I recently conducted a survey of the overseas mission activities of CRCA churches. An interesting and encouraging fact that jumped out at me was that around 33% of the churches surveyed sent out a short-term mission team during the previous five years. This result is particularly striking when you consider that international travel was not possible for much of the period in question. I suspect that this trend is mirrored in other denominations and churches. We can, furthermore, expect many more mission teams to be sent out now that it is once again possible to do so. It is, considering this, important that we think clearly about this form of ministry so that these efforts of local churches will be a blessing, rather than a hindrance.
About ten years ago, several people representing people from across the CRCA and RCNZ involved in short term mission (both on the sending and receiving end) met for a ‘Short Term Mission Summit’. The result of this meeting was a ‘Short Term Mission Code of Practice’. The survey results that showed term mission is alive and well in our circles indicate that it may be a good time to revisit these discussions. Many of the items that we agreed on will be discussed and explained below.
Let me put my cards on the table by stating that I believe that well organised short-term mission trips can have certain very definite benefits that may include the following:
Useful ministry ‘on the ground’. Short term mission teams can provide valuable assistance to the local church and long-term missionaries. This may include assistance in areas where teams can undertake tasks that locals would find difficult on their own (e.g., ‘covering’ an entire suburb with literature distribution) or where teams can contribute specialised skills or knowledge. Short term missions can sometimes also be one of the only ways to do Christian ministry in certain restricted access situations.
Providing a living link to the worldwide church. The composition of the global church is changing rapidly with the ‘centre of gravity’ of Christianity moving from traditional heartlands to places like Africa and Southeast Asia. Short term mission can help believers (on both the receiving and sending end) to experience something of the interconnected and worldwide nature of the body of Christ. It can also embody an expression of the care and love that believers are called upon to show to one another even across ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and national boundaries.
Short term missions can have a very positive impact on the lives of participants. Short term trips are often experienced as faith shaping and building times by participants. Having to live out our faith in circumstances that we are not used to, and observing the lives of other believers and how they cope with the challenges of following Christ, cannot but ‘stretch’ us. It is therefore not surprising to note that God has used short term missions as a first step on the way to permanent cross- cultural service for many missionaries around the world.
Short term missions can broaden the vision and ministry of the sending church. Mission trips give local churches the opportunity to be actively involved in the building of God’s Kingdom beyond their local areas. This involvement can release new energy and enthusiasm for the work of mission among churches both ‘over there’ and in their own backyards.
It should be noted that the positive outcomes mentioned above will certainly not happen automatically. Not all short-term trips are created equal and short-term trips can in some cases lead to problems or be of questionable value. Some of the issues that may arise from badly planned and executed mission trips may include the following.
- Lack of consultation with the receiving church and/or long-term missionaries may lead to short term trips being a burden rather than a help on the ‘receiving end’. This is because the hosting of a team may place significant demands on local believers. Participants, furthermore, rarely have time to immerse themselves in the language or the culture of the areas they visit, and their ministry emphases may therefore be inappropriate (if not discussed with local believers beforehand).
- Short-term trips can sometimes be very expensive; and legitimate questions will sometimes have to be asked on whether the money could not be better spent on local ministry initiatives.
- I referred above to the positive impact that short-term missions can have on participants but sometimes the opposite may happen, especially if the trip is not well planned and led. An example of this is where participants are exposed to issues and challenges without being provided with an adequate emotional, spiritual, and theological framework through which to process the experience.
It should be clear from the above that we should work very hard to launch mission trips where the problems listed above can be avoided. I would like to suggest observing the following guidelines to ensure that our short-term missions steer towards the positives and avoids the negatives:
Always plan trips in consultation with the local church and/or long-term missionaries. We need to be sure that mission trips will be useful in the local context. Ensuring that believers ‘on the ground’ have a vital role in planning the short-term mission will avoid trips that are unwanted, inappropriate or may be an unnecessary burden on local believers.
Appoint experienced leaders. As in so many other areas of life and ministry leadership is crucial for the success of short-term mission. Leaders should be sound in life and doctrine and should preferably have solid experience in ministering in the host culture. They should also be able to manage team dynamics and to provide pastoral care for team members.
Identify and plan for desired outcomes. As the saying goes, ‘Those who aim at nothing hit it every time!’ The planning process should clearly identify the purposes behind the trip and include some thinking on how these outcomes may be achieved. This process should include both what the team would like to see happen ‘on the field’ and in the lives of the participants. There are obviously some things that we cannot plan for (e.g., spiritual growth) but we can at least make sure that favourable conditions for growth and faith formation exist.
Maintain careful stewardship of God’s resources. Questions will obviously have to be asked on whether the trip is ‘worth’ the resources that will have to be expended to make it happen. This may be a hard call to make, and it would be worthwhile to consult local believers and experienced missionaries on this matter. If the decision is made to go ahead, it goes without saying that careful shepherding of monetary and other resources will be of the utmost importance throughout the process.
Ensure that the mission trip will help rather than harm the local church. Some mission trips may create dependency or unhealthy attitudes (e.g., through doing for local believers what they can and should do for themselves). Hard questions will therefore have to be asked on whether the trip will contribute to the establishment of self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating churches. Local church leaders and/or long-term missionaries could once-again be of immense value in helping to answer questions in this regard and in the design of mission trips that make a significant contribution to the health of the local church in the host area.
See the mission trip as a process rather than as an event. As indicated above, short-term missions can provide significant opportunities for growth, service, and Christian fellowship across cultures. These aims are more likely to be achieved if participants and churches are willing to invest significant time on either side of the actual trip. This would create space for adequate training (hopefully including people from the ‘host culture’) on the biblical theology of mission, ministry in the host culture and the knowledge and practical skills required for the trip. Time should be spent after the trip to make sure that participants are adequately debriefed and to nurture the spiritual growth and commitments to service that may have resulted from the trip. There should also be continual investment in the relationship with the host church and/or long-term missionary in the period between mission trips. Short term mission should not take the place of the long-term commitment required from some missionaries but, if done well, they can form a valuable part of the larger mission landscape. I offer the suggestions above as a means to help achieve this goal and with the prayer that God will use our efforts for His glory as the gospel goes to the nations.