REIMAGINING SHORT-TERM MISSIONS / 1

My life has been greatly impacted because of Short-Term Missions. I’ve had great experiences, horrible ones, and everything in between but God used those experiences to eventually call me into full-time missionary service. Many missionaries have a similar story. The problem is, Short-Term Missions is not all rainbows and unicorns. 

It is no secret that Short-Term Missions has a complicated reputation. Some see it as the be-all, end-all of the church’s mission program and others think of it as a waste of money at best. The reality is, no matter what you think of Short-Term Missions (STM), it doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. Nearly 1.5 million Americans will participate in some sort of STM endeavor this year. 

So what do we do with these trips? Do we send more? Do we cancel them? Do we take the money we would have spent on our trip and send it to missionaries? Are there more than just extremes when discussing STM? What if we could look at a few significant shifts making STM more effective and possibly even life changing for people all over the world and for the participants themselves? 

Over the next several blog posts, we will hear from missionaries, trip participants, and mission leaders from their perspective about what kinds of shifts are needed to make STM more meaningful and impactful. In the near future, Envision will be releasing an E-Book to summarize our findings called “Re-imagining Short-Term Missions” with the hope of helping churches and individuals be more thoughtful and strategic before signing up for a trip or sending a group around the world. 

As the Director of Envision, I’m in an interesting seat. I lead an organization that specializes in Short-Term Missions and Internships but as I look around the world I’m concerned about what kind of impact we’re actually leaving in the places where we minister. As part of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, we see nearly 12,000 people per year participate in STM. I sometimes wonder if all of those people should be taking trips. Would the money be better spent elsewhere? But, I’m also struck by the very real, life-changing perspective and experiences that results from groups (high-schoolers to retirees) leave their context and contribute to the world-wide expansion of Jesus’ church.

We can’t fix everything overnight, and even if we read very insightful books like “When Helping Hurts”, we can be paralyzed by the potential harm that is created from dumping money into developing country without a long-term plan or what happens when a group of teenagers shows up without much training to “save the day.” 

So, let me offer this simple suggestion of starting with posture. If we can move from a posture of expertise, over-confidence, and a “savior mentality" to a place of humility, openness, and grace, we will make great progress. This may look like asking the missionaries on the ground what is actually best and most meaningful rather than looking for projects that “get us excited.” It might mean sending 15 people instead of 30 because the context demands it and using the rest of that money to fund sustainable leadership development for locals. It could mean re-thinking our strategies and our training which feel very effective but could be actually only helping us and not the people we’re serving.

Frankly, maybe we need to send less people on mission trips. Yes, I realize that’s a big part of what Envision does. But, if we were to send a few less people but it resulted in better prepared, more strategic trips, the end result will be a huge benefit for those on the ground and for those going. Don’t get me wrong, I want you to consider a trip and I’d love to get more people involved, but we need to do this for the right reasons.  

This may sound easy, but it’s not. So much of our STM motivation comes from giving our people a good experience and helping them grow our own church. That’s not actually all wrong but it needs to be a byproduct of humble service rather than the end goal. If we put the cart before the horse, we all lose. But, if we move in humility, carefully identifying where to go, how to be trained, and how to serve, we’ll see results that will last into eternity. 

I’m hopeful that this series of blog posts will get us thinking about the way we see Short-Term Missions in our churches and youth groups. If we resolve to be more thoughtful about how we’re approaching STM, I believe we can harness the right energy and gifting to further the cause of Christ is humble but amazing ways here in our country and all over the world. Looking forward to journeying through this together. 

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Dr. Tim Meier serves as the director for Envision, providing oversight for the Envision office team in Colorado Springs, as well as 20+ sites and teams around the world leading ministries. He loves conversations about living missionally, development, and landscape changes within the field of missions. He and his wife Rachel live in Colorado Springs with their two boys.