included, regardless of whether or not the individual is accepted as a short-term participant.
2.5 It is essential that there is disclosure of the relevant details concerning the short-term participant between the church, agency and field.
2.6 Appropriate orientation and training will be given prior to departure, and/or after arrival on the field. Team leaders will be briefed on the orientation and training provided.
2.7 Preparatory information will be provided as early and as fully as possible.
2.8 Placement decisions and changes will be made with integrity and communicated clearly to all involved.
Section 3: Field Management and Pastoral Care
3.1 Clear task aims, objectives, and job descriptions will be developed jointly by the sending and hosting leadership.
3.2 Home and field based communication and reporting guidelines will be identified, implemented and reviewed.
3.3 Mutually defined lines of authority, supervision, communication, responsibility and accountability will be established and implemented through regular reporting and/or meetings.
3.4 Pastoral Care and support structures will be provided, and respective responsibilities clarified with all parties.
3.5 Opportunities for spiritual, personal, and character development will be provided, promoted and pursued.
3.6 Participants will agree to follow guidelines on behaviour, relationships and financial management that are appropriate to the host culture.
3.7 Policies and procedures covering finances, healthcare and insurance, medical contingencies, security and evacuation, acts of terrorism or political violence, stress management and conflict resolution, misconduct, discipline, and grievances, will be established, communicated and implemented as is (sic) appropriate.
3.8 Where and when requested, necessary equipping and training of hosts will be provided.
Section 4: Re-entry support, evaluation and program development
4.1 Re-entry debriefing and support will be seen as an integral part of the short-term package.
4.2 Re-entry preparation, including field evaluation, will begin prior to return.
4.3 The mission agency and sending local church will assist the participant through re-entry, including facing unresolved personal issues, and future opportunities and direction in discipleship and service.
4.4 Evaluation of the mission agencies procedures and performance will be filled out by the participant. (The agencies’ procedures will also be evaluated by local sending churches.)
4.5 On the request of the host organization, an assessment of the host organization will be carried out in an appropriate way by the participant.
4.6 The results of evaluations will be communicated to relevant managers, for the improvement of future projects and the keeping of permanent records.
Confidentiality, integrity and accuracy are required.
For more information contact: Geoff Tunnicliffe, Chair The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada Task Force for Global Mission, M.I.P. Box 3745, Markham, ON L3R 0Y4 Email: email@example.com