by Bryan A. Slater
Tremendous amounts of financial and human resources have gone into short-term missions in the last two decades. Is the effort, time, and money worth it? More importantly, what is the biblical basis for short-term missions?
Tremendous amounts of financial and human resources have gone into short-term missions in the last two decades. Is the effort, time, and money worth it? More importantly, what is the biblical basis for short-term missions? For this article, I define short-term missions as any effort to take the gospel to a different culture for less than one year.
JESUS AND THE TWELVE
Jesus sent disciples on evangelism trips lasting only days or weeks, often without financial support. The commissioning of the Twelve in Matthew 10 comes in the context of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, containing the calling of the Twelve, the Sermon on the Mount, and a series of healings and miracles centering around the theme of faith. Jesus commissions and sends the Twelve after teaching them to pray for laborers to be sent into the harvest (9:38).
First, we should note that Jesus takes the initiative to call the disciples and send them out. It is not their idea. He equips them with authority to do all that they are asked to do, including driving out evil spirits and healing the sick. Jesus commands them to preach a kingdom message and gives them specific instructions about where to go (only to the lost sheep of Israel) and how to support themselves (through the generosity of others). He warns them about the persecution they will suffer because of the message they preach. Jesus tells them to trust God for their daily needs, and how they are to respond when arrested. They are to be bold in their witness amid persecution and even death.
We don’t know how long the disciples stayed on their mission. The implication is that they were on their mission while the events of Chapter 11 took place. In any case, Jesus’ instructions seem to apply far beyond this initial mission, because none of the 12 are harmed, as the passage implies they would be for Jesus’ sake. Mark’s abbreviated version of this same episode adds that the apostles gathered around Jesus and reported all they had done and taught.
It seems that Jesus had twice before modeled what they were to do, in Mark 1:39 and Luke 8:1-3. Jesus set up the mission of the Twelve well. Jesus had not only modeled what they were to do but established credibility by sending them back through towns where he had already ministered. Likely the Twelve would have been quickly remembered.
We can draw the following conclusions. First, this initial short-term mission happened only because Jesus initiated and called the disciples to go. Second, Jesus empowered them to accomplish his mission. Third, Jesus gave them specific instructions about how they were to live while on their mission. They had to trust in God’s provision and practice what they preached. They traveled light, taking only the clothes on their backs. Jesus evidently did not want their motives to be misconstrued, which would do harm to the gospel. Fourth, the aim of the mission was to call people to believe the gospel. The message was validated by the deliverance and healing ministry that accompanied it. And fifth, Jesus prepared the way for their mission by going before them on two previous occasions to develop the trust that would be necessary for ministry to happen. Sixth, the Twelve were able to debrief with Jesus, who clearly wanted them to talk through and rejoice in what had happened and then get some rest before being immersed in ministry again.
JESUS AND THE SEVENTY-TWO
In Luke 10:1-24, Jesus goes from Galilee to Judea. After the Twelve return from their mission, he feeds the 5,000, showing himself to be their provider. Then comes Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, followed by the transfiguration, both of which highlight the true identity of Jesus as God’s Son. Also tucked in this chapter are two pericopes about the cost of following Jesus.
Then Jesus sends the 72 on a short-term mission, two by two, which may have also been the case in the sending of the Twelve. There is strength and accountability in laboring with other Christians on a mission. Jesus’ purpose in this one is to prepare the way in every town he is about to visit. Again, the Lord is the one who initiates the mission, and the one who empowers the workers. This is an urgent mission, for they are instructed to not take the time to go through the ordinary lengthy greetings when they meet someone on the road. Like the Twelve, they are instructed to trust the Lord to provide for them through worthy people in each city. Jesus adds here that they are to eat whatever is put in front of them.
There are two implications here. First, they are worthy of whatever good things are given to them. Second, they are to live and eat simply, without complaining, so that no condemnation comes to the gospel. He wants them to be above reproach, not going from house to house to see who is offering the best accommodations. Jesus reminds them that the people will be judged according to how they receive Jesus’ ambassadors. Again, there is joy as they return to debrief with Jesus. They all rejoice that the kingdom of God has been extended through their witnessing, preaching, healing, and deliverance ministry.
