Short-term Missions Serving Long-term Efforts in Eastern Europe
by Edward L. Smither
A case study of how one group in Eastern Europe is using short-term teams to accelerate the impact of long-term ministry.
As the day ended, I was never more grateful to see my bed. I had aching feet from the miles walked, a tired back from carrying 50-pound bags of flour up several flights of stairs, and stinging eyes and smoke-filled clothes from the cigarette smoke encountered throughout the day. Craving sleep, I was still a bit wired from all the Turkish coffee I had consumed during the day.
It was spring break and I was serving with thirteen college students on a short-term mission trip among a Muslim people group in Eastern Europe. Our days were filled with delivering food packets to families in need and visiting with them in their homes; helping with conversational English in a few schools; putting on a health fair at another school; hanging out in the evenings in smoky cafes with new friends; and spending time over meals with our local host families. In all of this, we served alongside a long-term team and our daily ministry was carefully dictated by their long-term vision and strategy for planting churches and making disciples in the region.
Short-term missions (STMs), particularly from the United States, is a huge enterprise filled with the courageous stories of humble servants, but also the fun experiences of adventure seekers (Priest 2008, i-iv; Moreau 2008, 11-20; Livermore 2006, 43-108). The STM phenomenon raises important questions about both motivations for ministry and Christian stewardship.
At Liberty University, we have wrestled with the effective use of STMs in our classroom discussions and through Light Ministries—our STM office that sends out about fifteen global teams each school year (www.luglobal.com/). One of our biggest questions is how short-term work relates to long-term ministry. That is, how can a STM team helpfully contribute to long-term work, and how do we help short-termers become long-termers?
One concrete step we have taken is to limit our present partnerships to just six mission organizations. In these relationships, we have the opportunity to send participants to the same long-term teams and contexts for a number of years. The agreement is that our partners will have meaningful work for short-term teams—service that strategically relates to the long-term team’s vision. As students are given a real taste of what the ministry is like, our prayer is that STM laborers will become engaged in that ministry long-term through going, giving, praying, and other forms of advocacy.
To illustrate this value and process, I would like to highlight a healthy model of a long-term team in Eastern Europe (we’ll call them “Go Global”) that effectively integrates STM work into their ongoing ministry. After briefly describing the context, the nature of the long-term work, and how the team was formed, I will show how Go Global is using STMs and then discuss their prevailing principles for how short-term and long-term ministry intersect. This reflection is based largely on my interviews with the team leaders, interaction with their training materials, and observations from my participation in a short-term trip with Go Global in the spring of 2011.
Go Global in Eastern Europe
The Go Global team ministers among a Muslim people group in a small city in Eastern Europe. Islam came to the region in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries during the time of the Ottoman Empire; however, devotion has been quite nominal compared to other parts of the Muslim world. After the fall of communism in the region in the late 1980s, nationalist movements arose. One tragic result was that this Muslim people became the target of ethnic cleansing. During a war in the mid-1990s, nearly 100,000 people from multiple ethnic groups in the region lost their lives. Many today continue to be scarred by the effects of war and suffer from poverty, unemployment, psychological problems from the loss of loved ones, as well as the daily challenges of a deficient government infrastructure. According to Joshua Project, the evangelical presence is only .02% among this people.
The Go Global work was established by Keith and Stephanie (not their real names) ten years ago. Keith was serving as an associate pastor in the United States when he first began to make short-term trips to help rebuild homes following the devastation of war. While praying for laborers during these visits, he became convinced that God was calling him and his family to be the answer to those prayers. After a short-term exploratory trip, Stephanie also sensed a call to serve long term in the region.
Initially, the couple focused their efforts on rebuilding homes and humanitarian efforts. As the need for humanitarian work lessened, they began to focus on education, specifically helping the local people to develop job skills as they battled the realities of high unemployment. Several years ago, they established a community center—an NGO that allows them a platform and facility to carry out many of these efforts. Stephanie shared that through the center:
We teach English and computer skills, offer camps [for children and teenagers], run a for-profit business in an effort to create jobs (BAM), distribute food to the needy, run health fairs in village schools, teach English as guests in the local high schools (one day monthly), and have a baseball and basketball ministry. All of these activities allow us to meet people in the community and then develop relationships with them.
