Short-Term Missions that is Missions

I hear a lot of stories (sometimes comedies, sometimes horror stories) regarding short-term missions (STM). I nod and smile, or shake my head and scowl. But I am happy to say that I can’t really relate to these stories. My experience with short-term missionaries has generally been quite positive. But my own experience with STM is quite different from the normal. The normal STM team is more like:

  • A group of 5 to 10 to 15 or more.
  • STMers have little to no skills that are specifically matched up to the needs of the local missionary.
  • Often the STM team activity is driven by the needs of the team, rather than the needs of the local host.
  • (Because of this) It is common that the work done by the STM team is more “make work,” that provides a sense of accomplishment for the team, and putting a strain on the local hosts, rather than helping the long-term programs of the long-term missionary.

These traits commonly lead to the assumption that Short-term missions is really for the benefit of the STMers rather than the local missionaries or local hosts.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. One way around it is the method used by the Mormons. Short-term missions is longer (commonly 2 years) with prior preparation. Still, from what I see here in the Philipines at least, it still looks to be highly inefficient— succeeding more from sheer numbers and back-home optimism.

But is there the possibility of a short-term missions that makes sense on its own that doesn’t involve multiple years of work?

I feel like several of our experiences with short-term missions has a better record than that.

First.  The Short-term mission teams are small. The largest team we ever had was 4. Most are 1 or 2. Consider the numbers. Suppose it takes $3000 per person to do a short-term mission, and suppose the team is made up of two people. The cost then would be $6000. The cost of a team of ten would be approximately $30,000. That is quite a difference— five times as much. But will the larger team be five times as useful? Probably not.

Second.  The teammember(s) have unique skills that the missionary needs. It might be technical skills, it may be academic skills, or special certifications. Franky, most skills that people bring already exist in the field.

Third. The skills that STMers bring are ones that are specifically needed for the long-term ministry programs in the field.

Fourth. The primary goal of the team is to increase the capacity of missionaries or local hosts. The goal is the transfer of skills and resources to the field. The goal is not to maintain dependency.

Fifth.  The STM team is driven based on the need in the field. This is implied by the above principles, but still worthy of note.

Sixth.  It is the responsibility of the missionary in the field to ensure that they (or designated individuals) gain from the STM trip. Far too often, groups come and go and nothing is changed because those in the field did not intentionally seek to gain long-term benefit from the trip, and do not seek to properly integrate it with the longer-term strategy.

Note:  I am NOT saying that all STM should be done this way. There is a place for “Encounter Missions.” There is a place for reminding ourselves that the church is multi-national and that we have brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world. There is a place for doing things that are not at all cost effective.

But there are times when STM makes sense from the standpoint of long-term mission work in the field.

Advertisements

Struggles with Short-Term Missions

A lot of Short-term Mission teams come from “The West” to the Philippines. And quite a few STM teams leave the Philippines to serve in other parts of the world as well.

And they can do genuine good. When they come in as genuine partners of local ministries, when they come in with welcome skills (especially) and resources, when there is a humbleness of spirit, such teams are great. The best teams, from what I have seen, are small… less than 10. Some of the best ones are just 2 or 3 people– there for transfer of specific needed skills. STM can also be a reminder that the church is not merely local, it is universal– it is not merely united, it is diversified.

But then there are other STM teams. They are a different story. There are many sub-stories in this, but I would focus on five groups. These groups are somewhat related and overlapping.

  1.  Churchy Vacationers. People who join STM often have jobs or school, and so are investing their limited vacations in the trip. But even though it is vacation time, it is still not vacation. Some focus on sight-seeing and creature comforts. Others are shutterbugs taking pictures of (exploiting) people who are struggling. It is tempting, and in many parts of the world, the rules of hospitality can make this attitude seem okay for STMers. At the other end of the spectrum, rarely, one can see the opposite where a STM trip was set up to work, work, work, and leave. However, a properly designed STM trip is more like work, work, fun, work.  Mixing a bit of fun with the work will also help make the work more fun.
  2. Cultural Critics. Some come as (very poorly trained) cultural anthropologists. They bring their ethnocentric views of their home with them, and can’t help but note how the food is not as good in their ministry location as it is at home– How the people are so “primitive”– How their houses are so crude, their clothes so odd, and their work so unorganized. Of course, a good cultural anthropologist would not come in and critique compared to one’s own culture. And in STM, one is not generally in a location long enough to critique competently anyway. Even if one is competent, it is commonly wise to keep one’s mouth shut anyway. None of us really enjoy outsiders coming in a disrespecting our country or culture.
  3. Unwitting Burdeners. Some STMers come in and want to help. But too many people helping too much can prove a very big burden on the locals. A team of 15, for example need to be fed, housed, and driven around. Even if the team comes with finances to cover the costs of their stay, the visit can still be a logistical nightmare, and a drain to time, and energy. When we have had short-term mission teams come, I have talked to my church here first, and let them know that it is likely that the STMers will gain more from the experience than the church. Is that okay? That understanding up front really can help. I have seen short-term mission trips where the host got the impression that the STM trip would be a financial and ministerial boon for them. It may or may not be true, but it is certainly not a healthy attitude regardless.
  4. Visionary Dominators. Sometimes, STM teams come in with a clear vision of what they want to do and what they don’t want to do. In many cases, the local hosts are seen more as means to accomplish their vision, rather than partners in ministry. Since locals are experts of what is needed, typically, the vision should come more from them. Often locals have a greater sense of what needs to be done, but are not able to bring that across to the STM mobilizers who are dictating what will be done.