Again, we see Jesus calling and empowering the disciples, giving them careful instructions about lifestyle, telling them what to preach, and leading a joyful debriefing session. I think we can assume that the news of Jesus’ ministry had already reached these towns before the 72 got there, so their message was accompanied by trust, expectation, and even excitement. There are a few new principles. First, the mission had a specific purpose—to prepare the way for Jesus’ coming. The disciples knew why they were going, where they were to go, and what they were to do. Second, teams were important to keep each missionary strengthened and accountable. Third, Jesus clearly commented on the effectiveness of the ministry done. This is important, because many advocates of short-term missions talk about what such trips will do for the people who go, and not for those to whom short-termers will minister. While it is true that people who faithfully minister the grace of Christ are blessed because of it, that does not seem to be the motivation here.
THE SENDING OF PHILIP
In Acts 8:26-40, we read about the sending of Philip, when an angel told him to go south to the road to Gaza. The Holy Spirit directs him to the chariot, and he hears a man from Ethiopia reading the Scriptures. The Ethiopian man meets Christ through the Scriptures as Philip, empowered by the Spirit, explains the Word of God to him. Again, the call to mission comes from the Spirit of God. The man immediately trusts Philip because of his hunger to know God. Philip is uniquely prepared for the mission: He was a Greek who had embraced Christ. He had served for a time as a deacon (Acts 6:3-7), so he had been tested and was a mature disciple of Christ. He had the gift of an evangelist (Acts 21:8), so this calling fit him perfectly.
THE APOSTLE PAUL
Some would argue against using Paul as an example of short-term missions, because he had committed himself to incarna-tional ministry for the long haul. True, but he was a short-term missionary in the sense that he only stayed for a short time in any particular location. Like Paul, short-term missionaries today must see each project as one stop in a longer journey. Paul took small teams with him from location to location, seeking to extend the kingdom of God to anyone he encountered along the way. He established the foundations of churches in a few short months and then would either visit on the next journey and/or write to them to further instruct them. He appointed elders—national leaders—to oversee the ministry after he left.
Paul (still Saul at this time) and Barnabas ministered in a local church together for several years before the Holy Spirit called them to cross cultures. This church, in Antioch, had both Jew and Gentile Christians, so they were prepared to reach out to people in other cultures. Again, we see God taking the initiative to call Paul and Barnabas on their mission. The Greek text leaves the reader with the idea that they were to be set apart for a unique mission that the Holy Spirit had prepared for them. They were already somewhat familiar with Gentile culture. They were of Jewish heritage, but both had grown up in Gentile areas. In fact, they started their mission in the place where Barnabas had grown up—Cyprus. Certainly, Barnabas would have had many friends and contacts and would have been respected because he was a Levite. Paul was a Pharisee in terms of his training, so had an open audience with the Jews living in the areas they visited. When the Jews largely rejected them, Paul and Barnabas were ready to preach to the Gentiles. Of course, they knew Greek, so language was not a barrier. As with Jesus’ disciples, Paul and Barnabas did many miraculous signs validating the truth of their message.
They returned the same way they had begun their first mission, strengthening those who had believed (Acts 14:21-22) and appointing elders for the new churches. Paul made a second trip to strengthen the young churches. Also, Paul consistently prayed for those to whom he had preached. Paul kept an ongoing relationship with many of the churches through letters and through messengers or disciples who spent time with him, such as Epaphroditus and Timothy. Paul’s letter to the Philippians shows the depth of relationship he had with them. He “longed for them with the affection of Christ Jesus” and “held them in his heart” (Philippians 1:7-8). Paul also had this type of love for the Thessalonians, as is illustrated in 1 Thessalonians 3:9: “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God for all of you?” His love remained constant, a source of great encouragement for the believers. Paul models the need to continue loving and praying for people after the ministry is over.
Paul and his companions only went where the Holy Spirit called them, where God had prepared people to receive the message (Acts 16:6-10). Of course, Paul had a specific calling as an apostle. Jesus called Paul and gave him the authority to plant churches where none had existed. God uniquely prepared Paul to take the gospel to the Gentiles. It follows that, even in short-term missions, those who are going need to be called and equipped.
