Thursday, 20 March 2008

Are short term missions worth it?

Recently I heard someone criticising short term mission opportunities that are available to Christians and are not run by local churches. The argument runs that such missions are often 'hit and run' and that time can be better spent involving yourself in the less 'glamorous' ministry at home over the summer through local churches.

This isn't to say that valuable ministry is not done through churches in the UK in the summer - of course it is. We celebrate the gospel whenever it is preached. This is also not to say that God's primary way of working in the world is through the local church. I'm instead responding to (for me, the quite incredible idea) that short term missions not directly linked to the ministry of a local church are of less value, a waste of money and a glorified holiday with no long-lasting benefit.

I guess perhaps if everyone went away on a summer team, there would be some point to this argument. However, in reality this doesn't ever happen as the opportunities to be involved in short term missions realistically falls to students and those few of us who can wangle it to work with our jobs.

I'd also object to short term mission being more 'glamorous'! Many short term missions require a really sacrificial mindset as physically, emotionally and spiritually one is pushed to the very extreme! Certainly for the short term mission team I've co-lead (and this summer will again be co-leading) to Moldova, this has been the case (and perhaps now the reason for this blog entry is obvious!). We partner the IFES movement in Moldova to run an evangelistic 'English and Bible Camp'. I'm convinced short term missions like these have massive value.

When I was at church as a student in Bristol, one of the families in the church that particularly befriended me were ex-missionaries who were now recruiting folks to go and serve in Asia. I remember one particular conversation I had over dinner about short term missions. He was convinced of the value of short term missions. A few of the reasons he gave are listed here:

  • Most of those Christians that receive short-term mission teams are very happy (and even promote) these teams. I have friends that are missionaries across the world and they would love teams of students to come and help them. The Moldovans that we are going to support are very keen for us to come.
  • There's a huge amount of encouragement to those in full time ministry (and to the Christians they work with) by having others come to serve alongside them. Even in Lancaster, I'm encouraged when friends come up to visit and come along with me to CU meetings. It shows that they are on our side and value our hard work. In Moldova, I'm certain that believers from an otherwise-forgotten country are encouraged by our presence.
  • Those who go on short term missions become really aware of the needs of where they visit and what ongoing ministry is happening. I'd never prayed at all for Moldova before first visiting - now it's high on my list of priorities. The link has also meant that CUs in the North West have contributed financially, been in contact via email - and some are even thinking about serving there long-term. I know for a fact that most longer term missionaries have first gone on a short term team.
  • The opportunities afforded by short term mission teams can provide a focus and a catalyst to outreach and ministry for the rest of the year. The 'English and Bible Camp' that we help out on certainly serves such a purpose in Moldova.
  • The approach seemed to work for Peter and John in Samaria, and Paul across the Mediterranean!
  • Short term mission teams often don't spend all of the money they pay to go on themselves. In Moldova, a fair amount of money that the British members pay to go on subsidises the camp that your average Moldovan would not otherwise be able to afford to attend.
  • Those who receive the gospel through short term mission are encouraged to join local churches where they can learn and grow as Christians.
  • Here's the key one for the context (I think): local churches which have members that go on short term teams are surely benefited and enriched. World mission is no longer relegated to being a theological concept or just an illustration from a sermon. Rather, it is lived out in reality and experienced in the lives of those church members that go. World mission becomes a work in which members have actually been involved. My friend in Bristol said that local churches that actively promote short term world mission opportunities become all the more effective at home. Certainly, the CUs that I work with that have had members go on short term missions have vastly benefited.
These reasons me that, to me, it is very short sighted to dissuade church members from short term missions. Effective short term missions (and I admit that some are more effective than others) don't detract from other forms of church-based Christian ministry, but actually can promote and enhance them in the long term.

Long live the short term mission!


thebluefish said...


I've never known a short-term mission do any harm...

Chris said...

I met a guy in france who was visiting prague in 1991, went looking for a church to go to on sunday and was welcomed with a banquet celebration and asked to speak 3 times that day. He said they must have confused him with somebody else, cos he'd never spoken in church before - hardly knew what to say. To cut a long story short, nearly everyone in the church had been imprisoned or tortured under communism, and what had kept them going was that their brothers and sisters in the west were praying for them, and that as soon as they could they would come rushing to greet them and to celebrate their freedom and tell them how they'd been praying etc. This man stumbled upon the celebration that had been prepared for 2 years, as he was the first westerner who'd come. He resolved that as soon as the war in yugoslavia would be over, he'd go there too, to be with them and help, and he was eventually provoked him into going before the war was done. He's started a humanitarian aid group called La Gerbe.

Chris said...

all the more reason to be there carrying the aid of the gospel...

reminds me of Michael Green mentioning once that after WW2 the european church called for 1000s of US missionaries to go in to preach the gospel in france, germany, italy, during the reconstruction, but very few went. He said the same happened in Eastern Europe after the wall came down in 89. He asked whether we'd make the same mistake in the middle east after the dust settles on Iraq & Afghanistan...

now there's a thought.

peterdray said...

Very thought-provoking Chris. I think there are tremendous opportunities opening up. What you say is true. Even in Moldova, I'm overwhelmed by how much our mere presence is, especially to the Christians.