I was recently walking in our local grocery store and saw a big sign that read: “Today’s Baggers: Youth Missionaries.” A number of teens, all wearing neon t-shirts, were bagging food for people in return for donations for their overseas trip. They are far from alone in raising support for short-term missions. Ten years ago, 29 percent of all 13- to 17-year-olds in the United States had traveled at least once on a mission or religious service project. Three years later, 41 percent of 15- to 20-year-olds had done so. And it’s not just youth. In 2005 1.6 million adult members went on trips for an average of eight days of service. The cost—-a whopping $2.4 billion. That is more money than the GDP of more than 20 countries.
For the sake of clarity, I am defining short-term missions as a vocationally focused period of full-time ministry in a setting away from the participant’s home. So a group from Minnesota could build a house in New Orleans and call that a short-term missions trip, but a church in New Orleans doing the same thing in the same location would not.
Are there examples of this kind of ministry in Scripture? Examples could include Jonah’s short stint to Nineveh and Jesus sending his disciples (Matthew 10) and the 70 (Luke 10) on short-term trips. You might also cite Priscilla and Aquilla, who shared their faith and planted churches while traveling on business. Paul, the great teacher and church planter, spent a significant portion of his ministry on the road. Certainly committed to mission over the long term, Paul seemed to operate through short-term strategies, with his longest stays in Ephesus and Corinth. Clearly we see several strands of itinerant work in the Bible.
For the most part, between the time of the Moravian missions movement until the mid-20th century, missionaries were expected to serve for life. Things changed in 1949 when the Methodist Board of Missions approved a program for recent college graduates to travel in groups of 50 for a three-year appointment. Operation Mobilization (OM) and Youth with a Mission (YWAM) arrived on the scene in the 1950s and 1960s and asked for a commitment of only a few months. OM sent out 2,000 people on short-term teams in 1963. Wheaton College sent out their first short-term missions team in 1958, and InterVarsity followed suit in 1970 with a trip to Costa Rica. Adventures in Missions was formed in 1989 and specializes in trips between one and two weeks long. By 2006 they had 100 staff and had sent out 8,000 people. Short-term missions movement remains predominantly Western due to the amount of money necessary to make these trips happen.
The missionary movement, once filled mostly with trained vocational ministers, has slowly gotten younger and less trained. Now, due to students’ flexibility, most trips are geared for those between 15 and 22 years old. It seems that almost anytime I travel overseas I see a pack of students wearing the same colored shirts with a Bible verse on the back that announces their intentions.
Reasons to Rejoice
What has made all of this possible? Western affluence and airplanes. What once took missionaries months of travel time now takes a day. George Whitefield crossed the Atlantic 13 times in his life! I crossed the Atlantic 10 times last year while eating, getting some work done, and watching a movie or two. What took Whitefield months in travel time on a boat takes us eight hours. Because of aeronautical advances and the economic strength of the West, opportunities abound. Let me list four:
(1) It is pretty remarkable that we Westerners can get almost anywhere in the world within a day or two and see what the Lord is doing among different believers. Last year I traveled to Ventrapragada, India. It took 18 hours of flight time and an overnight train ride to arrive literally halfway around the world. I met Christians who had walked into villages with a PA system and a drum and preached to people who had never heard the name of Jesus. In other parts of the world I have met healed paralytics as well as disabled believers who treasure Christ above all things. Although you certainly don’t need to be on a short-term trip to see these things, there is something unique about partnering and praying with Christians who are very different from you.
(2) Relief work has expanded its reach. Churches and relief organizations can mobilize within a few days and often commit resources over long periods of time when natural disasters hit. When Katrina struck, churches and relief organizations quickly mobilized teams to go to New Orleans. The same can be said for the earthquake in Haiti. Churches Helping Churches was seemingly formed almost as soon as the earthquake ended.
(3) Churches can visit missionaries they have sent out and partner with them in their work. Instead of communication delayed by months, churches can now contact their long-term missionaries and ask if they have any need for short-term teams. This can be of great encouragement (and sometimes discouragement!) to missionaries, especially if the church sends close friends. Club 4th at Bethlehem Baptist Church in the Twin Cities has a mission to serve the kids of missionaries (and by extension the parents as they give them time away from their children). I know of a few instances where missionaries were struggling and a short-term team was the perfect balm for their wounds.
(4) Churches and organizations can check to see if their money is being used responsibly. Donors can check in on projects halfway around the world. So if you wonder whether the orphans you are sending money to are really being cared for, you can send a team to check in on them. If you are supporting a theological institution, you can visit it and meet the students they are training with your help.
The opportunity to serve anywhere in the world is now open. Almost anyone in your church can find a trip that matches his or her skill set. We have many reasons for excitement and rejoicing. However, in the next article I will talk about some of the pitfalls and challenges of short-term missions. While most trips have the best intentions, I will argue that the majority of teams being sent from the West do not accomplish what we hope and in fact hurt the global church.