Like Mary Poppins’ bag, the deeper you reach into short-term missions, the more you find. Search “short-term missions opportunities” and you’ll quickly find dozens of websites offering hundreds of trips. Complete an agency’s requirements and you could conceivably serve nearly anywhere for less than a year (as we’ve defined the duration of short-term missions here). Opportunities range from teaching English to providing medical care to sharing the gospel through performing arts to encouraging local college students to working with orphans. Short-term missions categories go on and on. Today almost everyone can find a short-term mission trip that fits.
Until recently, however, short-term missions were relatively non-existent. Advances in transportation drove some of the evolution of the missions culture. In the 1850s Hudson Taylor took months to sail to his mission field in China. Returning to England required a more compelling reason than a friend’s wedding. Missionaries planned to serve for life and, if they traveled home, did so only after many years on the field. Two- to three-week mission trips across an ocean didn’t exist until air travel increased in dependability and decreased in cost. Now anyone with some money can hop a flight and be among unreached people in less than 24 hours.
Due in part to limited transportation options, short-term missions had hardly entered sending agencies’ consciousness well into the 1900s. Darren Carlson writes that the Methodist Board of Missions, Youth With A Mission (YWAM), and Operation Mobilization (OM) started sending people on short-term trips in the mid-twentieth century. These organizations helped pave the way for young people with no serious theological training to take their passion for Jesus to the nations. In time, students and lay people had become so involved in short-term missions that, according to the 2017 North American Mission Handbook, the number of short-term mission trip participants from North American sending agencies has roughly doubled the number of those agencies’ career missionaries.
People embark on short-term mission trips for numerous reasons. Some have a passion for serving local churches or encouraging long-term laborers. Others want to complete a service project. Many desire to engage with people from a different culture over the Bible. Others seem focused merely on touring and returning home with new pictures to post.
While the value of today’s short-term mission trips may vary, Old and New Testament missionaries (literally, “sent ones”) proved that short-term mission trips could effectively spread God’s Good News. Jonah, an unwilling missionary, saw God use his preaching to save “the great city of Ninevah” (Jonah 3:1-4:11). Jesus sent out 72 disciples to towns ahead of his arrival (Luke 10:1-24). Philip left his home to encounter the Ethiopian eunuch and others (Acts 8:26-40). Later the church in Philippi sent Epaphroditus to risk his life to supply Paul’s needs and encourage him, for which Paul expresses his deep gratitude (Philippians 2:25-30). Epaphroditus, through a short trip, encouraged Paul, the long-term missionary. God uses people in many ways to reach the nations, including through short-term mission trips.
Short-term mission trips can help or hurt. Short-term teams can help meet critical needs felt by long-term missionaries, or they can distract those same missionaries from their primary tasks while adding little no value to local ministry efforts. Short-term teams can gain new perspectives and learn from local people, or they can, quite unintentionally, wrench decisions and even jobs from locals. As more people participate in short-term missions, the Body of Christ is learning how different approaches can affect how God works in and through members of short-term mission trips. Some of the best internal changes (within the short-termer) and external impacts (on the local ministry) can occur when short-term teams work closely with local ministries and long-term missionaries to meet particular needs, gain fresh insights, and grow in world vision.
Different approaches to short-term missions can yield more positive or negative experiences. Readers can distill from Don Fanning, in his paper published online by the Center for Global Ministries, some short-term mission participant approaches that can lead to both types of outcomes.
Some attitudes and practices can lead to short-term mission trip experiences with either positive or negative results.
Jesus displayed service and humility during his time visiting earth (Mark 10:45, Philippians 2:5-8). Any trip can benefit from a team member who practices those attitudes toward other team members and the culture—with a learner’s heart.
The specific approaches short-term mission trip participants utilize vary with the locations to which they’re sent. Many short-term mission teams visit countries where Christ has already become known, and—to some extent—been well received. They may engage in anything from work projects to door-to-door invitations to vacation Bible school. Other teams travel to largely post-Christian nations where Christian outreach remains legal. They may reach out through service or relational means.
Some churches and organizations also sponsor short-term mission trips to unreached people groups. These unreached people groups, many in “closed” countries, live under governments with laws that allow deportation or arrest for people engaging in Christian missions. Local contacts of short-term teams in closed countries often face more serious consequences for proselytizing the national people. Agencies sending short-term teams to closed countries usually practice more careful preparation, helping their short-termers think through how to safely communicate. Senders without experience and a clear understanding of a closed country’s legal and religious climate should avoid unleashing a team of, say, twenty college students eager to pass out gospel tracts on city streets. No sender wants to discover its people up a whitewater river without a paddle.