While the Go Global team will occasionally mass mail evangelistic literature in their city, their primary means of evangelism comes through building relationships via the networks established in the community center. In short, their stated mission is “to communicate the life-changing gospel of Christ to [the local people] with the intention of establishing indigenous reproducing fellowships, fully equipped to carry the gospel (life-changing message) to the [surrounding nations].” With that, their vision “is to see ten house churches [planted in our city] and [send] out new teams into new unreached areas in [the eastern part of our country and to a neighboring country].” At present, the Go Global team has seen one small fellowship of believers planted in the city, which is largely nurtured by the team.
Over the past several years, Keith and Stephanie have been joined by five additional long-term teammates—three single women and one married couple—who co-labor with them in mission through the community center. Like Keith and Stephanie, each team member committed to serve in the region long term after multiple short-term trips. Hence, the entire long-term team is the fruit of continuous short-term work over several years. The team is planning to add another three team members, all of whom are the product of STM trips.
Strategic Use of Short-term Missions
The Go Global team receives short-term missionaries in two ways—through an internship program and through short-term teams. Over the course of a given year, they oversee up to ten interns who are serving anywhere from two months to two years. The majority of those work with the team for two months in June and July, helping with summer English and outdoor camps. The remaining interns, on average two people, serve with the team for up to two years pursuing language acquisition and laboring with the long-term team in most of its ministries.
Each year, the Go Global team also receives up to five STM teams that come for one to two weeks. Two of these teams are typically from local churches in the United States and come to serve during the summer. Each spring, Go Global hosts student teams from Liberty University and Torchbearer Bible School in Sweden, while teams from Philadelphia Biblical University come every other year. Some STM teams include families that are using the trip to prayerfully consider serving long term in the region.
What do these STM teams do during their visits? Because the church teams come in the summer, they largely plug into the English camp ministries. The spring student teams focus on teaching English in the local schools, delivering food to families in need, putting on health fairs at village schools, and friendship evangelism. The Philadelphia Biblical students have a unique niche for short-term ministry in this region. Because teams are made up of professors and students from the counseling department, their primary ministry is putting on mental health clinics in partnership with a local organization—a vital ministry to many still struggling with the psychological trauma of war and the loss of loved ones.
How does this STM work relate to Go Global’s long-term ministry? First, the teams and interns participate in existing and ongoing projects and ministries. Indeed, through the help of translators, STM teams are able to plug into much of what the long-term team is doing. While there is a meaningful place for short-termers to serve, Stephanie adds, “Their participation allows us to multiply our efforts in the community. For example, we can accommodate two hundred children in our English camp because we have the help of short-term teams and interns.”
The long-term team also recognizes that short-termers can be fruitful in evangelism. “The teams are also visiting with English speakers in the community and exposing them to truth. Each exposure…is a building block that God uses to reveal himself in a national’s life,” Stephanie explains. During our spring break trip, our team’s richest spiritual conversations were with our host families as we talked over meals and visited at night.
When asked about the difficulties encountered with short-term teams, Keith and Stephanie shared an all-too-common response: “Our biggest challenge is when we have teams come that aren’t prepared to be here. This manifests itself in immaturity, unwillingness to lay down their rights, lack of service, and an ‘all-about-me’ mentality.”
More than added logistical challenges, time away from normal ministry responsibilities, and helping STM teams connect in a new culture, the biggest issues ultimately relate to the spiritual maturity of STM participants. As a result of this learning process, Keith and Stephanie shared, “Now we only partner with schools and churches that we know will do the due diligence to prepare their team members and interns to be in a cross-cultural ministry situation.”
So What Can We Learn?
What can be learned from the Go Global team in Eastern Europe and how they incorporate short-term missions into their long-term strategy?
1. The cultural and political context of Eastern Europe and Go Global’s community center platform both lend themselves well to short-term missions. In the aftermath of war, where humanitarian aid is continually needed, faces from the “outside” seem welcomed in the region. The community center has found favor for its useful and consistent service and STM teams can reasonably plug in there.
