Short-term mission has missed the point of the Great Commission. Something hundreds of thousands of Christians are doing every year with the term “mission” in its title has very little to do with the Mission—making disciples of all nations. The Greek for “all nations” in Matthew 28:19 is ta ethne; therefore, Jesus commanded us to make disciples of every ethnic group on the face of the earth. According to the Joshua Project, over 6,700 ethnic (people) groups are still unreached with the gospel, and the combined population of these groups is 2.5 billion, or nearly forty percent of the world’s population.1
Despite this overwhelming need, only twenty-six percent of all long-term missionaries are dedicating their efforts to taking the gospel to these forty percent who have no opportunity to hear it.2 Short-term mission, with a proper focus, can play a pivotal role in mobilizing more Christians to fill the tremendous gap in Great Commission labor.
Bonding and Short-term Missions
Bonding is a crucial issue presently hindering short-term missions (STM) from realizing its Commission-catalyzing potential. In Bonding, and the Missionary Task, Thomas and Elizabeth Brewster share how God prepares newborns to develop a deep bond with their parents during a heightened state of awareness upon entering the world.3 Interestingly, researchers have noted newborn humans and animals will bond with whomever/whatever is present in the short period of time following birth—even with a surrogate parent of another species. The Brewsters draw a parallel between this phenomenon and missions, arguing the first couple of weeks a missionary spends in a foreign country represents an important bonding period. If missionaries spend this time immersed in the new culture and language, they embrace their new home and establish strong relationships with nationals. Conversely, the worker who arrives on the field and is immediately ushered into a mission compound bonds with the expatriate missionary community, rather than with the local culture. This missionary usually struggles adapting culturally, is not as fruitful in ministry and has trouble staying on the field.
Short-term mission involves a similar bonding scenario. It takes people who are willing and eager to follow God’s call and serve in missions and throws them into their first experience on the field. This becomes the bonding period. During this critical initial plunge, the bright-eyed participant undergoes a period of extreme receptivity to the leading of God.
Perhaps you know people who have made significant decisions, commitments or changes in life direction as a result of STM participation. But with what are they bonding, and what types of commitments will they make as a result? Few will deny the role of STM in mobilizing long-term mission laborers.4 Ask any full-time, foreign missionary if his or her first time on the mission field was during STM involvement, and chances are the answer will be yes. Is it possible, though, that the way we are doing STM is one of the reasons we are seeing so few long-term laborers going to the most unreached areas of the world? If we do not bring short-termers into contact with the unreached and teach them this need, they will not bond with the unreached.
A STM participant working alongside an indigenous man
harvesting corn in Mexico
Working on the Hearts of Short-term Missionaries
I am a field missionary who has been involved in about twenty-five mission trips. Since I first began going on short-term mission trips in high school I have felt God using them to mold me. I was prepared to do anything for God, but during those first years I never gave a passing thought to cross-cultural ministry—even after three trips to foreign countries. In my high school reasoning, it made more sense to serve Jesus at home, where I already spoke the language and knew the culture. And to my relief, no one challenged this perception. It was not until my sixth mission trip that I heard that although God had a heart to reach every ethnic group, very few people were going to the 6,700-plus groups with no access to the gospel. To take people as spiritually receptive as some short-termers are during short-term mission trips and not connect them to the 2.5 billion souls who have not heard about Jesus is a crime. Should not all first-time mission trip participants come away understanding the plight of the unreached and the role they can play in reaching these least-reached people? We need to give them the opportunity to bond with the greatest evangelistic need in the world.
We, as mission and sending organizations, need to consider taking more mission trips to unreached people groups. If we give short-termers the opportunity to stay in the homes of the unreached, eat the food they eat and learn their language and culture, they may better understand the long-term, relational nature of making disciples of the nations. More STM participants may then decide they could live and serve among the unreached full-time.
Short-term Missions and Unreached People Groups
I live in southern Mexico, a place which is home to dozens of unreached indigenous people groups. At Global Frontier Missions we host mission teams throughout the year who come and serve these people groups. Many of the teams adopt unreached people groups, pray for them regularly and build long-term relationships with members of those groups. Another example of STM to the unreached is one trip some fellow missionaries took to North Africa. While there they prayed, trekked among Berber villages and stayed in Berber homes. Taking short-termers to sensitive, unreached areas requires thorough training and careful management of their expectations. Indeed, there is great difficulty in expectation management with Western-minded teams. They will not show the JESUS film to crowds of people, they cannot hand out tracts door-to-door and they may not see anyone saved. But they can go, they can build friendships and they can pray. Most importantly, they will come to understand that millions of people have no opportunity to hear of Jesus and that reaching these people is a long-term project.
