The Truth About Short-Term Missions
By Josh Okerman
“Short-term missions (STMs).” Unfortunately, like jumbo shrimp or hot chili, the phrase "short-term mission" is really kind of an oxymoron. Actually, when you get down to it, not a whole lot about missions is “short term.”
Born and raised by missionaries to Kobe, Japan, I would argue that missions work is a way of life that comes from seeking to serve God through expanding his Kingdom in this world. Missions work is about the Great Commission, the Great Commandments, and the Stewardship Mandate.
More importantly, it's about bringing about long-term, lasting change in both people and society. So unless all that can really be fulfilled in two weeks (or martyrdom turns our trip into "short-terminated"), can we really say that missions are short term?
Of course, the term works because we understand it. A short-term mission generally refers to a church group that goes to another state or country for the purpose of doing some project or outreach. Much of the time the group is young, usually investing a few days or weeks, and often with a limited understanding of the place/culture to which they are going. From a critical perspective, STMs are an expensive way to send inexperienced people to a culture they don't understand to do something they haven't really done before. A questionable game plan at best.
Nevertheless, short-term missions create opportunities for long-term change. Short-termers bring a passion and excitement sometimes lost by the long-term missionaries, and can provide both healing and revitalization to missionaries on the field. Short-termers bring new ideas and perspectives to problems, provide examples of Christian living to a community that may not know what that looks like, or connect with a youth culture that does not relate to the “old-school” missionaries.
STMs also provide eye-opening opportunities to short-termers untraveled outside of their middle-class neighborhoods — fostering cultural understanding and a better awareness of some of the problems that affect our global neighbors. Sure, it’s expensive, but maybe money is not always the issue?
Creating a Foundation
In the end, the commitment and longevity of the local church sustains a "Kingdom Come" agenda. Sparks are nice, and necessary for fire. But while I've certainly been inspired by examples of people who have been in my life for only a short time, the ones who have molded me have been the ones with me for the long term. Without the long-term commitment of the local church, short-term missions have neither a foundation to build on nor a follow-up to capitalize on the opportunities created. But when churches, short-termers, and vocational missionaries work together in harmony, amazing things happen.
"I expected to go to bless the people. But the one blessed was me." I have heard this phrase many times from students returning from a mission trip. Honestly ... we are way too egocentric sometimes. Not that we should stop expecting to bless those we see ... just put it in perspective. This two- or three- or six-week trip, although important, is neither the end nor the beginning. It's probably somewhere in the middle.
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