A Better Way to View This Modern Movement
People who study mission strategies are annoyed by it. Mission agencies that pride themselves on professionalism see it as amateur hour. Many stewardship-minded donors see it as wasteful. Relatives feel obligated to support it. Yet, evangelical churches now widely embrace it. Indeed, it has become a rite of passage for their youth groups, and older believers’ lives have been enriched by it. It’s called short-term missions and it seems it’s here to stay.
The Short-Termers Movement
Short-term missions (STM) is a relatively new phenomenon. It began in the 1980s and grew popular in the 1990s. Some say it began in the 1950’s with the start of Youth With A mission and Operation Mobilization. There are several reasons given for going on a STM trip.
- Explore missions for a possible long-term commitment
- Introduce missions to church youth who may want to become long-term missionaries
- Increase church missions giving by bringing back reports from the field
- Get to know and encourage the church’s missionaries
- Participate in vision trips to inspire ways to get involved in missions
- Help people better their lives by building houses and drilling wells
The thing about this incomplete list is that these reasons for doing STM has yet to produced what it said it would, at least not in significant ways. Certainly, there are anecdotes about how these goals were indeed realized. However, research has yet to validate claims that these desired outcomes have benefited missions or churches on a significant scale. It is questionable how lasting the benefits have been for individuals who went on STM trips. For many it was a memorable experience, but so is a trip to the Grand Canyon.
The estimated annual cost of STM is $3.44 billion. These trips are largely to places that have significant Christian populations. The annual amount spent on getting the Gospel to people and cultures who have yet to hear it, let alone know any Christians, is $250 million. It’s no wonder Great Commission and stewardship-minded people see it as waste and imbalance.
In the Name of Missions
The debate over STM stems from use of the word “missions.” Missions in the modern era has been about sending people for long-term service to foreign lands to preach the gospel and make disciples. Yet ironically, the early modern mission movement was largely started by grassroots unprofessional volunteers who felt called to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth. In fact, the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions resulted in 20,500 college students becoming missionaries. Like STMers, they were not by-in-large seminary-trained missionaries and clergy.
Now grassroots missions of earlier times has been replaced with professionals, and they question how STM could be considered missions. It’s a fair question, given the difference in commitment, strategies and outcomes. A Barna Research survey asked pastors to prioritize their church’s missions involvement. Supporting long-term missions was number 1. Educating the congregation on global missions was number 2. Third was organizing STM trips. Numbers 4-9 described other activities like individual involvement in church-related activities, prayer for missions, advocating for social justice, and STM trips with charities outside of the church. Apparently, missions has become a catch-all term for any sort of activity done as part of a church or a charity.
Returning to What Mission Is
Church missions was defined by Jesus, as reported in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus told his followers to preach the Gospel to the whole world, make disciples of all nations, and then the end will come. (24:14 and 28:19-20). Of course, Jesus also said a lot about compassion, forgiveness, justice, generosity, and service. This is how all believers are supposed to live as they imitate Christ. But based on Barna’s 2018 study, it seems missions has become whatever people want to define it as. The study reveals that nearly half of church goers didn’t know what the Great Commission is (see Mat. 24:14).
Has STM contributed to the watering down of Jesus’ definition of missions? Has social justice confused a mission calling that is moving toward finality with normal Christian living? Many (most?) pastors and churchgoers are unaware just how far Jesus’ command has progressed in the world.
Depending on definitions, there are 17,442 unique cultures/peoples (nations) speaking 7,360 languages in the world. Only 100 of the cultural groups have yet to be touched by the gospel. About 3,200 languages have no Scriptures. That doesn’t mean those people are not accessing the Bible in other languages, such as a national language Bible. This is what the global church has accomplished in 1,990 years of missions. How many disciples and how much of the Bible is necessarily for every culture and language makes it impossible to determine when the end will come.
Let’s also be clear on who has and is largely finishing the missions task. It’s not so much the West anymore. Mostly, it’s national workers in their own countries. They have the skills, determination, and dedication to bring the Gospel to the hardest to reach places. They take risks and suffer persecution, and they produce some impressive results. They do all of this at a much lower cost than sending a Western missionary.
The point is, this is missions. It focuses on Jesus’ command with designed strategies and intentionality to keep moving forward until Jesus declares the work complete. This definition does not diminish the importance of social justice, service, or vision trips. But when these things are labeled as church (Ecclesia) missions, it undermines the larger task at hand. This is probably why $3.44 billion is spent on STM and only $250 million on finishing the work Jesus called his church to do. People forget we are living in a timeline, moving toward finality in missions with a task that remains to be completed. Many people die daily without ever having a chance to hear the gospel, let alone be aware of it.
If short-term missions wants to keep the word “mission” in its name, then it has to focus more on Great Commission activities. A two-week trip could aid the process if activities contribute to that end in small ways. However, doing that would lose most of the reasons why people like STM. It is doubtful that most people would be willing to let those things go. I am not advocating for that either. But if the church is to recover and re-energize what missions is supposed to be in the 21st century, it would help a lot if they stopped calling short-term trips as missions, per se. It may sadden people if they were told their efforts in building churches for Christians in Uganda hasn’t really helped advance mission all that much. But prolonging the belief that it is church missions as Jesus described it doesn’t help them in knowing the times and progress being made towards Jesus’ return.
Why Not Call It Short Term Compassion Trips?
STM is about compassion, justice, service, generosity, education, encouragement, and many other things. In other words, it is what all believers are supposed to do as their reasonable service (Romans 12:1). So, let’s come up with a name that more accurately captures what STM is. It is showing compassion and concern for our neighbor on an Indian reservation, to the poor in our cities or around the world. It is about love in action. That is living out God’s kingdom among people. So why not call it “Short-term compassion trips” where people take time out of their normal life to focus on the needs of others in this country or other countries?
Some Ways to Rethink Global Mission and Compassion Ministries, i.e., STM
- Spend More on Great Commission Missions. Get serious about finishing the task by redirecting more mission support to where it will make the biggest difference.
- Educate churchgoers on global missions today. The bulk of missions is being carried out by Indians in India, Asians in Asia, and Africans in Africa.
- Help churchgoers understand the difference between compassion ministry and Great Commission missions.
- Focus more compassion ministry in our own urban centers. They are multicultural zones with many recent migrants.
- Don’t stop supporting foreign missions work in favor of only reaching our neighbor next door. While that is important, it won’t provide people in unreached lands a chance to hear the gospel for the first time ever.
About the Author
Gilles Gravelle is the Executive Director of Moving Missions.
© Moving Missions 2022