Short-term missions (STM) is a growing entity in the world of global Christian missions. But for all of it’s participants, and dollars raised and spent, STM is still only part of a total global effort. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity estimates a total of 400,000 long-term foreign missionaries in the world today that have been sent out from countries all around the globe. Some estimates suggest that there could be as many as four million people that participate in short-term missions annually from the United States alone.
On a smaller scale within the Christian & Missionary Alliance, 2,000 U.S. Alliance churches support and send out just over 700 full-time long-term missionaries. The same 2,000 U.S. churches report having over 14,000 STM participants annually.
The reality is, it will likely be through STM that most of us participate in global missions. Because of that reality, we have to make sure STM is done well. We need to see how STM fits into the entire global missions effort, and frankly, address how it can be done better. Here are three ways that we can reimagine short-term missions done well as it interacts, participates, and relates to the global missions movement as a whole.
Shifting away from EITHER/OR thinking to BOTH/AND:
Short-term missions and long-term missions (LTM) have their differences. There’s no denying that. There are complexities to both, as they require specific strategies for their unique contexts. The potential dangers of STM are well documented, and these dangers have been one of the most frequently debated topics of discussion around global missions. As a result of this debate, most people have fallen into two camps. You’re either for or against short-term missions. You either think STM is really good, or really bad. That’s an either/or posture towards STM.
Similarly, there is a growing either/or posture towards long-term missions too. It’s odd to think that it would become this way, but we live in a world where being for one means being against the other. For most, you’re either for short-term missions and against long-term missions, or vice versa.
We need to stop doing this. It’s not helping.
Let’s reimagine STM done well by turning away from an either/or perspective to a both/and understanding and approach towards global missions. We need a both/and approach that leverages all of the energy and resources of both short-term and long-term work to fulfill the Great Commission.
One way to do that is to ensure that your STM have a long term plan. Are your trips clearly part of an ongoing strategy? Do your short-term trips have long-term goals? If they don’t, that’s not good. That is creating a problem. Your STM trips need to be part of a multiplying missionary exit strategy that develops and empowers local indigenous church planting movements. One that aims to raise up workers from the local church – the Alliance strategy of “gospel access for all peoples, from all peoples.” That’s a both/and posture.
You can posture yourself towards being both/and by allowing your short-term experiences and involvement to influence your long-term relationships, connections, and commitments, and vice versa. They go together. Allow them to influence one another.
Shifting from ISOLATED DOING to INTEGRATED JOINING:
I would describe “isolated doing” of STM as something that is self-serving. It’s when STM becomes more of a helicopter ministry that we drop in and out of when convenient. It allows global missions to be compartmentalized outside of our everyday life, and our worldview, and our view of God. And it isn’t helping.
We need to move away from the isolated doing of trips, and we need move to a bigger view of an integrated joining in what God is doing around the world. This is important! Our posture towards global missions needs to be one that understands how we are joining the work that God is already doing with or without us. Here is an application specific to the Christian & Missionary Alliance: If our STM are isolated from what we’re doing collectively as a denomination of churches, we’re missing one of the greatest benefits of being part of the C&MA.
Through STM, you can come to an Alliance field, and see Alliance International Workers. You can worship in an Alliance church in another country, and another language. You can see Great Commission Fund dollars at work. You can see what “Gospel access for and from all peoples” looks like.
I am increasingly convinced that integrating and joining our STM engagement to what we are doing around the world through Alliance International Ministries is a big piece to accomplishing what we want to see.
Shifting in mindset from WORK PROJECT to VISION TRIP:
Historically, STM have been self-contained week long experiences. Often, they start and they end neatly as planned. For many, STM have had elements of work projects: painting, construction, cleaning up an underserved area. There’s dirt and sweat involved.
For many, when they hear STM, they’re thinking work projects. There is a problem, however, when STM becomes synonymous with “work project.” This is very common in the area I’ve served as a full-time worker in close-to-the-border Mexico. For decades, thousands of people come across the border for STM and they do work projects, like painting walls and small home construction.
Our long-term missionary team decided that we valued STM participants experiencing missions, but it needed to be in a way that resembled our long-term work. It stood out to us that there was an incongruence in what a stereotypical week-long STM trip looked like and what our LTM ministry looked like. This caused us to move away from work projects and invite teams to participate in ministries that were less stereotypical of STM and more like what we do as full-time international workers.
What we’ve found is that it’s actually harder. In comparison, work projects are actually pretty easy compared to relational ministry, which is more difficult. Leadership development is more difficult. Helping develop and establish a healthy network of independent indigenous churches that plant churches and send missionaries of their own is a lot harder than painting a wall. But it’s worth it.
Shift from seeing STM as work projects, and reimagine them as something more. STM participants can and should leave with a greater vision for global missions. Our STM should be about casting vision for God on mission. They can be about casting vision for Gospel access for and from all people, and a greater vision for God at work in all peoples of the world.
How you describe the goals of STM to your participants might be the most powerful influence to the outcomes of your STM trips. Might I suggest moving away from using “work project” language and start using “vision trip” language. I’m hoping this seemingly small shift, has profound impact on our experiences.
Missions isn’t easy; both short-term and long-term. It’s hard, but that doesn't mean we stop. We are committed to continuing the hard work of asking the tough questions of how to do missions better. My prayer is that God would give us eyes to see the areas that need reimagining and give us boldness to take faith-filled risks in shifting our posture into the places He calls us. There is a lost and dying world, filled with millions of people that lack access to the Gospel. God is at work in these places. We are invited to join Him.
David Nishizaki works as an International Worker with Envision and has served with his wife Aleah in both the Dominican Republic and Mexico. Over the last five years working in international ministry, David's passion has grown for the peoples of the world, and seeing people join God’s work globally. He is passionate about innovation and excellence in international missions.