Short-term Missions as Spiritual Exercise

by Robert Reese

A veteran missionary asks, “How much does the cross enter into the thinking of short-term missionaries?” and discusses four kinds of misunderstandings common to STMs.

As far back as 1845, American mission leader Rufus Anderson called for “a purely spiritual character to missions among the heathen” (1967, 73). In those days, many assumed the “heathen” would need to be civilized as well as evangelized because they were so entrenched in darkness. However, Anderson insisted,

The weapons of our warfare must be spiritual. The enemy will laugh at the shaking of a spear, at diplomatic skill, at commerce, learning, philanthropy and every scheme of social order and refinement. He stands in fear of nothing but the cross of Christ. (1967, 84)

This raises an important question: how much are current missions shaped by the cross of Christ? In particular, how much does the cross enter into the thinking of short-term missions (STMs)? If the cross is not central, then we tend to impress people in developing countries by secular means, including some of those Anderson listed above. Often this happens unintentionally.

Glenn Schwartz reported how North American short-term missionaries constructed a church building in Guyana, South America, during a three-week stay. Two years later, the Guyana Christians sent a message to the American builders to return because “the roof of your church building is leaking. Please come and fix it” (2004, 12). Steve Saint noticed that the Waodani Christians of Ecuador’s Amazon jungles turned from vitality to dependence on outsiders between the 1960s when he was there as a boy and the 1990s when he returned after the death of his Aunt Rachel who had helped plant Christianity among them. Saint said that dependency crept in through two types of well-meaning STMs: Bible conferences and building churches (1998, 9). In both cases, North Americans overwhelmed the Waodani Christians with their resources. Since the local people realized they could not duplicate what the North Americans were doing, they simply stopped trying to hold their own Bible conferences or build their own buildings. Since they could not match what the North Americans did, they decided to wait for them to do it all!

These cases indicate that North American STMs tend to come across as secular even if they are not intended to be. The sheer amount of technology and “stuff” North Americans travel with and their compassionate natures cause them to be seen as agents of Western civilization instead of ambassadors for Christ. How does compassion come to be seen as secular? This happens when compassion drives North Americans to try to solve people’s perceived problems with American solutions instead of biblical ones. People in developing countries sometimes give Americans near-star status as representatives of the sole global superpower; however, this can be a hindrance to a spiritual STM experience. How can the cross be inserted into STMs? How can STMs become more of a spiritual exercise?

Making the cross central to STMs comes from intentional preparation. Preparation before going on a STM can make all the difference, because it determines whether you go as an ambassador of Christ or as a secular agent. Spiritual preparation, in particular, allows you to open up to what God hopes to achieve through your STM. The cross was the most unselfish act of personal sacrifice. Jesus laid down his life for the sake of others, counting all people worthy of eternal life on the basis of their faith. Although Jesus paid for the sins of his disciples on the cross, he did not produce heaven on earth for them; rather, he expected them to take up their crosses as well.

In John 12:23-26, Jesus likened his death to planting a seed in the ground to die so that it would produce fruit. Then he had these hard words for his disciples: “Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be.” This was a summons to come and die like Jesus in order to bear fruit. In Luke 9:23, Jesus bluntly stated, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” The cross was not for Jesus alone, but for every disciple. Of course, the death of Jesus was unique in atoning for sins, but in some sense, every disciple needs to carry a cross as part of following Jesus.

In Jesus’ days, the cross was not a piece of Christian jewelry or an adornment for church buildings; instead, it was an instrument of torture and execution. So what does “taking up your cross daily” really mean? It means dying to self-centeredness in order to serve others from pure motives. It means dying to self and living only for Christ. As Paul said, “And he [Jesus] died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Cor. 5:15). In particular, for North American Christians it means dying to secular thinking and living for spiritual thinking. But what is secular thinking and how does it affect STMs?

