By Bill Weber
I don’t usually expect a class on spiritual formation with seminary students to end up with a critique of short-term missions. However, a recent discussion on the call to ministry produced an unusually delightful and animated conversation about this growing practice.
At first it seemed I was the only one in the room who was unreservedly not committed to short-term missions. After all, don’t the benefits for so many individual Christians in missions outweigh the concerns?
We discussed positive and negative aspects of short-term volunteers, and as the conversation moved along, a most interesting thing happened. One student said, “Wait a minute. We have international students here in class. What do they think?” What followed was beautiful. In a kind, straightforward way they shared from personal experience three of the main concerns with the short-term missions movement.
A student from Africa observed that the short-term people seem just to want to have fun. No one in the class disagreed. We had all heard many young people, both high school and college students, report on their trips when the word fun seemed central in their stories. A short-term trip does not need to be drudgery. On the other hand, the report should not give the impression “this was the best international vacation I ever had.”
Perhaps the emphasis on fun in these reports is related to the way we promote short-term missions. Recently a letter soliciting support for a short-term mission trip came across my desk. Since the request, in addition to some ministry activities, involved helping this student see some really spectacular tourist sites, I can only wonder if others receiving this same letter felt the disappointment I did.
A mission board on which I serve received a request from a new church plant that is part of our mission. They asked us not to allow further visits by short-term groups. The church has hosted numerous teams, and there is just no productive work for them to do. It is offensive to national church leaders, church members, and missionaries when they feel their home is used as a bed and breakfast and they are obligated to serve as tour guides.
There are sincere Christians who are motivated by their faith, altruistic values, and by the conviction that they can make a difference through participation in a short-term mission trip. However, organizers of trips need to be more discerning in setting objectives, planning, and selecting participants.
What Do We Know About Them?
A Latin American student spoke clearly about short-term workers. “They don’t understand our culture. They don’t understand the church in our culture. And they don’t seem interested in learning about the church in our culture.” This cut pretty deep.
One problem with short-term missions is the impossibility of understanding a culture in a short period of time. Cultural insults are legendary in short-term missions. Most well-intentioned short-term volunteers don’t intend to show a blatant disregard for manners and customs, but unless you have lived in a culture for an extended period of time, it is likely to happen.
There is no excuse for not preparing a team as well as possible for the cultural differences they will encounter. Simple things such as greetings, dressing appropriately, eating every food that is served, and being respectful of worship customs can be anticipated. Participants can be prepared to behave appropriately.
Unfortunately, many short-term workers show up repeatedly on mission fields where the offensive blunders of Americans are no longer shocking; the hosts just recognize that this is the way Americans are. It is sad those we are going to serve have adjusted to our cultural norms rather than the short-term workers accepting and participating in their way of life.
How Do We Feel About Them?
Another student from Africa observed, “We didn’t know we should be pitied until they came and had pity on us. Yes, we are poor by American standards. We don’t have cars; we walk. But everybody walks. We don’t expect to have a car.”
Americans assume the goods and services they enjoy are part of a quality of life everyone wants. Although there is an element of truth in that, we should not impose our cultural values on others, particularly values related to material possessions. Many cultures value relationships over possessions and do not understand the American preoccupation with having and owning things.
It is all too easy to unconsciously communicate that our wealth, education, possessions, and experiences somehow make us superior to those who are hosting us. We would never express it in words and would be appalled anyone would think it of us. However, actions speak louder than words—the way we position ourselves, our attitudes, the way we talk, even the way we look at things can communicate a sense of superiority.
Although the immediate reaction of these three students was to point out something negative, they all acknowledged the good accomplished through some of these efforts. Teams accomplish a great deal when they work as a construction crew. Significant teaching can take place when the instructor knows the material to be taught and can contextualize it to the host culture. Medical and dental teams provide professional care that may not be available in any other way. Naturally, one of the greatest factors is the financial blessing of these trips: Americans are wealthy and can be very generous.
Although it is impossible to measure the number of participants on short-term mission trips, one study estimates at least 1 million people participate annually.1 Robert Wuthnow, sociologist at Princeton University, conducted a survey and puts the number at 1.6 million.2
Over the past few decades, short-term missions has been established as a part of the world Christian movement. This is possibly one of the most significant developments of the last two centuries of modern missions. Although the relative value, the positive results, and the problems associated with these short-term activities are still debated, there is no longer a discussion about whether or not short-term trips will continue. They are a fact of life for contemporary missions.
Established mission organizations and individual missionaries organize and participate in short-term mission efforts. However, the greatest growth has come from individual congregations organizing mission trips, some of them doing numerous trips in any given year. Because of the way cross-cultural and international missions are organized, nearly anyone who chooses to do so can organize a short-term mission trip and find individuals willing to participate.
Back to my class of seminary students. Toward the end of the discussion someone asked, “So are you opposed to short-term mission trips?” Good question. The answer of course is easy. Short-term workers contribute significant resources, both human and financial, to the work of the Great Commission. They should continue. However, greater attention must be paid to the quality of these efforts.
We must be concerned about kingdom impact. Every trip should be evaluated by what it contributes to the worldwide expansion of the church. It is unacceptable to organize these trips and be primarily concerned about the impact they have on the participants. They can become motivated for missions in ways that don’t negatively impact the national church that hosts them. After all, how many life-changing experiences does a young person need through short-term adventures?
Short-term missions are an established part of the world Christian movement. As stewards of the gospel and the resources of the church, we need to do short-term missions well.
1Roger Peterson, Gordon Aeschliman, and R. Wayne Sneed, Maximum Impact Short-Term Mission (Minneapolis: STEMPress, 2003), 255.
2Robert J. Priest, Terry Dischinger, Steven Rasmussen, and C.M. Brown, “Researching the Short-Term Mission Movement,” in Missiology: An International Review, XXXIV (2006), 432.
Bill Weber is a professor at Cincinnati Christian University.
Before You Plan a Short-Term Mission Trip
• First, make sure you consider the impact any short-term trip will have on the national church.
What does this mean for missionaries who will be affected by this trip? What does it mean for national church leaders? Do they want this trip to happen just because it gives them access to wealthy Americans?
• Second, set meaningful, attainable goals.
Some trip organizers may advertise that participants will be engaged in friendship evangelism—in 10 days in a culture they have never encountered whose language they don’t know. You would have to craft new definitions of both friendship and evangelism to make that promise come true. However, there are meaningful things that can be accomplished through short-term efforts, and appropriate goals should be set in cooperation with national church leaders.
• Third, be selective.
Not everyone should participate in a short-term mission trip. Careful thought should go into the methods used to recruit participants, and potential participants should seriously evaluate why they desire to be a part of the short-term trip.