In Defense of Short-term Missions2
A few short days from now, our church will be sending out a short-term mission trip. Eleven people from our congregation will depart for Costa Rica, where they will spend a week doing... well, that's the question, isn't it? Is what we do there technically “missions”? I had a seminary professor who suggested changing our terminology in the church at large (good luck with that) so that “missions” refers only to the work of taking the message of the gospel to peoples who have not yet heard it – laboring among unreached people groups. Anything else, including having a long-term evangelistic work in a country that already has an established church, should be called “fraternal ministry.”
Though I believe it is helpful to make such distinctions, I don't take such a hard line on those definitions. I see missions more broadly (in keeping with our common use of the word). Missions is doing the work of the gospel in a culture that is not your home. And since the work of the gospel requires not only word but also deed, it is possible to do, for example, a construction project that is a part of a missions endeavor. Notice what I said there: “part of.” The construction project is not in itself a work of missions. However, if it is done in partnership with the word ministry of the gospel, then we can see it as a facet of missions. The key is partnership.
If you don't know me, there's something you need to know – I speak from experience on the other side of the short-term missions endeavor. I served overseas as a missionary (according to the definition even my professor would accept) for twelve years, and during that time our ministry hosted countless short-term missionaries. Some of those groups worked primarily in evangelism, some worked as volunteers in our mercy outreach, and some did very practical work that supported the long-term missionaries. What I learned through those experiences was that the actual ministry value of a short-term mission team stands or falls on the partnership with a long-term missions presence. I would not send a team into a location to do evangelism if there was no one able to follow-up on their contacts the day after they left. I would not be willing to receive a mercy ministry team unless there was a church or long-term missionaries who could partner with them and minister the word alongside those loving deeds.
A non-negotiable aspect of that partnership needs to be allowing the long-termers to take the lead. A short-term team does not get to define its agenda. The team may offer its service to the work of the gospel, but they defer to the wisdom of those whom God has called to and placed in that place. When the local church or missionaries say, “This is how you can best serve us,” the short-term servants say, “We would be blessed to serve you in that way.”
One of the things that encourages me about the trip our church is sending this month is that we will be connecting and partnering with ministers of the gospel who have a sustained, long-term presence in the place where we will be ministering. We are showing up ready to be put to whatever work is needed and suitable at the time. Teaching the gospel to children? Of course. Painting a clinic? Absolutely. Holding orphaned children in crisis? Without hesitation. I have heard the argument that the money spent on short-term trips would be better used if sent directly to the churches and missionaries. That's a form of accounting that Jesus himself challenged (Matthew 26:6-10). The value of service is not something that always matches up with cost-effectiveness. As one who has hosted many short-term missionaries, I believe the cost of sending them was worth it, and we rejoiced that churches were eager to partner with us, not only with their money but also with their presence, their time, their comfort, their humility.
So as we go to Costa Rica, we will serve in whatever way God and our brothers and sisters call us to serve. We will do so because a short-term trip is not about us, it's not about our experience, it's not about how much we have to offer. Sure, there are undoubtedly benefits to being on such a trip – witnessing God's kingdom in new ways, having our faith challenged, learning new paths of discipleship, reporting back to the church, etc. But those are secondary to the primary goal and purpose – to serve the work of the kingdom in whatever way we can. Please pray for us as we represent TCPC in the work of God's Kingdom.