The Character of Short-term Mission

by Gene Daniels

The most relevant question for a new generation of world Christians is, “What would be biblical character qualifications for a short-term missionary?”

Globalization and international travel have irreversibly changed the world mission landscape. In the past, most in the Church considered world mission to be a foreign realm inhabited only by strange people who were a cross between theologian, professional linguist and National Geographic explorer. But that narrow understanding has now been split wide open. Today, the Church’s vocabulary has widened to include a new concept—the “short-term missionary.”

However, these massive changes have come at the speed of email, and the Church-at-large has had very little time to develop a new philosophy of mission to match the opportunities presented in our generation. Therefore, many are left with a fuzzy, even distorted, picture of exactly what this new breed of missionary should be. Short-term missionaries and their trips now range from doctors visiting remote villages to youth groups on beaches handing out tracts in a language unknown to them. This rapidly changing paradigm raises some thought-provoking questions:

• Should the narrow notion of missionaries as “living martyrs in foreign lands” now be widened to include all who sign up for their church’s next trip to an exotic location?

• Has our era of globalization birthed a completely new definition of the term “missionary,” one with different expectations and demands?

• Has the term “world mission” completely changed, even lost, its meaning to this generation?

For many, these questions seem outside their personal sphere of influence. They reason that mission agency leadership and other “important people” must sort out these big picture issues. However, the Church is not an organization per se, it is a body. It is directed by the stirrings of the Holy Spirit in individual members who act, and by acting individually they cause ripples in the pond which eventually become the Church’s norm. This is true in all areas of church life, including world mission. Therefore, it is imperative that all of us involved in reaching the nations develop a biblically sound and thoroughly practical understanding of what a “short-term missionary” should be. At this grassroots level, the questions move out of the realm of theory and become intensely personal:

• What is required of me to express God’s heart for the nations?

• Am I the kind of disciple who would impact the world of mission, even if I only serve for a short period of time?

• What should a short-term missionary team from my church really look like?

And this, I believe, is exactly where God wants us. We need to examine the phenomenon of short-term mission not as a theory to be dissected, but rather as a character study to be personally implemented. The Word of God always centers on the heart-level issues; therefore, the most relevant question for a new generation of world Christians should be: “What would be the biblical character qualifications for a short-term missionary?”

Some may wonder if the Bible, which is filled with illustrious figures such as Paul and Barnabas, says anything about the short-term
missionary. The idea seems so new, so different, that it is hard to connect it to the time of three-month voyages and a quill pen. Yet even here, scripture does not leave us without a witness and guidance. There is at least one person in the New Testament who indisputably falls into the category of “short-term missionary”—a brother we meet in the book of Philippians named Epaphroditus. Paul wrote a letter to this man’s home church, so the character of this short-term missionary is opened for our examination.

We are not given many details regarding the mission on which this brother was sent; what we do know is scattered throughout Paul’s letter. Epaphroditus was sent from Philippi to carry financial aid to Paul in Rome, and while on that mission he almost died from some illness. There are a few other things implied here and there, but they add little to the bare facts of his trip. However, what we are searching for are clues about this man’s character, and for this purpose there is one striking sentence which stands out: “But I think it necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs” (Phil. 2:25).

It seems that even in his short tenure on the world mission stage, this brother from Philippi left a powerful legacy to challenge all those who would follow. All of us, especially those involved in short-term mission, would benefit from a close examination of this man. Whatever it was that he did, however it was that he conducted himself while on the field, he seems to have positively impressed the Apostle Paul.

What was it about Epaphroditus that made an impact? Was he a great evangelist? Was he a profound man of faith and prayer? These things we really do not know. But there are some things we do know about him which, by close examination, can help us gain a better understanding of the kind of people needed in the short-term mission movement.

Perhaps the best place for us to start is to take note of the underlying motive for Epaphroditus’ trip: “…whom you sent to take care of my needs.” The church in Philippi had sent Epaphroditus to Paul for the sake of the apostle’s needs. He did not go on that mission trip for what he would get out of it, nor for any felt needs in his church back home. If there is any current trend in short-term missions that has become decidedly unbiblical, it is this question of whose needs drive the agenda. Far too often, the needs and desires of those back home are the deciding factor in planning short-term missions.