Team leaders and sending organizations should take responsibility to cultivate a positive short-term missions experience for both the goers and the receivers. They can help individuals on the team adopt attitudes and actions that can guide the entire team’s experience and outcomes.
Even though an organization, agency or church has carefully planned for an all-around positive experience, individual recruits to short-term missions may still wonder if they will be of much use. Why go? And of all the people who could go, why me?
The reasons for short-term missions vary across all the churches and agencies that send teams—and often even within a single sender that sponsors various teams to make different contributions suited to whatever places they go.
With short-term mission trips becoming more accessible, many types of people can go—but some still wonder why or how God would use them. Typically those who go must love Jesus, meet any requirements set by the sender, and provide the funds needed to cover the trip, whether from personal savings or fundraising. Yet many people interested in short-term missions never apply because they see missionaries as super Christians.
A quick look at some biblical heroes, however, shows that all sinned and fell short of the ideal. Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Paul—all messed up, and God used them all. God took drunks, liars, adulterers, and murderers and transformed them. God still uses people who mess up to do His work, because everyone messes up—hence the gospel. Every disqualifying argument such as, “I’m just not good enough to serve God overseas,” falls flat in the light of the promise, “The judge himself has declared us free from sin” (Romans 8:33-34, Phillips). To be sure, the stress of serving overseas does magnify sin issues and emotional baggage. To be most fully used by God, every Christian wanting to go overseas should press into God for healing and transformation in areas of brokenness (Romans 12:1-2). Although thinking we’re perfect may preclude us from going, knowing our imperfections and asking for God’s help allows us to see His work more clearly.
Abraham Lincoln said, “I will study and prepare myself, and someday my chance will come.” You may prepare for your chance to succeed on a short-term mission trip by going with a church or mission organization that partners with local ministries or long-term missionaries. Going it alone on the mission field seldom ends well. You could search the web for short-term missions, ask your Christian mentor or missions pastor what opportunities they would recommend, or ask people who’ve served overseas which senders partner well with their people on the ground.
Each organization tends to focus on a different area. The Navigators, for instance, specialize in practicing biblical, Life-to-LifeTM discipleship, with mission trips focused on college campuses, in neighborhoods, and within communities all over the world. Other organizations send teams on missions such as medical, engineering, or relief work. Almost everyone can find a mission trip that’s a good fit, so if you are passionate about a specific people group, region, or type of work, find an organization and trip that fits the unique interests and gifts that God gave you.
Whatever you do to prepare yourself for a new culture could make your trip better—for you and others. Your sending church or agency should orient team members on logistics such as passports, visas, and flights, but should go far beyond that minimum standard. The organization should prepare you with fundraising training, Bible study, pre-trip team meetings, short-term missions methods, and cross-cultural awareness, including tips on your particular location. Any exposure you gain on the culture in which you’ll be landing will help. You could research the people, their religion, language, and culture online. You may also benefit from studying the geography, political climate, and even the best way to share your stories about Jesus with people you meet. If you’re not sure where to start, you could always ask your team leader. Learning about culture shock, common taboos, and local etiquette can prove invaluable.
With preparation for mission trips being such a high priority, some may move debriefing and re-entry into the home culture to the bottom of their priorities. For a short-term trip to have a lasting impact, however, agencies and participants should allow for intentional time for processing the experience. Before the departure flight home, team leaders should prepare their team members for varying degrees of reverse culture shock. Normally reverse culture shock feels stronger the longer people have been away from their home culture. Even short-termers, however, can experience feelings of dissatisfaction and judgment toward their own culture upon return from overseas. Those feelings can intensify if the returning short-termer lacks the ability or opportunity to communicate life-changing and worldview altering experiences to family and friends. Learning tools for sharing stories, staying connected with one’s short-term team, and reaching out to others who have experienced (or want to experience) short-term missions can relieve impact of reverse culture shock and pass along the blessing of clearer world vision.
Although we’ve just scratched the surface of short-term missions, hopefully this post has answered some of your questions. Or you may have fifty new questions to ask. Check out our other posts that dive deeper into short-term missions topics, and please don’t hesitate to email us at Navigators World Missions with any thoughts or questions you have. The Navigators may not be the organization for you, but whether you go with us or not, we love helping people find their pathways to the nations.