The world’s current urbanization trend provides another opportunity for STM among ethnic groups with no Christian witness.5 Migration patterns make it possible to reach the unreached in large cities of North America, Europe, Australia and other urban centers. There are strong, indigenous churches in southern Mexico that were planted by native leaders who accepted Christ while working in the United States or Canada. Organize a group to go to Toronto (Canada), Minneapolis (USA), Barcelona or Sydney and befriend Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus. Prior to going, bring in someone who understands the culture of the target group in order to prepare your team for relational ministry. Develop a long-term partnership with someone who lives and works among the people group with which you hope to share the gospel. Model Great Commission Christianity through STM—reaching unreached nations and discipling them.
Mobilizing Short-term Missionaries to the Least-reached Areas
Missionaries, mobilizers, pastors and leaders of STM need to unabashedly present God’s call and share the incredible need of the 2.5 billion unreached during every STM effort. We do a tremendous disservice to the cause of the Great Commission when we allow receptive people to participate in STM without challenging them to dedicate their lives to reaching those who presently have no chance of hearing the gospel. We must cast a vision for long-term involvement.
Paul Borthwick recently summed up the issue at the National [USA] Short-Term Mission Conference: “If short-term missions were the key to transforming societies, Tijuana should be the most Christian place on earth, with Ensenada, Mexicali, and Haiti not far behind.”6 The world will not be reached if no one serves long term. Jesus became one of us and lived among us in order to reach us. He did not simply take a two-week trip down from heaven. Nor did he simply send John the Baptist a check for a four-wheel-drive camel so John could preach repentance in remote villages. Why do we think we can reach the nations this way? If we cannot, why do we give our short-termers the impression this is possible?
Believers typically undergo a revolution of mission-mindedness on their first mission trip; too often, however, when they want to know how they can further help, we tell them we are praying for funds for a new vehicle or building. Is this the best we can do? Did Jesus say, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send more checks in the mail?” Such an approach may actually deter otherwise-willing people from long-term service on the field by convincing them the best thing they can do is go home, take more mission trips and send money. I am not saying buildings, vehicles or giving are wrong. Nor am I criticizing the vital role of the sender or of the other wonderful callings on the home front. Indeed, we need all of these. We just need to make sure we are challenging people to go where the gospel is unavailable. We need to remember that three missionaries for every one million Muslims cannot complete the Great Commission with any amount of money.7
Importance of Short-term Missions in the Great Commission
For the field missionaries who wrote off STM long ago, will you reconsider how short-termers might fit into the big picture? True, it is impossible for some in sensitive areas to host any kind of team, but could you recruit an apprentice to serve alongside you for a few weeks, months or even years? How wonderful if God were to use you in the life of this “Timothy” to instill in him or her a burden for the unreached.
When STM participants are in the critical bonding stage, let us preach Malachi 1:11, Matthew 28:18-20, Matthew 24:14, Romans 10:14,15, and Revelation 7:9,10. Let us challenge them to the hardest, most sacrificial calls possible—the ones that require forfeiting numerous comforts and possibly their lives for the Lord’s sake. God will direct their paths, but woe to us if we do not teach from scripture God’s heart for the nations, present the needs of the unreached and challenge short-termers to dedicate their lives to going to those who have not heard of Jesus. Woe to us involved with STM if our participants do not gain a consuming burden for the nations that drives them to pray, give, go and mobilize. May we never stand before God and say, “Everyone got really fired up on our mission trips, but we never thought to mention the whole unreached people thing.”
Will we someday offer him long-term fruit, or will we present him with a bunch of spiritual highs achieved on self-serving mission trips? We cannot afford to miss the critical bonding opportunity STM provides.
2. Winter, Ralph D. and Koch, Bruce A. 1999. “Finishing the Task: The Unreached Peoples Challenge.” Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader. ed. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne. 3rd ed. Carlisle, United Kingdom: Paternoster. p. 519.
3. Brewster, E. Thomas and Elizabeth S. 1982. Bonding, And The Missionary Task. Pasadena, California, USA: Lingua House.
For the purpose of this article, I am defining long-term missions as a minimum four-year term. STM has traditionally been defined as anything less than a four-year term, but in this article I primarily have in mind mission trips of the one- or two-week to several-month variety. For a study conducted by Short-Term Evangelical Missions Ministries (STEM Ministries) of the ability of STM to produce long-term missionaries, see the following work:
4. McDonough, Daniel P. and Roger P. Peterson. 1999. Can Short-Term Mission Really Create Long-Term Missionaries? Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA: STEMPress.
5. Greenway, Roger S. 1999. “Finishing the Task: The Challenge of the Cities.” Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader. ed. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne. 3rd ed. Carlisle, United Kingdom: Paternoster. 553-58.
6. Talk given during the first plenary session of the 2006 National Short-Term Mission Conference, 19-22 January, Los Angeles, California, USA.