COVID-19 has changed the foundation of American missions by imploding short-term missions. Two million Americans take short-term mission trips each year, but this nearly $3 billion focus has now ground to a halt.
Travel agencies are closing. Guest homes are empty. Entire microeconomies in the majority world that rely on young short-term missionaries have been decimated. Quarantines, arrival caps, and ever-changing restrictions make committing time and money prohibitive. As time passes, it seems more and more likely that these types of trips will not resume until a vaccine has been distributed globally.
We must take stock of what we’re losing and what we can gain.
What Are We Losing?
1. Short-Term Trips
Short-term trips have two primary functions, apart from fulfilling a desire to serve.
First, American churches use these trips to disciple their youth. Advocates for short-term trips often promote this as the primary reason. I’m sure even now many youth pastors are feeling self-imposed pressure to set up short-term mission trips for the summer of 2021. Churches will need to think of new ways to introduce their youth to the global church and needs around the world.
Churches will need to think of new ways to introduce their youth to the global church and needs around the world.
Second, these trips have functioned to lead people to a long-term commitment to global missions—to serve as either a missionary or a lifelong financial supporter. Almost every American missionary has a story of how a short-term trip was influential in that calling. Some studies have shown that people who have taken trips are more likely to support missions with donations.
With short-term mission suspended, we’ll likely see fewer missionary candidates and less money given to global missions. This is a daunting prospect, and churches and organizations must develop strategies to challenge American believers to reach the nations.
2. Conferences Shutting Down
For centuries, large gatherings across denominations have been a staple of evangelicalism. Just think of the legacy of the Great Awakening revival meetings, the Keswick Convention (1875), or the Edinburgh Missionary Conference (1910).
More recently, conferences geared toward young adults have called students to take their eyes off themselves and look toward nations. Conferences like Urbana, CROSS, and The Send have been canceled or met virtually, mitigating the means by which God has called many to service far away. We might not feel the effect of these cancelations now, but in two to three years applications will be down unless local churches take the lead (as they should) in calling people into cross-cultural ministry.
3. Mission Agencies Facing Crunch
Short-term mission organizations are facing significant financial fallout because of canceled events and reduced giving. They rely on administrative fees from short-term trips and long-term missionaries to fund their operations. With no short-term trips and with giving down overall, such organizations are forced to make significant cuts.
So they must adapt or die. The organization I work for has certainly made adjustments. This reshuffling of missions has been painful. Some organizations have been in a holding pattern since last March, and the pandemic lingers.
Despite sounding hopeful in donor communication, adjustments are necessary. Staff can’t wait around on indefinite standby. Many qualified people will seek jobs at mission agencies or churches that are simply not hiring. Layoffs in higher education have already occurred and will continue. Mission agencies are next.
So, Now What?
The modern practices used to mobilize, support, and send missionaries are changing. However, there are two opportunities before us.
First, local churches must intentionally promote missions in the absence of short-term trips and conferences. Churches and individuals may now have more discretionary funds for supporting long-term work. Discipleship of young people will need to focus on taking risks to share the gospel locally. Those of us influenced by the revival of gospel-centered theology are now parents. We can disciple our kids to enjoy spreading the name of Jesus and constantly have the nations on our lips.
Let’s also disciple college students, teaching them that we have a message worth proclaiming around the world. Take simple steps by talking about the global church from the pulpit regularly. Download the Operation World app and pray for the country of the day throughout the year. Don’t separate global missions from the life of the church, but weave it into everything you do.
We can disciple our kids to enjoy spreading the name of Jesus and constantly have the nations on our lips.
Second, churches must focus on long-term sending since traditional, residential missionaries aren’t as affected by travel restrictions. The organization I work for has seen a record number of applicants for long-term work. Even some domestic staff are moving overseas. I know the same to be true of other organizations.
When this pandemic is over, might we be surprised how the cancelation of our short-term trips and the absence of our ministry teams actually had a constructive influence on some of the places we were going to serve? Consider this email I received recently:
As you know we have been working toward autonomy. Due to the pandemic we have expedited this process and next week we will conduct our first mini-mester without anyone from the “Western church” present on site. Former national students (that you taught) will be doing all of the teaching.
We have been working on this paradigm shift for the past five years and trust that we have laid a solid foundation for success. We certainly appreciate the role you each played in that endeavor. We are still providing financial support, but the current students are making a larger financial investment.
Pastors should be helping missions committees come to grips with travel restrictions and imagine what missions might look like without sending short-term teams. Start praying for people in the church to make long-term commitments and intentionally infuse global missions throughout everything the church does.
This is a painful period, but there are opportunities before us. Let’s seize them! God is sovereign, and he seems to be pruning our missions movement. If we learn from it, a potentially greater harvest is on the horizon.