Short-Term Missions & Money

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This is the second installment on Missions & Money. In the first article we discussed long term missions and money. We showed how the bulk of the $13 billion in annual spending on cross-cultural long term missions (LTM) was largely spent on Western missionaries working in Christian lands. Only a small fraction of those funds were spent for work in unreached lands. We questioned how strategic this use of funds was in light of changing times. This current article examines the short-term missions (STM) movement in regard to funds spent in support of STM and the results of STM work in foreign lands and at home.

Just Cost-Benefit Analysis?

This topic should not be viewed simply as a cost-benefit analysis, although that is a legitimate concern. For example, a STM group went to Haiti at the cost of $1,500 per person to build a house for poor Haitians in a region that had 80% unemployment. Another STM group spent $30,000 in combined travel cost to build one $2,000 house there.1 An STM group spent $29,000 to repair a church roof and build a small clinic in Guatemala. They returned home with stories about how much they enjoyed their trip.(2)

The point is, individuals and organizations who give financially to mission endeavors do so with the expectation that good and lasting results will occur, in part, because of their financial involvement. They are accountable to God and people for the good use of those funds. STM workers are also accountable for the effect their funds have on a mission project. Mission agencies, churches, and individuals are also accountable for the strategic use of funds, and in ways that align well with the times.

What is STM?

Western mission is in a great state of flux these days. This century is known as the globalized period in mission. Christianity is now a world religion and its expressions are as diverse as the number of unique culture and linguistic groups there are in the world. The majority of Christians now live in Africa, Asia, Latin American and the Pacific. With this understanding as a backdrop, consider the emerging and difficult to explain phenomenon of short-term missions.

The STM movement does not appear to be a short-lived trend. Research indicates between 1996 and 2005 the average annual growth rate of people participating in STM was about 27%. This rate of growth caused STMs to increase by about 218% during this period. LTM only increased by about 7% during the same period.(2) According to a 2006 study, up to 1.6 million people per year from North America were going on short term mission trips.(3) The average length of a STM trip by that time was about 10-14 days long. What was the cost of these trips spent in the name of missions?

Chart: cost of short-term missions trips

Is STM Mission?

A number of missiologists and long term missionaries question whether STM is indeed “missions”. However, the critics’ biggest concern is that STM workers rush off to foreign lands with little to no cross-cultural training or effective planning to do good for others. The missiologist Robert Priest summarized the prevailing view among these critics saying “STM is a populist movement with minimal connection either to missiology or to seminary education.”(4)

Although STM is still a relatively new movement, it should not be discredited just because it is a grassroots movement. Status quo leaders (mostly clergy) at the time of William Cary (1761-1834), and later the massive student volunteer movement of the nineteenth century, dismissed these grassroots efforts as unofficial and unprofessional. They labeled it “parachurch”. The movement eventually launched the expansive twentieth-century Western missions era. Now the Gen X and Mosaic generations are generally by-passing traditional sending agencies. Clearly change is happening again, and early change is typically messy and somewhat chaotic. Additionally, it is premature to question STM practices in light of current mainstream mission “best practices” because some of these practices are no longer the best for these times, either.

What Do STM Workers Do?

The authors of one book define STM missions as “non-professional guest workers” carrying out activities in the four categories, 1. Evangelism, 2. Witnessing, 3. Discipleship, and 4. Helps.(5) The book describes numerous activities the authors say fall under these four areas. In other words, the sorts of activities found in STM literature (see table below) could fall into any one of the four categories, deemed as “missions.” What effects do these areas of activity have on mission?

Chart: what do short-term workers do?

One Website promotes “adventures” in missions. The trips are custom- designed for youth groups, High School groups, adults, college, and family. They even offer an around-the-world adventure doing missions. At this level, STM is marketed as a consumer product. Other consumer-oriented STM Websites abound. Some critics suggest this consumer notion is also what drives STM with churches.

Claims of Beneficial Impact

STM workers, churches, and STM agencies claim that a lot of good comes out of their trips. A survey of reports shows at least three categories for analyzing results, given in the table below.

Chart: claims of short-term missions trip beneifits

The third column in the Table above is empty. It’s not because STM workers can’t claim beneficial results for the people they served. It seems to be because they don’t really know what sorts of lasting affects their STM work contributed. They only know what happened during the short time they were there. Columns one and two tend to be areas of more tangible justifications intended for critics of STM. These sorts of results are mentioned more often in surveys and articles.

Survey Results

There are few quality research reports that validate these claims. One researcher re- ported there were only thirteen quality studies out of forty studies examined. All thirteen studies showed no noticeable beneficial change claimed in two significant mission categories; increased giving and long term going (column 2). Evaluation of the benefits to STM workers listed in column one showed no clear evidence that these changes had occurred, even in small numbers. Reports for column three were generally anecdotal.(6)

Based on this survey sampling, it appears for now that results given in columns one and two are not significant factors. If all three categories of beneficial impact claimed by STM cannot be confirmed quantitatively and qualitatively, then what is the benefit of the $3.44 billion annually spent on STM?

Some people claim that most STM funding comes from family, friends and churches who might not otherwise give to missions. Even so, considering that the funds are given in the name of missions, usually as a tax-deductible gift, the givers are still accountable. They are accountable for good results to church missions, to the people the STM effort serves, and even to the US or Canadian government (charitable tax deductions come with stated expectations).

