Are our short-term “missions” trips really helping the cause of missions?
By “missions,” I mean the process of Christians from reached people groups sharing the gospel with unreached people groups (UPG), implying that languages must be learned and cultures must be understood. Language acquisition and cultural understanding take years, perhaps even decades — not days.
This definition implies at the outset that missions is most effectively carried out by long-term missionaries.
By “short-term missions (STM) trip,” I mean a visit to a foreign country for the sake of missions, typically lasting no more than two or three weeks. I use that definition not because it’s sensible but because it’s been the description shared most widely in the church since the late 20th century. By the definition of missions above, though, “short-term” missions doesn’t actually exist — languages cannot be learned and cultures cannot be understood in a three-week visit. This does not necessarily mean that such short-term trips can’t support the cause of missions. The question is what role short-term trips can play in the church’s long-term goals among the nations?
Scripture is the first place we should look for insight on how to think about ministry models, especially when the stakes are as high as they are. We’re talking about thousands of trips, billions of dollars, and untold number of unreached souls.
The Long-Term Ministry of Encouragement
Philippians 2:25, 29–30:
I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need … So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.
The epistle to the Philippians includes a message of gratitude from a missionary (Paul) to one of his supporting churches for the supplies they sent via Epaphroditus, who is a great model for short-term work. Epaphroditus served the church and the cause of missions by being a messenger of the church’s love for Paul, and by being a minister to his emotional and physical needs (Philippians 2:25). His “short-term” efforts advanced the cause of missions by supporting the most effective means of missions — long-term missionaries.
There are several things we can learn by looking to Epaphroditus.
His team was really small. We probably shouldn’t travel alone, but does a team of ten or twenty or more make sense? Let’s think inside the box: would you find it refreshing to host ten or twenty people in your home for a week or so? How, then, might it be for a missionary far away from their homeland with far fewer resources?
Epaphroditus didn’t go to use his trade or to do work outside his field (for instance, putting a roof on an orphanage, whether or not he had expertise in roofing).
He didn’t bring along his school-age children so that they could have a great experience. A child that’s too young can only exhaust more resources than they can contribute to the work.
He brought the “church” to Paul. Christians back home have access to fellowship all the time. They get recharged at weekly worship services and small group gatherings. Missionaries, by definition, do not have the same kind of access to other believers.
Testimonies of missionaries declare and personal experience confirms that Epaphroditus-type visitors can refresh and encourage discouraged long-termers who were almost ready to pack it up.
The Long-Term Ministry of Education
Though the goal of missions has not changed since the first century, the strategies have. Vocations, industries, and services have progressed and developed over the years.
Consider your own vocation or business. Have you ever had a team of 10–20 people come to your work place to help you do your job for a week? Perhaps some of you can think of a rare exception. But suppose that the team doesn’t speak the language of your colleagues or customers. Suppose they’re not from North America and know nothing of the culture. How helpful would that team be to you?
If such a visiting team of workers is not typical in vocations or industries in the United States, should we assume it would be helpful for missionaries?
More effective than doing the work for a couple weeks, short-term teams can minister by providing continuing vocational education (CVE). Many professions have seminars, conferences, or meetings where those in the particular field can learn from others in the same field. Most missionaries do not have geographic or financial access to this kind of targeted teaching. Because of the lack of expertise and resources in many missions settings, CVE trips can be beneficial even if the instructors are not industry experts — they simply have to be trained enough themselves to train others.
And this kind of vocational training is not necessarily limited to paid employment. For instance, there are conferences in the US to support parents who home-school their children. How encouraging do you suppose a visit by two Epaphroditus-type volunteers with expertise in education or academic assessment would be to a mom who home-schools her children out in the middle of the Sahara desert? If that focused, thoughtful visit leads to just one more year on the field, it could be worth far more than 52 one-week STMs for the cause of missions (and, by the way, a far more effective and efficient use of resources).
Missions is the process of reaching unreached peoples with the Gospel, which requires intense language-learning, cultural study, and relationship-building. Short-term missions, therefore, does not exist. All of our missions — however long we’re physically in the country — is long-term missions. Church resources should be invested in short-term trips as a way of supporting missionaries, not as a separate missions strategy.
One way to support missionaries is to send Epaphroditus-type ministers (EPM) to love and encourage them. Another is to supply specific ongoing vocational education for their areas of ministry at home and in the community (CVE).
Certainly, there are other ways to support missionaries with visitors, but instead of trying to develop some novel plan, let’s think “inside the box” and consider what works well in our own home, neighborhood, and workplace. Perhaps what’s most important to remember is that unlike vacations, which are planned for the sake of the travelers, these visits ought to be made not for the sake of the visitors, but for the sake of our precious missionaries.
Let’s work together to take the “short” out of short-term missions.