This is a dark little secret that most missionaries are afraid to articulate. We are hesitant to tell our supporting churches that the average short-term missionary takes far more than he or she gives. The time invested to host the person, the resources he or she drains from the church’s world mission budget, the problems the person sometimes causes…all-too- often these cost more than whatever benefit the visitor brings to the field. We do not like to say such things because we are afraid of sounding selfish, or perhaps too lazy to host these guests.

Even when long-term missionaries do talk about these things among themselves, the concerns are usually framed by words like “but we know it was really good for them” or “we were the best site for our church to send a group this year.” Although these are not terribly bad reasons, they are hardly biblical. If the short-term mission movement is to be brought in line with New Testament thinking, it is essential that the needs of the field become the driving factor for when, where and who is sent. However, since most long-term missionaries feel uncomfortable in saying such things to those who support them, the impetus for reform will have to come from our brothers and sisters back home.

In fact, all of us need to remember that missions of any duration are not about us, our needs or the needs of our home church. World mission is an invitation to die to ourselves. It is the call to go into a new culture and practice the words of Jesus: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The one who wants to go on a short-term, long-term or any-term mission for the sake of what he or she will get out of it is expressly unqualified for the work to which he or she aspires.

Dying to self in relation to the mission field is very much the same as dying to self in our home culture. It means making decisions based on what is best for the kingdom, not on what is best for ourselves. On the foreign field this usually involves dying to something many, especially Americans, consider sacrosanct—our personal rights: our right to a clean place to sleep, to privacy, to anything that would hinder the growth of the Kingdom of God among a new people. These are not easy things for us to do; however, they are required if we desire to take part in God’s plan for the nations. So the next time we are presented with a short-term mission opportunity, we would be wise to pass it through this matrix to determine if it is a call to deny self. Anything less may be only an exotic religious excursion.

Next we see Paul, the epitome of a career missionary, use a string of powerful descriptive phrases to paint a picture of who his short-term visitor was. One by one, these adjectives provide further clues as to the character of Epaphroditus. They also show us the positive effects one short-term missionary can have on those who are long-term.

1. My brother. Paul often wrote of “the brothers” in a general sense, but this is the only time he personalized it into “my brother.” Could this be pointing to something? Paul was in hard straits at Rome. He was under arrest and facing an unknown fate. He writes that no one was standing with him other than Timothy. When the short-term missionary Epaphroditus came on the scene, the old apostle found another man to whom he could turn when life seemed hard and bitter. This is the meaning of Paul calling Epaphroditus “my brother.” He was not only one of the brothers as in the general sense that all believers are members of one family; rather, he was a brother in the sense of the proverb: “…a brother is born for adversity” (Prov. 17:17b).

Missionary life can be hard. Praise God this is not always the case, but there are times when every missionary feels alone. Especially for those living in remote or pioneer locations, there are times when they just need to feel like someone understands. With email and other modern forms of communication the situation is much better than in the past. But for the lonely missionary nothing quite hits the spot like a short visit from a truly like-minded Christian.

One small church in Arkansas spearheads one of the most fruitful avenues of short-term mission I have seen. Every year, they organize a field conference for missionaries in some remote location. These conferences are not centered on an organization; all the missionaries in that area are invited free of charge. The church itself often has no other contact with that field than through these three-day conferences, the sole purpose of which is to encourage and minister to God’s servants. This is a church whose strong commitment to the Great Commission has led them to a special niche in short-term missions where they greatly bless long-term missionaries and minister to them as brothers and sisters.

2. A fellow worker. Heading into the summer travel season, the application lists at many large churches are full of those seeking a cross-cultural/religious experience package deal. However, Paul’s visitor from Philippi did not come to be shown around, nor did he visit Rome because of its mystique as the center of an empire. No, Epaphroditus was someone Paul called a “fellow worker.”

This connects with Paul’s words about Epaphroditus in Philippians 2:29: “Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor men like him.” Epaphroditus deserved honor precisely because he acted in a different spirit from many in the legion of short-term missionaries today. While it is certainly not true for all, I fear that many go on short-term mission trips expecting an experience closer to a vacation than to an extra few weeks of hard work packed into their yearly calendar. Yet this brother from Philippi understood that world mission, just like any other ministry, was work. A labor of love to be sure, but real work nonetheless.

