Recently, I was asked a valid question by a friend, regarding the value of short-term missions.
“Lately, I’ve noticed a lot of chatter about churches wasting money on missions, especially trips that are more of a vacation. A lot of this is directed at how missionaries could do more if the money spent for missions trips was just sent to them to use locally. Obviously, you have a heart for missions, but what are your thoughts about this?”
The following is my reply. I pray it is helpful to provide a clearer perspective on why we are engaged in short-term missions, and why other Christians and churches should be as well.
At Cross Lanes Baptist Church, we undertake missions in partnerships-locally, nationally, and internationally. In each location, we seek to partner with, encourage, and strengthen, the work of the those who are involved all of the time in the particular locations. The work of our missionaries, as well as nationals serving in mission roles, is to sow the seeds of the Gospel, train people, and equip them to multiply the long-term work. If the question of the value of short-term missions was taken to the extreme, we could ask the question, why do we send long-term missionaries cross-culturally? If there are already believers or churches in a country, why would we not just send them a check and tell them to do the work?
It raises a greater question though of what we are trying to accomplish through missions as a whole. I believe it is critical to focus on the work of the church, and how to plant, strengthen, and grow churches. Therefore, we are continually asking questions about how we can do this. We have a fairly well defined process as a church, all the way from prayerfully considering where we will be engaged, to what the objectives are while we are engaged, and then how we can know and evaluate when we have accomplished these objectives. We are successful (as are any missionaries) when people have been reached, the Gospel has taken root, disciples are growing, and they are able to replicate what they have been taught in making disciples of others.
This is not exhaustive but I would argue serving in short-term missions accomplishes several things:
1. It is in obedience to Matthew 28, and the commandment of Jesus to make disciples. I don’t think we have to choose if we do so here, or there, it is both and. I hear people say sometimes, there is plenty of work to be done here, why would you go there? The answer is, because we are seeking to be obedient to the commandment of Jesus and we don’t have to choose.
2. It gives people a clearer perspective of the work of God around the world. This encourages more faithful prayer and involvement with the mission of God.
3. It is encouraging to those we serve alongside of, whether it be nationals, or field personnel from here, that we are supporting through giving, prayer and so forth.
4. It stretches people and often causes them to question their level of life faithfulness overall, resulting in a deeper commitment in their relationship with God, and the work locally as well.
5. I have heard story after story through the years from career missionaries, giving testimony of how God used short-term experiences to solidify their call and lead them to long-term commitments. So while everyone who goes short-term does not commit long-term, this is a significant fruit from it.
6. When carried out strategically, it can make a significant difference over a long period of time. I have seen this personally, working in a particular field repeatedly. To see people whom God has brought to faith, be committed and plugged into a local fellowship whether it be in a village or a city, is very encouraging and a reminder of why we go.
7. I do not think randomly going to different locations is at all helpful in a sort of mission tourism. The goal is not to go, take some pictures that make us feel good about ourselves, and come home. The goal is to be involved in the mission of God and see His church and kingdom flourish. We stress the importance of going with a servant mentality.
There are a lot of anecdotal stories of people going and painting houses for example, and the same houses getting painted year after year, taking advantage of the generosity of mission groups. This is unfortunate. One thing central to what we do, is that if the Gospel is not a part of it, we can’t really call it missions.
As far as it being vacation oriented, or a tourism type mentality, I have never experienced this personally. All of our trips, whether they be national or international, do have a component of a free afternoon or a free day that everyone of course enjoys. We pick something of local flavor and have an outing. They provide some downtime to experience the culture a little and give everyone a break. The international trips especially are quite taxing and stressful, and most keep a vigorous pace with the work, so the downtime is helpful and good for building fellowship also. At most it is an afternoon or maybe the better part of a day depending on the outing.
Then there are some practical considerations:
1. We try really hard as a church to balance how we do ministry, evangelism, and missions. A few years back as leadership, we felt like we had gotten out of balance and were not doing enough locally. At that point we made a decided shift as an organization to strengthen our community impact. This has been a reality for us. I don’t know that there is a perfect balance, but we want to be faithful. From there, we have multiple North American Mission opportunities this year and numerous international partnerships. Of all of the teams, about 60% of our people who actually participate in a “trip” will do so in North America this year, and 40% will do so internationally. Part of the reason for the number difference is the great majority of our international teams are smaller in number (4-6) conducting training, evangelism, etc and only a couple of our teams will have 10 or more. The North American teams are typically larger in number.
2. As for cost, our spending is about 4 to 1, related to what we actually give/send for missions, compared to the cost of short term missions. We provide some scholarships, but the vast majority of what is spent on short-term missions comes directly from people paying their own way. The cost of North American mission opportunities are less than what a family would spend on a day trip to an amusement park. Overall, expenditures on short term missions is, as far as what is spent on people actually going (including all that people pay out of pocket), is around 6% of total church expenditures and we are aggressive in sending teams. Admittedly the whole discussion about what qualifies as “missions” is a little complicated because the entire church is to be about the mission of God, but hopefully this puts that aspect in perspective.
God will bless an unselfish church. Our overall expenditure on missions is more than the entire church budget was in 2003. For a church’s total budget to quadruple in that amount of time, is testimony to the fact that God will bless an unselfish church, and that people will give when they see why they are giving.