by Seth Barnes
Short-termers are here to stay despite the criticisms.
In the political arena, the last decade has brought enormous changes. Changes every bit as momentous have been occurring in the world of missions. Leadership seems to be passing from the North American church. Bill Waldrop, executive director of ACMC, notes that "the church in Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia has much more vision and zeal for world evangelization than the North American church." He observes that "the worst case scenario is possible: Barring a reversal of current trends, the North American church may virtually drop out of the world missions enterprise in the next 20 years."
Hope does exist, however. The short-term missionary movement is perhaps the most powerful force mobilizing new missionaries today. The number of short-term personnel serving at least two months continues to be the fastest growing segment of the missions force. The 1988 total of 30,748 means that since 1985 there was an annual average growth rate of 13.2 percent. This is a significant increase from the 8.7 percent rate between 1980 and 1985.
The career group was 57 percent of the total of overseas personnel in 1988 (down from 64 percent in 1985). Based on current trends, the number of short-term personnel will surpass those who are full-time some time this year.
These changes are forcing a redefinition of our concept of a missionary. No longer is the mission field viewed as the-province of an elite few. Increasingly, ordinary lay people are finding that they can be empowered to contribute to the missions enterprise with time and talent.
The old missionary image still persists in some quarters: somene who is called to the jungles of Bolivia and disappears from sight for 40 years. A new breed of missionary Is being called to the field. Maybe she’s a CPA who can afford a week’s vacation overseas. Is there something she can do? For such a person, the apostle Paul’s own missionary model is a touchstone. Though he spent only short periods in Ephesus, Laodicea, and Colossae, he established strong local churches which he nurtured through prayer and regular communication.
In years past, lay people were expected to give and to pray, to be senders, not goers. Currently, however, a growing number of would-be missionaries are exploring creative ways in which they can be involved in missions.
Twenty-two percent of all Christian "baby boomers" (those born between 1946 and 1964) have visited a Christian organization onsite overseas. Of these, nearly three quarters are interested in short-term service. Many more who have never had the experience would like to go on a short-term mission.
Viewing these statistics, James Engel concludes, "Prior short-term service on the field sharply increases interest in a missionary career. … A short-term missionary service program is a must. Organizations not providing this option will face a manpower crisis."
Despite trend, short-termers have had their share of critics. Some see the good that short-term teams do offset by frequent unintended consequences. Resigned to the fact that short-term missions will persist, they suggest classifying them as "taste and see trips," a kind of philanthropic sightseeing tour. Such conclusions are bolstered by a number of specific criticisms, all of which are to some extent valid. These criticisms reflect the concerns of a missions establishtment that has held short-term missions at arm’s length. Currently, two-thirds of all missions agencies have no short-term missions programs.
I have been a long-term missionary in the Dominican Republic and in Indonesia. I know how intrusive people from back home can be if they come primarily to observe mission life. I’ve also led thousands on short-term teams around the world. I’ve seen their incredible promise, both as instruments to facilitate missions work and as tools to raise up a great wave of missionaries to go to the field for longer periods.
Short-term missions teams may have bad experiences, but typically this occurs when they are inadequately prepared and are tolerated as an inconvenience. Teams can have a tremendous impact if they are properly trained and come with the right attitudes.
Many different short-term missions models exist. The criticisms of short-termers are particularly valid for certain models. However, it would be a mistake to tar the whole movement with the same brush. As Engel states, "The real problem is that the short-term program is at the periphery of mission activity. Field missionaries can emasculate a short-term program by lack of commitment." Here, then, are the criticisms.
1. Unintended consequences. Short-term missions teams do often produce unfortunate and unintended consequences. However, these are particularly prevalent for those who are using outdated models. Earlier short-term projects were hastily thrown together, untrained, unplanned, and unappreciated. Too many missionaries have had groups show up at their doorsteps out of food, money, and ideas. One of the original student missions models involved assembling individual teens from many different churches. They were put through training camps and sent to exotic locales for two months. The results were mixed, as teens received valuable missions experience, but had difficulty making sense of it back home. Many youth leaders have found fault with this model.
Many newer models have better track records. The first car ever made was full of imperfections and bugs. Did its producers scrap it? No, they kept on improving it by making new models. So it is with short-term missions. Those models developed by organizations such as STEM Ministries, Operation Mobilization, and Adventures in Missions, for example, regularly produce satisfying results. They do this by working directly through the local church. They prepare the short-term missionaries as thoroughly as they do the ministry sites on the field. Leaders are trained and experienced. They emphasize partnership with the national church and long-term missionaries. They encourage stewardship by minimizing costs. We can’t look at outdated models and conclude that short-term missions don’t work. That’s putting up a straw man. We have to look at the latest models to get an accurate evaluation of the concept.
2. Little fruit. This criticism flows from the first and also arises from looking at early efforts, which often did in fact produce little lasting fruit. Our Adventures in Missions teams working in tandem with local churches saw hundreds of converts last year. We also built many churches. Many organizations can point to similar results. Teen Mania carefully documents the conversions they see through their mime presentations. Index cards are kept on each one and turned over to local churches for follow-up. Last year they produced 43,000 such cards.
The fruit produced in the home churches in the U.S. is also noteworthy. STEM Ministries surveyed its participants after they returned home. They found that both giving to and prayer for missions doubled after people went on a missions trip. Seventy-five percent felt they would be likely to return to the mission field. Engel’s study shows that"… short-termers are significantly more likely others to become donors, volunteers-and full-time missionaries."
A good example of how short-term projects can positively influence churches comes from two churches in Richmond, Va., Third Presbyterian and West End Assembly of God. They have jointly sponsored projects for eight years. Adults and youth have joined to minister overseas. Such cooperation speaks volumes to national Christians who often are confused by and disappointed with U.S. denominational competitiveness. Both churches have become missionary sending bodies as veterans of short-term projects have answered God’s call by pursuing careers as long-term missionaries.