Most North Americans have a secular worldview, which means they make some basic assumptions about reality based on secularism. For instance, secularism tends to move God aside in explaining events, all the while scientific thinking moves in. Events are explained rationally, and the assumption is that nature explains things best. Natural explanations for events are preferred to supernatural explanations. When secular people face problems, they look for logical solutions by thinking their way through the issues. Problems are for solving. People find answers by investigating knowledge sources such as libraries and the Internet. Secular people pride themselves on being aware of how to use the latest technology to create solutions; new is better and progress is seen as normal. Because they see themselves as efficient, they do not like to waste time, but instead like to take the shortest route to productivity. This also means they like to finish tasks on time. What effect does this have on STMs?

Since many STMs seek to minister to people who are not secular, secular thinking sets up the possibility of a culture clash. For instance, many people who live in developing countries are collectivists and spiritualists and tend to think in group terms with spiritual categories. Spiritualism is a belief in the daily activities of spirits that affect human life. Even Christians from these countries are still affected by spiritualistic thinking more than secular thinking, although neither secularism nor spiritualism is completely biblical. In many areas, secularism and spiritualism are at opposite ends of the spectrum in the way people understand reality (Van Rheenen 1991, 96). This creates fertile breeding ground for misunderstanding. So what kinds of misunderstanding are common for STMs?

1. Use of time. Secular thinking sees time as a commodity to save, spend or waste. Since short-term missionaries by definition have only a little time to spend in the new culture, they naturally want to make the most of that time. Often, they expect supplies and equipment to be in place ahead of time, with schedules worked out well in advance, so that the STM team can hit the ground running. If the object of the STM is something like a building project, the desire is to complete as much of the project as possible in a limited time. Here is a situation tailor-made for secular problem solving; however, it may also run counter to the lifestyle of the local people. One group was so determined to complete a building project in two weeks that they saw local people as a hindrance to their work and refused any assistance in the name of efficiency.

The local people are not nearly so worried about saving time, especially if they have collective thinking. Rather, they may desire to use time for building relationships instead of completing tasks. This calls for careful thinking by the members of the STM: Is the top priority the given task—or is it relationships with local people? Who is the task for anyway? If the only issue at stake is completing a task, then it can fairly be said the project is for the STM team. Dying to self, however, will automatically make the project for others and enable STM members to see things from others’ point of view. Relationships will take precedence over tasks.

The cross of Jesus says that any task is for the people more than it is for buildings or projects. In many cases, some local people are experienced workers who can complete unfinished tasks after the STM team leaves; indeed, there is only limited time to form relationships. If a project is so technical that no local person understands how to do it, it is questionable whether this is a suitable project for these people since they will remain dependent on outsiders to operate or maintain the project. Sharing who we are in Christ is far more important than completing a visible task. Serving each other and submitting to one another is the way to build the Body of Christ. The way of the cross may not be the most efficient use of time, but it is the most effective (Covey 1989, 161).

2. Problem solving. It would be a rare STM team that faced no unexpected problems. The question is: How do the STM members react to these problems? A secular thinking person will naturally come up with a materialistic solution, while a spiritual person will seek a spiritual solution. North American Christians are compassionate, but tend to think in secular categories first in response to problems. For instance, when faced with sickness, is our first response to pray, or to take a pill? When faced with poor technology, is our first response to see how local people have worked through this issue, or to propose American solutions? When faced with poverty, is our first response to raise money, or to seek to grasp the spiritual causes for the poverty?

North Americans tend to judge other cultures on the basis of their technology or lack of it. We their infrastructure, healthcare system, transportation, economy and military with our own and generally find them lacking. At the same time, we may omit comparison of their social systems and family structures with ours, as we value hardware perhaps more than relationships.

People from a spiritualistic background, however, tend to focus on spiritual solutions to technical problems. For them, sickness or poverty may have a spiritual cause more than a material cause. Even if we show them a scientific explanation, they may persist in seeing a spiritual explanation behind the science. If the STM members insist on solving problems through material means, what message does this convey to the local people? They would tend to secularize the people rather than make them more spiritual. They would be promoting American solutions rather than biblical ones.