The Big Shift

The most significant shift in STM is from doing traditional mission activities, such as evangelism, discipleship training, and church planting to relief and development work. The previous period of Evangelical mission focused primarily on proclamation and transmission of Scripture knowledge, with less emphasis on addressing physical and social needs.

Now the pendulum is swinging with STM, perhaps too widely, to the latter and away from the former. That means measuring beneficial impact in relief and development work will be required to justify the expenditure. It also means holistic strategies will need to be examined in terms of how it actually assists local people to lift themselves out of various sorts of impoverishments.

Six Ways for STM to be More Effective

Based on research, STM seems to be more about personal spiritual growth and discipleship learning for the volunteer, and perhaps less so for Great Commission mission.

We offer six ways that STM can achieve greater impact and practice accountability for what STM says it does in the name of mission. These may not sound glamorous to young volunteers compared to a trip to Uganda, for example. However, if beneficial change is the goal, then STM workers can produce greater and longer lasting effects serving in these areas.

1. Reach the Unreached at Home: Recent migrants from the last-reached people groups are living in your neighborhoods. The results of STM mission efforts here at home will spread to their extended families still living in these un-reached places in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. See the book, Strangers Next Door.

2. Equip Students and Guest Workers: Students and professionals studying and working in the US can be equipped to return to their home countries to carry-out effective home missions there.

3. Advocate for People on the Margins: Generate long-term support through social advocacy and social media. VOM.

4. Develop Partnership Alliances: Independence is not a virtue in the global era of missions. Greater impact can happen when STM agencies collaborate with other like-minded agencies.

5. Be Global Missions Smart: If STM wants to participate in foreign missions, be more intentional about serving a national church or mission organization with the goal of furthering that organization’s goals and abilities. Long-term relationships with these nationals would generate lasting results.

6. Learn Effective Development Principles: If you want your time and money to count, then learn how to help without hurting. How would you apply what you bring in a way that enables the people you serve to lift themselves from im- poverishments that plague them? See the book, When Helping Hurts.


1 Dave Stravers. 2012. Measuring What Matters. Mission India, p. 43.


3 Text of Missions, Inc. In (Ed.) Robert J. Priest. Effective Engagement in Short‐term Missions: Doing it Right. William Cary Library.

4 Robert J. Priest, et. al. 2006. Re‐ searching the Short‐Term Mission Movement. Missiology: An International Review, Vol.XXXIV, no. 4 October.

5 Robert J. Priest. In (Ed.) Robert J. Priest. 2008. p. V.

6 Roger Peterson, et. al. 2003. Maximum Impact in Short‐Term Missions. STEMPress.

Researched & Written by Gilles Gravelle, PhD. Copyright 2012

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One response on “Short-Term Missions & Money

  1. Joyce Choy

    I am Joyce Choy, 40 years old, Chinese Malaysian. I am new Christian being baptised in November 2015. I have just resigned from my job because of my few recent encounters with God where dreams and visions unfolded during mission trips in August 2016 to Myanmar and March 2017 to Manila with Pastor Bill Wilson.

    I was baptised in 22/11/2015. One of my plan was to go for mission trip one day. Before I even decided to go, I rejected an invitation to go for mission trip preparation course because I had a plan to go for my own leisure trip. Then I had a dream that shown me my friend who will be going with me to leisure trip ran away from me. The next coming days, my leisure trip was cancelled by my friend.

    Then I realised, maybe God wanted me to go for mission trip preparation course. So I obeyed and signed up. God failed my 1st choice Nepal and guided me to Myanmar which was my 2nd choice. Only after I went to Myanmar I saw the place and a girl I used to dream. It was because of me signing up to go to Myanmar, a friend I know through Myanmar mission trip invited me to Pastor Bill Wilson talk where I signed up for Manila mission trip. But with no guarantee that I can go. The good news came later after 3 months and I was being chosen to go to Manila without paying anything but my own flight ticket.

    On 28th Feb, I departed from Malaysia and I had a bad feeling 1 night before flying. To cut the story short, God has saved us from taking off because of 1 engine failure. I only knew it when a lady from Malaysia, her friend is a pilot, told her we were lucky as pilot decided to abandoned the take-off and later found out about left engine failure. If not the plane would have been crashed if the pilot took off on 28th Feb.

    When I was in Manila, again I saw a place I used to dream. Then I cried. It must have been God. Before I know Christ, I wanted to go to the slums in Manila but I did not have chance to go although I waited for few years. I have encountered of seeing places I never been in dream until I touched foot and being there then a vision will recall back my dream. I know God is the planner.

    As a new Christian, I have very little knowledge about God’s words in Bible. I have very little understanding about God’s words. All I have are those supernatural encounters of dreams come true. I know I have to take action then only I can see more what’s God will do.

    As those dreams and visions that I have that came to pass really mean something important to me and I want to be able to understand God’s plan for my life.

    I have a question to ask as there are so many people around the world going for discipleship training or mission either short or long term, how many of them are truly the one that God has called or anyone who has the heart to go for it then they can go? Could you help me to understand this? Why the current discipleship or mission training required lots of money unlike how Jesus called His disciples?

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