To find out about JEMA members’ experiences of short-term missions (STMs)—both as participants and as hosts—I conducted an email survey in December 2017. The response was excellent: 80 people (thank you to everyone who completed it).
Participation in STMs prior to long-term engagement
Of the 80 respondents, 81% (65) had done at least one STM trip before serving in a long-term capacity. There was a great range in the number of short-term trips undertaken (from one trip to “too many to count”, with the average being 2.3 trips), duration (five days to three years; average: 4.8 months), and place (within home country to just about everywhere, except Islamic countries; 52% (34) had done an STM trip in Japan). On average, missionaries who had participated in STMs had spent 10.4 months doing STMs before embarking on long-term mission. Of the 15 who hadn’t, 10 thought it would have been helpful preparation for long-term ministry (two noted that STMs weren’t really an option back when they had been considering becoming long-term missionaries).
Furthermore, 67 people (85%) would recommend doing an STM trip to someone contemplating long-term service. Only one person said they wouldn’t; the remaining 11 generally would recommend doing an STM trip but qualified their responses in some way (for example, it depends on person or circumstances).
These numbers highlight the important role that STMs play in preparing people for long-term mission.
The 65 people that had participated in an STM cited a wide range of positive outcomes. By far the most common (28 respondents) was that the trips confirmed a sense of calling (sometimes to missions in general and sometimes to Japan in particular) and were a stepping stone on the path to becoming a long-term missionary. In this regard, 51 of 65 respondents said that STMs had made them want to come back and serve in a long-term capacity. The next most common response (18 respondents) was that STMs had made them aware of the need and of God’s heart for people. Other benefits included a stronger faith in God (11), a better awareness of the practical details of missions (10), a greater consciousness of what’s involved in cross-cultural ministry (8), a broader vision of God’s plan for the world (8), and the potential to help using the gifts they had been given (8).
Looking back at their STM trip(s), 51 of 63 (81%) respondents said they thought that STMs had provided good preparation for long-term missions, 4 (6%) thought they hadn’t, while 8 (13%) were ambivalent. Three people noted that STMs by themselves are not sufficient, while four commented that there are significant differences between short-term and long-term missions.
Using STMs for ministry
Regarding getting short-term workers to help out with long-term ministries, 64 respondents (81%) had used their help, while 15 (19%) had not. Those who had not cited the policy of their mission organization as well as mismatches between their work and tasks that short-termers can help with. Two said they would consider using them to help with their ministries in the future. Of those who have used short-termers in their ministries, the frequency varied greatly from “all the time” to “once in 20 years”. Out of 57 respondents, 37 (65%) said short-termers work with them at least once a year. Many said that the frequency varies with fluctuations in both need and supply.
Responses ranged widely to the question of how useful short-termers are. I graded responses on a subjective scale of five (1: not useful at all; 2: marginally useful; 3: somewhat useful; 4; useful; 5: highly useful). The responses were skewed towards the useful side of the spectrum: 1: four responses (7%); 2: five responses (9%); 3: eleven responses (19%); 4: twenty-two responses (39%); 5: fifteen responses (26%). So 65% found short-terms useful or highly useful. Many respondents noted that usefulness depends a lot on the individual short-termer.
The range of activities that short-termers help with was quite amazing. Based on the responses, I formed 17 categories, but even those didn’t capture everything. The main tasks were English ministry (37), evangelism/making contacts (17), tracting (16), singing and music (16), practical support (15), children’s ministry (14), helping run special events (12), giving testimonies (10), praying (8), helping with building/painting projects (8), cooking (5), sports ministry (4), homestay ministry (4), preaching (4), youth ministry (2), special ministries (2), and strengthening ties with supporting church (1).
Almost all respondents believed that STMs are mutually beneficial (86%), although one thought they were not, four were ambivalent, and four thought they mainly benefited the short-termer. No one thought they mainly benefited the long-termer.
The advantages of using STM workers were many. They helped with specific needs (16), assisted in reaching people (14), were a source of new long-term workers (14), were an encouragement to the mission and local church (11), strengthened ties with home churches (11), and injected fresh energy and creativity (10).
However, there were downsides. By far the biggest was the extra effort and time they required (43). On top of that, there were problems due to ignorance of culture (14), lack of Japanese ability (12), poor attitude (8), and conflict (2).
Survey respondents were asked: “For those who have no intention of serving in full-time missions (i.e. their main intent is to lend a helping hand), do you feel the money they pay to participate in an STM trip would be better spent in supporting full-time missionaries?” Just over half (53%) said no, while 14% said yes. Of the remaining 33%, almost all said the answer depends on factors like the motivation of the short-termer, the kind of help they can give, and the short-term program.
Two big points
The survey reveals two noteworthy conclusions—STMs plays a significant role in missions in Japan and JEMA members generally view them quite positively.
The first point is shown by the facts that 81% of respondents had done at least one STM trip, spending 10.4 months on average, before embarking on long-term ministry and that 80% of respondents have received assistance from STM workers for their ministries (with at least 46% hosting them once a year or more).
The second point is conveyed by the facts that 81% of respondents said they thought that STMs had provided good preparation for long-term missions, 86% believed that STMs are mutually beneficial, 85% would unequivocally recommend doing an STM trip to someone contemplating full-term ministry, and 65% found STMs useful or highly useful for their ministry.
Also, there is near unanimous consensus that STMs take a lot of time and effort on the part of those hosting short-termers. Whatever else STMs are, they are not an easy way to get a helping hand with tasks.
Some keys to good STMs
The responses indicated several key points to running successful STM trips.
1. Selecting the right people
Many respondents noted that the quality of the short-termers can make or break an STM trip. Some said that careful screening of applicants is vital.
“It’s important that short-termers be screened well. Some are amazing and become like part of the family. Some are more work than they’re worth.”
“Improving the vetting process has helped produce better helpers.”
2. Good attitudes on both sides
It’s important for both sides to have right mindsets when it comes to STMs.
“Having a heart to serve is the key factor in fruitful short-term ministry.”
“So many young people come out expecting to ‘have fun’ or ‘see a new country’ rather than with a heart to serve.”
“It totally depends on the person and their attitude about serving.”
“I have looked on STMs as opportunities to minister to those taking part, helping them to be open to hearing God. There are multiple people working in Japan today as a result.”
“It’s less about how helpful [short-termers] are, but more about how helpful we are to them.”
3. Good preparation and debriefing
Another recurring theme was the importance of good preparation and debriefing.
“The preparation should be deliberate. This takes planning on both ends.”
“The preparation leading up to the actual short-term trip, including team building, personality inventories, and basic culture and/or language study can be a really valuable component of the short-term missions experience. Similarly, a well-thought-through, post-trip debriefing is needed to help the workers process their feelings, emotions, thoughts on the culture or [the] national church, etc.”
4. Strategic planning
Some respondents noted that it was important to tailor STMs in terms of people and tasks.
“I think STMs should be more focused and done more strategically.”
“Quite helpful if you know what you are looking for and you know the candidate well enough to fit an assignment.”
“If you don’t have a good plan and purpose for a team, [an STM team] is more of a distraction than a help.”
Worth the trouble if done well
When done well, STMs can be great experiences for both sides and can strengthen the work of God in Japan.
“My service was nothing compared to what I got out of it.”
“It’s definitely a lot of work but worth the time if the Lord is glorified!”
Simon Pleasants works as an editor in the Tokyo office of a scientific publishing company. Originally from Wales, UK, he moved to Australia in 1988. He helps maintain several Japanese-related websites, including Reaching Japanese for Christ: rjcnetwork.org