The way of the cross will not negate all material solutions to problems, but it will subordinate them to spiritual solutions. The cross shows North Americans that reality is more spiritual than the secular worldview admits. There is an entire universe that secularism does not talk about, and the resurrection of Jesus is part of that eternal universe. The STM team should have this reality as their focus.

3. Decision-making. North American thinking emphasizes individualism and tolerance of the beliefs of others. This may mean that if I do not like the decision the group makes, I am free to reject it and do my own thing. Short-term missionaries would find it hard to operate like this, since the success of the STM usually depends on group cooperation. This is where dying to self really becomes necessary for the life of the STM. Too much individualism would kill any STM project.

North Americans have a long tradition of individualism, but this does not communicate well with people in other cultures who see the benefits of togetherness. While westerners will often opt out of group decisions, collectivists seldom do that because their survival depends on unity. While westerners like to stand out in a crowd by looking or acting differently, collectivists value conformity. Which is more biblical? The gospel certainly teaches individual worth, but it does so to build a united Body of Christ of which the individual is a part. So if the STM conveys excessive individualism, it may undermine the unity God desires in Christ’s body. Dying to self expresses exactly where the individual stands in Christ: I subordinate my personal needs and wishes for Christ’s cause.

Consider the local people where the STM ministry takes place. Some of them may also be part of the Body of Christ. They are brothers and sisters in Christ who may be directly affected by the STM project. What input do they have in the project? What contributions do they make and what part do they have in making decisions? If the STM leaves them out of decisions, then the question arises again: Who is the project for? The meaning of the cross in this situation is that there is no discrimination in the Body of Christ. Jesus died for all members of his body and all must be treated with equal dignity. Dying to self means considering the needs of others before our own. The STM must consider the impact it has on the local Body of Christ, whether it builds it up spiritually or bypasses it.

4. The source of power. Ultimately, the STM team will uphold its source of power as a standard for others, so it is crucial that it understands what the source of power is. If it is the power of the cross, then the STM team will preach the good news of the gospel in unmistakable terms. If it is the power of money or technology, then these also will come across clearly. The power of materialism makes us activists as long as our resources allow; however, the power of the cross is limitless because it does not depend on human knowledge or skill. The power of the cross does not depend on our resources but on God’s resources. It does not depend on our actions but on our dependence on God. How much then do we take time to pray before acting in our missions? This may show us whether we think secularly or spiritually.

If the first reaction of STM members to situations they encounter is to pray and depend on God for answers, then true success of the project is much more likely, because it demonstrates that the team values God’s agenda more than their own. This means something to people of less secular cultures, who struggle daily with problems with seemingly no solutions. If they can see that even North Americans must depend on God for answers, then the STM has been successful.

For secular-thinking North Americans, spirituality is not automatic. Deliberate spiritual preparation can make a great difference in the STM experience. Of course, “short-term” and “cross-bearing” do not really go together, so our prayer is that learning to do STMs in the way of the cross will create a new style of discipleship which will pervade all aspects of life. Increased Christian spirituality will always give the glory to God for whatever it does, because it operates with the real source of power. Our task is not merely a STM project, but to “preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross be emptied of its power” (1 Cor. 1:17). To God be the glory!

Anderson, Rufus. 1967. “The Theory of Missions to the Heathen.” In To Advance the Gospel: Selections from the Writings of Rufus Anderson. ed. R. Pierce Beaver. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.

Covey, Stephen R. 1989. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Saint, Steve. 1998. “Fighting Dependency among the ‘Aucas’: An Interview with Steve Saint.” Mission Frontiers 20(5-6): 8-15.

Schwartz, Glenn. 2004. “Short-Term Mission Trips: Maximizing the Benefits.” Mission Frontiers 26(2):12.

Van Rheenen, Gailyn. 1991. Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.


Robert Reese was a missionary in Zimbabwe for over twenty years. He is now a consultant with World Mission Associates in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Copyright © 2008 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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