When COVID-19 came, short-term missions was put on hold, along with many other activities. The pandemic has forced the whole world to consider what is “essential” and what is not. While we have to take this pause it is fitting to consider how we approach short-term missions as well. As you wait to re-start your short-term trips, consider these 4 basic truths that might just change the future of how you do missions.
- Short-Term Missions are Not as Glorious as They Seem
It is better to be humble and surprised than over-confident and surprised. As I research for my dissertation on short-term missions, I encounter interesting trends. Quantitative research shows severe issues in finances, cross cultural communication, and general field benefit of short-term trips but training program for short-term mission participants tend to assume these are unlikely, if they acknowledge them at all. Stories about ruining local economies with the flood of free stuff that teams bring, establishing the authority of a local heretic by hosting a conference at his church, or tearing down a building the last mission team put up the week prior abound, but we assume that we would not do something like that. Should we be so sure?
Books like When Helping Hurts, Toxic Charity, and Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions are growing in popularity, but they mostly treat financial dependency. There are more issues to deal with, and it all starts with admitting that they exist. Humility is better than denial. I am no stranger to mistakes, but I do know that if I avoid admitting them, I continue to make them. Your trip does not have to be a mess, but it is helpful knowing that it could be. This knowledge keeps us humble and learning.
- Love Does not Serve Itself
We should do all things in love, especially our mission trip. Love is an outward action. When we love we consider the good of the other and not of our-selves. My short-term trip should be to help the mission field and not to serve myself. This idea seems pretty basic, but in the world of short-term missions it is not always that easy. I cannot tell you how many people are ok with saying “go on a trip for what you can get out of it.” The possible personal benefits of going on a trip abound, but they should not be our motivation, or we will start the whole endeavor in a selfish mindset, and that always has negative side-effects.
Spiritual benefits like re-igniting a stale walk with the Lord, expanding personal cultural perspectives, or growing in gratefulness might or might not result from a short-term trip, but they are all kind of self-focused, aren’t they? Mission trips should seek to serve the field, or they cease to be missions. If this self-focus goes unchecked, a trip can degrade to some kind of “poverty tourism” that uses a glimpse into the life of the underprivileged to help one feel better about his own circumstances. Do not walk that road. Personal growth and perspective are great, but in love we should make them secondary. Our first goal should be the glory of God and benefit for the field. If selfless service to the field is our first objective, then the secondary personal growth is sure to happen. If the mission is secondary, we are likely to miss out on both of our goals.
- Not Everything is Missions
Missiologists lament that missions, “has become any Christian volunteering to be sent anywhere in the world at any expense to do anything for any period of time.” Does this sound like your mission trip? I hope not. By its name, “short-term missions” intends to fulfill some sort of mission. What mission are you intending to accomplish? If you are reading this blog, then it is likely that you agree with a Great Commission priority from the command Jesus gave his disciples after His resurrection. Does that priority drive your mission trip?
Matthew 28 describes the mission as going to all nations and making disciples by baptizing them, and teaching them to observe all that Christ has commanded. Christ commanded a lot, and our short-term trips are limited in what they can accomplish. We know that people need to believe before we baptize them, and they cannot believe until they have heard the gospel. Of course, they cannot hear the gospel when we are speaking a different language — even if we communicate in their language it does not mean they will believe it the first time it is preached, or the thirtieth. If they do believe it, then we are directed to teach them all Christ commanded. We should at least teach them what Christians do, what a church is, and who leads it, right? But then they will need to be taught how to lead a church. After that they will need to be taught to start new churches all around the world and train people there to do the same thing, because that is also part of what Jesus commanded. That does not sound like a quick endeavor. At this point we only have two options: de-prioritize the Great Commission in our short-term missions or accept the next point.
- Missions is Never Short-Term
When short-term missions stopped, missions did not. We must remember that short-term trips are not the center of missions. Missions endured for over 1,900 years without short-term trips, and from my vantage on the mission field, this pandemic still has not stopped it. Truly, our mission is big and complex and requires time if we want to be faithful to Matthew 28:19-20. Short-term trips have never had that time, even before they all got cancelled. Our trips, when functioning at their best, have always been a help to long-term work. It is a limitation inherent in what they are. Long-term missionaries and local workers are in the slow game that missions require and are still in the fields laboring, even now, when the world is shut down. Always make it your plan to help long-term missionaries and local workers with your short-term trips, and when your trips can not happen, help them in another way. I know missionaries who are leaving the field for lack of funding, and laborers that are just barely hanging on. Maybe the money you allotted for plane tickets in 2020 could be put to good use by missionaries and local workers that are already on the field. If there is a thought creeping up in the back of your mind saying “No, I want to be the one who goes,” then ask yourself if the love discussed in point 2 above is motivating you. If your goal is what is best for the field, perhaps you should consider if God is calling you to the field for the long-haul. In all things remember that missions is not about us. We are in this work for the glory of God and the good of mankind, not what experiences we can get out of it.
While one blog post does not have space to consider all things related and pertinent to this discussion, I pray that these thoughts would help you consider the many aspects of your future trips. The way you deal with crossing culture, handling money, deciding who participates, evaluating long-term partnerships, and all the other plethora of short-term missions considerations should be seasoned with the truths above, and if it is, you might just find your future short-term mission engagement to be transformed – in a good way.
 David Hesselgrave. Paradigms in Conflict: 10 Key Questions in Christian Missions Today (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publishing, 2005), 205.