We also see in Paul and Barnabas a model of developing disciples through short-term missions. Before the second missionary journey, they had a sharp disagreement about whether they should take along John Mark. Apparently, Barnabas, the encourager, saw the trip as an opportunity to further train the young disciple who had failed on his first effort. Later, we see Paul saying, “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11). Paul himself demonstrates this same commitment to training by taking Timothy, a fairly recent convert, with him and Silas. This kind of stretching experience, under the supervision of a more mature Christian, can develop disciples of Jesus very quickly.
Here are several principles from Paul’s missionary efforts. First, Paul was called by the Holy Spirit to go. This calling came at Paul’s conversion when Jesus told him what his new mission in life would be, although Paul waited for the Lord to tell him the timing of the mission. The apostle was uniquely equipped for the mission and, like those Jesus sent out, had a clear understanding of the mission’s purpose. Short-term missions are not for anybody we can talk into going, as is the case with many short-termers today. They are for those who can testify to God’s unique call on their lives and see how God has prepared them to be effective in ministry.
Second, trust was established because of past relationships, or was quickly established because of the unique position Paul held with his prior training as a Pharisee. Paul’s mission was not a quick trip to a place where no one knew about him, nor was it an unacceptable response for the culture in which he ministered. In Paul’s day, visiting teachers were given an audience with the local synagogue. It is true that, because of the power of his preaching, Paul also developed an audience with Gentiles who probably would not have heard about him before.
Third, neither language nor culture were major barriers to the spread of the gospel, because Greek was spoken throughout the empire. There would have been some cultural adjustments, but Paul’s background and training uniquely equipped him for such adjustments. Certainly Paul would have been sensitive to the cultures where he preached.
Fourth, these were not one-shot efforts. He sought to maintain significant contact with those to whom he ministered. He loved them, prayed for them, sent them letters, and sought to encourage them. This does not seem to be the case in most short-term missions today. People are evangelized on the streets and may raise their hands in response to an appeal, but one must question whether true relationships are developed and nurtured as we see in Paul’s pattern. Fifth, mission trips seem to be one way that Barnabas and Paul developed disciples into mature followers of Christ, ready to be used for more significant ministry.
From our brief look at Scripture, allow me to offer the following guideline questions for engaging in biblical short-term missions.
1. Has God, through the Holy Spirit, called you to plan or participate in this mission? What evidence is there of God’s calling? (A true calling normally includes both an internal element in an individual and an external confirmation through the Body of Christ.)
2. Is this the right time for this particular mission? Has God empowered or given you the authority to plan or participate in this mission?
3. Are you ready for a lifestyle that will in no way impede the spread of the gospel or convey an attachment to material things?
4. Is the purpose of your mission clear to all who are going?
5. Has trust been established with those to whom you are ministering? If not, how will it be developed, and how long will this take? Trust needs to be developed before you take a team, or at least there needs to be a clearly prayed-through effort to develop trust as a basis for future mission efforts.
6. Do you have significant time set aside to debrief after the trip?
7. Are you going as a team? Have you prepared your team to function with one heart and mind?
8. Is there lasting fruit from your efforts as there was with the missions Jesus sent out and the ones on which Paul participated?
9. What kind of relationship will there be after the short-term mission is over? Is there a way to follow up on the fruit that was won—through other trips, letters, or through some who still labor there?
10. Has there been adequate language and cultural preparation so the ministry can be effective?
11. How does this mission trip fit into the church’s overall strategy of training disciples?
By answering these questions honestly, the leader and participants will be able to undertake the short-term mission with confidence that it is in accord with the principles given in the Scriptures. Biblically grounded short-term missions will bear more and lasting fruit in the kingdom of God.
Bryan A . Slater is pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Florence, S.C. Previously he was an associate pastor at Myrtle Grove Presbyterian Church (Wilmington, N.C.), where he led teams to Uganda, Spain, and Argentina. Before that, he was on staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and led three teams of students to Ukraine. Slater has an M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is finishing his Doctor of Ministry from Reformed Theological Seminary.
EMQ, Vol. 36, No. 4, pp. 452-457. Copyright © 2000 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.