Could it be that other ministry contexts have similar open doors politically and culturally and that STM teams might prove useful as a strategy? To be sure, not every long-term team in the world has such an open context and platform. However, should STM teams automatically be ruled out? Are there untapped possibilities where STM teams could contribute, especially in areas where people are suffering and in need of humanitarian response?
2. The Go Global team clearly values and welcomes the contribution of short-term teams. Although short-termers lack language and cultural training, the holistic nature of Go Global’s ministry opens doors for meaningful hands-on ministry from STM teams. Keith and Stephanie related,
We see the value that short-termers bring to the ministry. We were on the field by ourselves for four years and having short-termers has always enabled us to broaden our ministry influence in the community. We have been able to have children’s camps, English classes, computer classes, etc., because our field has been blessed with short-termers.
3. The Go Global team allows the strengths, skills, and abilities of its short-termers to open new fields of ministry. As noted, counseling students from Philadelphia Biblical University have put their training to work in an environment where mental health care is needed and welcomed. The health fair that is now a regular ministry for short-term teams was initially the vision of a former intern. Sports ministry opportunities have opened up because of the skills and initiative of short-termers.
4. The Go Global leadership believes in mentoring interns and investing in short-term teams. Stephanie shared:
Keith and I have had strong mentors in our lives and see the immense value of being able to come alongside people in ministry. We value short-termers not just for what they can do for the ministry, but also because we see the importance of investing our lives into the next generation. We also see short-term missions as a means to expose people to a cross-cultural church-planting situation, desiring that they will gain a deeper and better understanding of international mission work. Even if they don’t end up serving cross-culturally, they will take home with them a passion for missions to their local church body.
During my recent STM trip to Eastern Europe, I observed this mentoring attitude at work as the Go Global team provided a thorough cultural orientation at the beginning of the week, led daily morning prayer and devotions, made time for at least one debriefing session during the week, and made themselves available to talk and process with students throughout the week. Finally, they led another session toward the end of the week where they presented internship possibilities.
Given this mentoring attitude, the long-termers require that sending churches and college ministries do a thorough job of selecting STM participants and providing pre-field training. Light Ministries at Liberty shares this mentoring value as participants go through a thorough application process and interview and as they are encouraged and held accountable in the support-raising process.
Once the STM teams are formed (several months before the trip), they begin to meet bi-weekly and weekly and go through a curriculum that addresses biblical foundations for mission, personal evangelism, culture, and logistical issues. Most teams have a couple of meals together before going, while others even go on a weekend retreat in order to build team unity. Once the trip is completed, there is typically one more meal and debrief gathering with the team.
Mentoring short-termers certainly requires time and energy from both sending organizations and receiving teams. Perhaps some of the challenges with the STM enterprise in North America could be addressed through deliberate mentoring.
5. Through their strategic inclusion of short-termers in their long-term work, the Go Global team has shown that short-termers have the great potential to become long-term cross-cultural workers. Of all the interns who have stayed for at least six months, all but two are now serving long-term—either in Eastern Europe or elsewhere. The Go Global team sees their intern program as something that can benefit the global Church in missions.
6. Short-term trips with Go Global in Eastern Europe are directed by a vision and strategy that has been developed by long-term, cultural insiders who have spent the last decade serving on the ground. They welcome the participation and innovation of short-termers within the scope of this vision and mission. As local church movements develop and more national believers step into leadership, we would expect that this locally-driven vision would continue to guide short-term efforts in the region.
Joshua Project. Accessed April 25, 2011, from www.joshuaproject.net.
Light Ministries. Accessed April 25, 2011, from www.luglobal.com.
Livermore, David. 2006. Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker.
Moreau, A. Scott. 2008. “Short-term Missions in the Context of Missions, Inc,” In Effective Engagement in Short-Term Missions: Doing it Right! Ed. Robert J.Priest, 1-33. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Priest, Robert J., ed. 2008. Effective Engagement in Short-Term Missions: Doing it Right! Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Edward Smither, PhD, serves as professor of intercultural studies at Columbia International University. Previously, he taught at Liberty University and served for fourteen years in intercultural ministry in France, North Africa, and the USA. Edward is author of Brazilian Evangelical Missions in the Arab World.
EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 4, pp. 468-475. Copyright © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.