One short-term medical team to Central Asia included a few non-medical personnel to help with the practical logistics needs of running a clinic in a remote village. But one young man, who bragged about his numerous mission trips, spent most of his time playing with his new high-tech toy, an MP3 player. Although language and cultural barriers prevented him from witnessing and talking in depth with locals, if his heart were truly that of a laborer in the Lord’s harvest field, he should have at least felt moved to the spiritual work of intercession. Daily he was surrounded by a sea of people who had never once heard the gospel; yet, he was so busy impressing all the local youth that he never seemed to consider the state of their souls.

Those who want to be involved in short-term missions must understand that it is hard work to make inroads into new lands and cultures. To participate with God in this, even for a few weeks, will mean giving oneself to real spiritual and physical effort. Anything else is a religious vacation.
3. A fellow soldier. Paul was a tough-minded, disciplined man of action. He spent his life waging an intense, spiritual battle for the souls of men. When he calls someone a “fellow soldier,” we should take notice. It was perhaps the highest words of honor he could bestow.

If we consider the spiritual battles raging around us, short-term missions is like sending a person on an errand to the frontlines of a war. In order for him or her to stay alive, much less have any effect, he or she must also be disciplined and tough. It is no place for a soft, pampered mentality. But we must tread carefully here, for in an age of Rambo and the Terminator, the word “soldier” has a distorted picture. So what exactly did Paul mean? It should be noted that he calls Epaphroditus a “fellow” soldier, and this is our key. There is a special bond that develops between those who take risks together for a great cause. This was how Paul felt about Epaphroditus. He did not come on the field as a superstar who needed lots of ministry opportunities to go home and talk about. Rather, he came and shared camaraderie with those beside whom he served.

I can imagine Epaphroditus quietly bearing up under the hardships and deprivations he faced serving the aged apostle’s work; he understood these hardships as simply a part of the calling to war. He seems to have had the same mind as Paul when Paul wrote, “Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2:3).

Even in his short time alongside Paul, Epaphroditus must have exhibited some of this same disciplined, hardship-bearing attitude. Therefore, we can imagine that beyond the practical benefits of such a co-laborer, it did Paul much emotional good to see someone from back home who was just as willing to live, even die, for the sake of his call as was he.

A good friend of mine is a vice- president of a large international mission agency located in beautiful American suburbia. Yet despite his padded chair and packed schedule, he regularly visits the remote, restricted-access locations where he has helped place long-term missionaries. He travels in the same broken-down taxis as do the young families he sends to the field. He has been harassed by the same corrupt police as the missionaries he loves. On occasion, he even takes his wife with him and they eat in the same unsanitary, hole-in-the-wall restaurants that make do as a “date night” for many missionary couples. But I have never once heard him complain about the dirty hotel rooms or unsanitary plates. His willingness to shoulder the same hardships, and even dangers, speaks deeply to the souls of the tired missionaries he visits and offers them encouragement to press on. Although there is no organizational connection between us, I have personally bonded with this “fellow soldier” because of the heart that shows every time he comes to the field where I live.

Paul’s words about Epaphroditus present a personal challenge to those who would be involved in world mission on every level, be it short-term, career or administrative. We all need to allow these words to shape our service and motivation. But specifically in the realm of short-term missions, Paul’s powerful metaphor sets a clear standard which serves as a contrast to the murky picture that currently confuses many in the Church. This beautiful example cuts through the fog and gives us some points by which to navigate.

The picture Paul gives us of the man from Philippi also provides a sharp rebuke to certain cultural values that have crept into the modern short-term mission movement. All of us are products of our cultures, for the good and the bad, and Epaphroditus can provide us a supra-cultural benchmark for the character that should shine in the person of a short-term missionary. In doing so, Paul’s words help us form a practical theology of mission for those who feel called to short-term involvement. Even in an age of cell phones and laptop computers, the character Epaphroditus still speaks to those who are willing to listen.


Gene Daniels (pseudonym) and his family have been serving among an unreached Muslim people group in Central Asia since 1997.

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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