3. High cost. Invariably, it costs much more for a foreign group to do any kind of ministry or construction than it would cost a comparable group of local Christians to do the same thing. If both groups competed for the same source of money, this would be a profound criticism. However, in most cases, short-term missionaries are receiving their resources from a group of supporters who would otherwise have no intention of donating money for, say, the construction of a church overseas. Whether the money comes from fund-raising events, or simply from someone’s vacation budget, it tends to be over-and-above what would otherwise be given to missions.
Another criticism in this same vein comes from those who suggest that jobs are being taken from local workers. They suggest that the money would be better sent to local workers who need jobs and money. Unfortunately, the world is not so simple. We’ve seen in American governmental programs that giving money outright often results in dependency. But beyond this point, the fact is that the money would not be available to be donated in many cases were it not for individual involvement in short-term missions. My church’s youth group washed cars and sponsored bake sales so that they could go to Mexico to help share the gospel with the poor. If it weren’t a trip to Mexico, then it would probably have been a trip to Disney World.
Tony Campolo tells the story of a group that raised thousands of dollars to go on a missions project to Haiti. They decided to give the money directly to the Haitians, rather than going there themselves. Was this necessarily the best thing to do? Answering the question would necessitate a trip to Haiti, to see if the money was spent as intended, or, as with so many such gifts, was frittered away. Also, we will never know how such a trip might have affected participants. Perhaps one of them might have gone on to be a multimillion dollar benefactor of Haitian missions.
If we are going to make a cost-benefit analysis, we must also consider long-term benefits. What is the cost and benefit of developing a new generation of missionaries? Not only do short-term missions experiences generate vision for career missions, but, as previously noted, they are supplying ever-increasing numbers of missionaries to the field. The benefits of greater giving to missions and more prayer must also be considered when we evaluate the return on our short-term missions investments.
But what of the critic who says, "It’s too expensive to spend $3,000 to send teenagers to Irian Jaya when they could go to Mexico or Puerto Rico for much less?" To which I respond, "It certainly is too expensive!" Such projects divert valuable resources. Christians should show greater discretion in how they fund short-term missions. When it is possible to fund a project in Mexico for $300, why spent $3,000 going to Irian Jaya?
4. Distraction for long-term missionaries. Short-term missions are a distraction and an inconvenience to those who have teams thrust upon them, particularly if the teams are unprepared for the field. If the missionaries do not see the long-range potential in a team, it’s better for them to refuse the team than to accept it out of duty and run the risk of some adverse consequences.
At the same time, seeing the long-term benfits of short-term missions, some agencies have made it a priority to host short-term teams. Worldteam, World Radio Missionary Fellowship (HCJB), Latin America Mission, and South America Mission are just a few of those organizations that have made a conscious commitment to dedicate resources to hosting short-term teams. By doing this, long-term missionaries are empowered rather than distracted.
5. They’re not really missionaries. The answer to this objection depends on your definition of a missionary. If being a missionary means something other than sharing the love of Jesus cross-culturally, then short-termers may not measure up. Often, they do have a quick-fix mentality in a world where change may be measured at a glacial rate.
One of the greatest benefits of short-term missions is that they have challenged the historical notion that career missionaries are "the real super Christians" and all nonprofessionals are mere acolytes. The priesthood of believers applies to missions as well as the church universal. I look forward to the day when the term "missionary" does not need an adjective as a qualifier and barrier.
If the Berlin Wall can crumble, reconciling the haves and have-nots, why not the barriers between the "pros" (career missionaries) and the "Little Leaguers" (short-termers)? In baseball parlance, the ball used by Daryl Strawberry is remarkably similar to the new one used by my seven-year-old son. The gospel, too, doesn’t change, whether expressed by Billy Graham or "Billy Schwartz."
What we call short-term missionaries is a peripheral issue. Jesus calls all of his followers to obey the Great Commission. He sent his disciples out in pairs as the first short-term missionaries (Mk. 6:7-13). To judge the validity of the short-term missions movement, we need to dispense with some of our old ideas and look at the fruit, not at either the duration of the term, or the commitment of those involved.
6. Ministry more to workers than to nationals. It’s true, short-term group leaders frequently seem to focus more on the needs of their group than on the ministry. Often we see profound changes in team members’ lives. But I suggest that this criticism sounds a bit patronizing. In most cases the short-termers are the primary beneficiaries. Why is there shock expressed that the giver is blessed more than the receiver? When a pastor diligently prepares and delivers a sermon to God’s glory, he is usually the one who has learned the most. This dynamic does not deny the benefits that come to both participants and nationals when they develop good relationships in well-planned projects.
Too often career missionaries find themselves forced to pull together the fumbling efforts of a well-meaning team from a supporting home church. This is a recipe for disaster. The short-cannot minister effectively without sufficient preparation, and the long-term missionary cannot minister to the team without a real sense of partnership.
Both long-termers and short-termers bring gifts. Long-term missionaries bring direction; short-termers bring velocity. We need both. The missionary with a long-term commitment to a community plants a church and disciples its members. The relationships and vision they provide are essential. They are like the ship’s rudder, providing direction, steering the course.
Short-term missionaries can be the wind in the sails, giving thrust and velocity to the enterprise. They bring resources, a prayer base, and tremendous enthusiasm.
As we approach the 21st century, the world is changing at an incredible pace. The world of missions is changing, too. It won’t do to chug into the year 2000 with an old jalopy. New models are needed, and short-term workers are part of the new model. At their best, they are a proven tool in the hands of the church, a tool that can help to reach the world for Jesus Christ.
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