Often STM is touted as a great boon for missions, or even a substitute for a long-term mission presence. Such views are far too rosy. A more realistic view is needed. On the other hand, some see STM as a problem, or at best a good way to inspire the members of the STM team to greater missions awareness. That may be true, but short-term missions can be far more than that.

Missionaries to 3 Churches and the “Can Do” Church

Four ChurchesThere has been a growing trend to raise up the importance of short-term missionaries. Nothing wrong with that, except that it has often been tied to a de-emphasis of long-term missionaries. Related to short-term missionaries has been the church’s move toward short-term thinking. This has seen itself in the increase of “project missions.” In this, churches do not send or support missionaries, but support individual short-term projects.

There are problems with overemphasis on short-term missionaries and projects. Some are, I would like to think, fairly obvious. Problems include

  1. the breakdown of relationality between churches in different parts of the world,
  2. need for people to coordinate short-term projects and personnel for long-term transformation,
  3. the necessity of a bicultural bridge.
  4. a dual role (emic and etic) viewpoint of needs in the mission field, tied to understanding what outsiders can and cannot help with.

But there is more.. Consider where missionaries, on some level are needed. See the above Figure. Think of each hexagon as a type of church.

  • The first church is the Church that Is Not. This church does not exist in the real world, only in the mind of God. Missionaries are needed to evangelize, churchplant, disciple, establish leadership (and move on). This Missionary Role is shown by Arrow “A” moving people to the second church. One could call this PIONEERING.
  • The second church is the Church that Is but Has Not. This church exists, but some aspects of its God-ordained ministry it has not embraced… yet. Some of these may may be pastoral care, theological education, community development, social justice, evangelism, ministering to sub-cultures and missionary outreach. There are many more. Missionaries can inspire, train and provide “tooling” for the church to embrace its role (moving from has not to has). This is shown by Arrow “B” moving people to the third church. One could call this PARENTING.
  • The third church is Church that Has but Cannot. This church can take care of its own people, as well as do a wide variety of ministries in its community. There are, however, some ministries that it doesn’t do, because it cannot. It lacks specific materials, as well as financial and skilled human resources. Some of these might include radio ministries, orphanages, livelihood centers and hospitals. In these cases, missionaries may need a longer presence, but with the intentional plan towards gradual transfer of resources and skills to this church to move it to the fourth church. This is shown by Arrow “C”, and could be described as PARTNERING.
  • The fourth church is the Can Do Church. The church has moved to the point that it has no real NEED to receive missionaries. That does not mean that there cannot be missionaries helping in some way with some aspects of the work. In this case the missionary is not doing classic missions but is assisting or PARTICIPATING in what this church is doing. This is shown by the broken line Arrow “D”.

Where can short-term missionaries come in? All four arrows, all four “churches.” However, how many of these can a short-term missionary (or STM team) serve without long-term missionaries supporting and bridging their activities? Really only Arrow D. Arrow D is where the STM team participates with the work of a Can Do Church. There may be some very specific ways in which short-termers can do Arrow B (parenting) without long-term missionaries, but for the most part, Arrows A, B, and C really need long-term missionaries working with both STM and the associated “churches.”

Where can project mentality really work? Again, Arrow D is the most obvious one. Mission projects can be linked to the Can Do church to participate in their broader and longer-term vision and mission. To a lesser extent, projects may be able to effectively Parenting in some ways under Arrow B with the Has Not church. However, projects are not appropriate for Arrows A (Pioneering) and C (Partnering).

NOTE: I am using the four Ps (Pioneering, Parenting, Partnering, and Participating) a bit different that in used by others. They link it strictly to church planting and building. I am tying to the broader church cycle. As such the terms are a wee bit awkward. Especially awkward is “parenting” when it pertains to projects and short-term missionaries. However, when connected to longer-term missionary programs, this one also makes sense… sort of.