Short-term missions: moving forward

You’ve probably seen a kid’s show where the cartoon character is skiing, but then clumsily falls and begins to tumble down the slope. As the character rolls down the mountainside, they become enveloped in an ever growing and unstoppable snowball. That rapid growth and forward momentum of the proverbial snowball reminds me of short-term missions (STM).

Broadly speaking, the impetus for the contemporary STM movement can be traced to two men: George Verwer (Operation Mobilization) and Loren Cunningham (Youth With A Mission). Passionate about seeing Christian youth mobilized to reach the nations, both men developed the strategy of taking youth across the globe on short-term trips to expose them to the spiritual needs of the world and to employ them in the harvest field. The number of North Americans involved in STM has jumped dramatically from 540 participants in 1965 to well over 1 million in 2010.1

This phenomenal growth was not just due to globalization. Many mission agencies and local churches thought this strategy might help to raise up long-term servants and provide missionaries and national churches with additional laborers. As a result, mission agencies and churches have invested a great deal of human and financial resources to provide STM opportunities to their constituents. For North American Christian teenagers, going on a STM trip has become the equivalent of an evangelical bar mitzvah.

While the investment of resources and the number of participants in STM have swelled, there has been little critical reflection and assessment on how effectively STM meets these original goals. Are we seeing greater numbers of long-term missionaries emerge from this swell of STM participants? Are those on the receiving end of these trips truly benefiting from short-term missionaries? Below, I briefly survey some concerns and benefits of STM.

Concerns

Costs

The amount of money used to fund STM is enormous, surpassing at least a billion US dollars annually.2 Is this the most prudent way to spend so much donated money?

The amateurization of missions

Churches sometimes send short-termers to do work in other cultures which they would never allow them to do in their own local church. STM teams are often made up mostly of people with limited foreign language ability, ministry experience, and cross-cultural awareness. My plea to churches is not to send their “B team” to the mission field.

Increases ethnocentrism

While we tend to think that exposing people to other cultures will increase cultural sensitivity, the opposite is often true. Social scientists point out that short-term exposure to other cultures tends to increase ethnocentrism. I compare STM participants to first-year Greek students in seminary: they frequently know just enough to be dangerous. This can be partially avoided if the STM participants are given cross-cultural training and opportunities for on-site debriefing.

Promotes a “quick fix” mentality

STM can give the impression that the work of global disciple-making can be accomplished in days or weeks. I’ve heard short-term teams testify to having seen large numbers convert to Christianity or having planted a church during their one-week trip. While the team was possibly present for the opening service of the new church, those engaged in disciple-making and church planting know that they involve much more than one week of ministry.

Benefits

Source of long-term servants

Every semester, I have students in my classes at Moody Bible Institute that are headed into missions because of their participation in a STM trip. However, the concern with a number of mission agencies is the lack of “return on investment” they are currently seeing. While the number of STM participants has increased dramatically over the last two decades, the number of long-term missionaries has not kept pace. Some of this could be solved by churches and agencies being more selective when forming teams. What if, instead of extending an open invitation to join an STM team, we prayerfully selected team members based on the needs of the ministry and the spiritual gifts and long-term service potential of the participants?

Increased prayer and giving

Roger Peterson argues that his post-trip surveys indicate that STM participants give more and pray more for missions.3 Firsthand exposure to the needs of the world can spur believers toward greater global engagement.

Spiritual growth of the participant

In surveys done among Christian university students who had participated in a STM trip, “I grew spiritually” and “I learned more about God and his church” are consistently top responses.

Encouragement of national believers and missionaries

My own experience as a missionary in Japan points to this as being one of the greatest benefits of STM. In nations where there are very few believers, STM participants who meaningfully engage with national believers and long-term missionaries have a wonderful opportunity to minister to and encourage the “receivers.”

While some are calling for a moratorium on STM trips, I believe that changes can be made that may shrink the numbers but increase the effectiveness. So, as we move forward in our consideration of STM and, more particularly, our implementation of this methodology, I would encourage you to ask the following questions:

Who is really benefiting from this particular STM trip? If the answer is primarily the participants, then that should be cause for caution and reconsideration of the trip. Are we truly helping the “receivers” or are we adding to their workload and expending resources for personal growth and enjoyment? Remember, these are mission trips, not pilgrimages.

Do our STM trips foster dependency? Missionaries and agencies who host these trips often scramble to find work for the team to do while they are in the country. Sometimes the work that is performed is something that the local congregation could and should be doing themselves. Creating dependency is one of the significant issues in missions. We don’t want to continue to foster such dependency via STM.

How do we integrate lessons learned into long-term change and results? Behavioral scientists tell us that long-term change generally happens with long-term exposure. Can we structure the STM experience so that while the team may only be on-site for a short time, their involvement in training, prayer, and follow-up would extend over a longer period in order that lasting change may take root?

Along with interacting with the questions above, I highly encourage you to visit http://www.soe.org/explore/the-7-standards/ and engage with the resources on that site. My hope and prayer is that we will critically assess the outcomes of our STM trips and find ways to increase the long-term impact of our short-term trips.


1. Priest, R. J.  “Short-term missions as a new paradigm,” in Mission after Christendom, edited by Kaul, O., Vethanayagamony P., and E. Kee-Fook Chia (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 84-99.

2. This is a conservative estimate based on one million short-termers spending an average of US$1,000. The source above (Priest) estimates much more than a billion dollars.

3. Roger Peterson and Timothy D. Peterson Is Short-Term Mission Really Worth the Time and Money? Advancing God’s Kingdom Through Short-Term Mission (Minneapolis: STEM Ministries, 1991).

STM photos by Karen Ellrick

Timothy R. Sisk grew up in Kobe, Japan, as a missionary kid and later served as a missionary in Japan and Bolivia. He is currently a professor of intercultural studies at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.

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