by Gary Corwin
What is the message of short-term missions for today? And what does it tell us about the future of the evangelical missions enterprise from North America?
It has been referred to as the “amateurization of missions” and “drive-by missions” by some. It is despised by many “lifers,” tolerated by many agency planners and recruiters, and loved by the people in the pews who actually do it. It has been around for decades, though the time frames have clearly been getting shorter. Where the definition used to be reserved for those going out for a year or two, it is more likely today to refer to someone going out for a week or two.
The meaning of this phenomenon is bound up with what it reflects about our culture and time. Eras in missions, like eras in anything else, grow out of a context. The same spirit that launched the conquest mode of the high imperial period in European and world history also launched the inland missions movement. Both grew out of a context of broad optimism concerning the rightness of the cause and a spirit of sacrificial service and adventure. Each sought to bring the hard to reach into a new orbit of existence.
Likewise, the post-WWII missions boom was a reflection of the can-do spirit of GI optimism, combined with a personal and deeply experienced sense of global need. Widely honored elements of military discipline and organizational style were brought to bear on the gospel task for which many had seen the need first hand. The same spirit that provided energy for the great economic and entrepreneurial boom of the last half century also spurred the missions enterprise to new feats.
So what is the message of short-term missions for today? And what does it tell us about the future of the evangelical missions enterprise from North America?
Above all else, the enormous popularity of short-term missions is a reflection of local churches’ desire to be involved more directly in global missions. Growing distrust of institutions and of centralized models of governance have impacted the status of mission agencies just as they have other institutions in the society. While this shift has occurred more slowly for mission agencies because of a higher trust level to begin with, and because of the higher proportional importance of support from institutionally oriented older church members, it has taken place nevertheless.
The tidal wave of short-term missions is also a reflection of the cultural reality that relationships and choice, rather than authority and institutional loyalty, now rule the day. Mission agencies, like the military services, have had to work much harder to secure and retain good recruits.
Short-term mission programs on the other hand, like skydiving and bungee jumping, have attracted a lot more courageous souls to “give it a try,” often at the encouragement of a close friend.
When the stakes aren’t so high on the downside (separation from family and friends, long-term health risks, lower standard of living, etc.), and the reinforcements are so plentiful on the upside (feeling good about helping others, doing your part in God’s mission to the world, travel, camaraderie, etc.), why not?
Is the short-term missions movement here to stay, or will it be a fading phenomenon? I’m no prophet, but my guess is that it will be around a long time. The one thing that comes to mind as a possible spoiler is a huge economic downturn. Without affluence and affordable travel, short-term missions may survive, but cannot thrive. We should remember that as much as anything, short-term missions is the product of a particularly wealthy and mobile historical context. Change the attendant conditions, and the methods will change. That’s what made monastery transplants so important in the sixth century, and emigration so important to the Moravian missionary efforts in the 17th and 18th centuries. None of this is to deny that almost all methods retain some sort of following in all contexts and times, but popularity and effectiveness are certainly impacted by the larger societal and cultural scene.
But what is the message of short-term missions for mainstream evangelical agencies? At least this: While it is important not to downplay the essential nature of competence and missiological expertise to the missions enterprise, commitment to both must not come with a condescending tone. Take the churches seriously, and help to strengthen their short-term missions efforts in constructive ways.
Forget trying to get them to fit your mode; rather, adapt your important input to their mode. Help with training. Help with logistics. Help to connect short-term missions to long-term strategies. But most of all, model and preach the kind of cultural sensitivity that you so often criticize church efforts for lacking.
So what is the message? Short-term missions, both within the agency rubric and the more direct church-to-church variety, are not going away any time soon. Get used to it. Adapt. Innovate. And most of all, quit complaining and make yourself useful. When and if the Lord wants to change the emphasis, he’s more than capable of changing the context.
GARY CORWIN is former editor of Evangelical Missions Quarterly and a special representative with SIM in Charlotte, N.C.
EMQ, Vol. 36, No. 4, pp. 422-423. 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.