Short-Term Missions in a Flat World (Part 1): Lessons From the Monkey and the Fish

SPRINT Indonesia By Peter Lim, Coordinator for Global Involvement


In spite of a growing body of research that challenges its missional and cost effectiveness, short-term missions is here to stay. Globalization has increased opportunities for travel and volunteerism to far-flung places around the world. The world has not only become smaller, it has become interconnected. Without ever leaving your study desk Google Earth allows you to travel to places once imagined inaccessible. Through Facebook, the world is instantly available, accessible and connected. Indeed as I read Thomas Friedman’s seminal work, The World Is Flat, I am wondering how living in a flat world might alter short-term missions.


The speed of change as a result of the emerging technologies that have made the world more immediate demands that we develop a new philosophy of short-term missions — not throw it out. Mission leaders must create and adapt their strategies to match the unprecedented opportunities presented to this generation. We must modify our short-term trip mentality to challenge the faith and worldview of students as they encounter rising global security concerns, increasing diversity and widening income gaps of global cities, and the changing face of global Christianity.


By way of a brief introduction, as coordinator for Global Involvement at Seattle Pacific University, I seek to equip a generation of students for the exciting opportunities presented to them for missional engagement in international locations. The goal is to nurture a generation of college students to be like the “men (and women) of Issachar who understood the times and knew what Israel should do who understood the times and knew what (they) should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32). Just as generations of college students in the history of missions had done in the past, our students endeavor to serve God’s purpose in their own generation (Acts 13:36).


Inhabiting a flat world has created exciting new challenges for missions leaders, thus, I have decided to write a series of articles to stimulate discussion about how our new global context is redefining short term missions.

An Ancient, Cautionary Tale

I am reminded of an ancient parable of the monkey and the fish, which probably decodes some of the powerful missional shifts in an increasingly interconnected and diverse world. The story of the monkey and the fish is an old tale, but a cautionary and prophetic tale about how we should engage in short-term missions.


During a great flood, a monkey and a fish find themselves washed far down river in swirling and raging waters, away from their homes. The monkey escapes from near death by climbing onto a low-hanging branch. As the grateful monkey retreats to dry land and gazes down on the rushing currents, he sees a fish struggling to swim upstream. Eager to help another fellow creature after his narrow escape from certain death, the monkey hangs down precariously from the branch and snatches the fish from the water. Scurrying down from the branch, the monkey lays the fish down on dry land. The fish flops in excitement initially but finally “settles down” in blissful peace. Seeing that he has accomplished his mission, the monkey scampers off, thinking highly of himself for having saved another creature from the waters of death.

Beyond Good Intentions

This cautionary tale reminds us that good intentions are simply not good enough. The explosive growth in short-term missions is a reflection of a desire on the part of many in this generation to do something to change the world. Millions have gone on forays across the world to spread the Gospel, fight injustice, eradicate poverty, or provide relief aid. While it may be obvious that a trip lasting a few weeks will hardly accomplish any of these lofty goals, many short-term participants return from their forays with the satisfaction of making a difference in the world.

Let’s be honest about our need to feel good about efforts. The reality is that short-term teams eager to solve complex problems in another culture with only the vaguest notion of its underlying dynamics within a few weeks (or even months) — betray a dangerous form of cultural and spiritual arrogance. In fact, a growing body of research and evidence shows that more than harm than good results from such short-term engagements.

Beware of the Messiah Complex

Next, it is important to guard against our monkeylike tendencies in wanting to save the world without even comprehending it. The powerful seduction of the messiah complex cannot be under-estimated. Without a doubt, Luis Bush‘s ability in describing parts of Africa and Asia as the 10/40 window, or Patrick Johnstone’s promotion of the AD 2000 Movement, has left us with a belief that unreached peoples lost in spiritual darkness. Along those lines, missionaries can deploy images of the 1.3 billion who reside outside of North America and live in extreme poverty, as a powerful motivator for participating in a mission trip.


There is something really seductive in the emotional rewards of being able to make a difference in the world. Yet in their eagerness to save the world, short-termers often end up “killing the fish” they try to save. With limited linguistic and cultural training, short-termers often do not understand the ministry and cultural context. These mission field tourists tend to focus on “feel-good” volunteerism to justify the time and money spent for such trips. In the end, short-termers often end up acting like arrogant people with messiah complexes.

More Than Crossing the Seas

Would it have made a difference if the monkey jumped into the water and swam to save the fish by helping it swim to safety instead? Most short-term missions focus on crossing cultural boundaries for the sake of the gospel. Participants are taken out of their comfort zone to learn to look at the world with new eyes. Yet the face of mission is changing – more than 70% of Christians now live in the global south as compared to less than 20% at the beginning of the 20th century. The global church, especially the church in the global south, is engaged in missions on a scale, unimaginable to all previous Christian generations. Missions are no longer a one-way street of teams sent from the affluent west to the poor south. This shift demands a global missiology that includes voices from different parts of the world. Short-term missions should therefore focus on gaining a different perspective.


Listening to community is a core value taught by Dr. John Perkins. We train our short-term teams to go with an attitude of learning to benefit from the insight and wisdom of the church from the South. Long before we wrestle intellectually with the challenges of pluralism in a postmodern world and increasing diversity of multiculturalism in our cities, our students will learn about how Christianity has taken roots and found expressions in contexts outside their particular North American experience. This approach to missions teaches SPRINT students that a mission is no longer something that is happening out there!

Back to the Future

I remember going to Nepal in 1980 right after graduating from college. It was then pitched as a Vision trip, in which we were challenged to catch God’s global vision and be committed in long-term engagement. Perhaps that is what short-term missions should be – a vision trip.

In my case, Nepal was the easy choice, because I have always dreamt about going there for vacation. What could be more attractive than to visit the land of the Himalayas, which I have longed to set foot on. As soon as I made this decision, I realized that I was more motivated by my idea of a vacation trip than God’s idea of a vision trip. In spite of my impure motives, the trip was a real eye-opening experience that resulted in lasting transformative change. The faith of a church under severe persecution, the steadfastness and zeal of suffering believers, and the oppression of pervasive physical and spiritual poverty has had a powerful effect on my life. As imperfect as the 2-week trip was, 6 out of the 9 of us on the team became involved in long-term missions after the trip.


Perhaps this is one thing we need to remember: Even with its current shortcomings, short-term missions is fraught with opportunities for God to make himself known — and with the real potential pitfalls that we will unwittingly misrepresent him like the monkey in the ancient fable. We may all too easily ignore the blessings because of the blunders. There is no absolutely way that we can live in isolation in this global world, or to be ignorant to the challenges and complexities of seismic social, cultural, economic, political and religious changes brought about globalization. We are just waking up to the horrors of how a housing market crisis in the United States has such tsunami effects across the world. Not since 9/11 have we been challenged to think about our personal responsibility in a globalized world. The question remains if we can leverage the unprecedented opportunities of increased global connectedness to stimulate and grow a missional generation through short-term missions.


We simply need to rethink the purpose of short-term missions in a flat world, and how these trips can indeed make a real difference both to its participants and the host communities.


Peter Lim Peter Lim is the coordinator for global involvement in the Perkins Center at SPU. He has been involved in cross-cultural missions for more than 27 years, and has traveled widely. He and his wife are now involved in a strategic leadership training program for leaders in China.

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