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Short-Term Fueling Long-Term Missions

If you were to pass through an airport during a spring or summer break, it’s almost a guarantee you would see pockets of short-term mission teams at many of the gates. In his book, Missions: How the Local Church Goes Global, Andy Johnson writes, “The advent of international short-term mission trips has probably done more than anything else to change the world-wide missions landscape.”[1] Some estimate that with the rise in short-term missions from the 1960s to today, we have seen perhaps millions of volunteers deployed to the nations.[2] Yet some look at the landscape and question whether the value of short-term missions truly holds. Why waste time, resources, and dollars on short-term efforts that could be spent on long-term work? Aren’t these trips just a means of creating a “spiritual high” or taking a “spiritual” vacation? Why would we go “over there” when the need is so great here? While there are undoubtedly short-term volunteers who have ulterior motives for going, many are going because they want to know, discern, and do God’s will, and some of them are eventually called into long-term service.

As we take a step back and consider the call to missions, we might ask if there is a true Biblical basis for the notion of a missionary call. In his book, Introduction to Global Missions, Zane Pratt highlights three views on this issue: one argues against a specific call; one suggests every believer has the same call; and a third claims each call is specific to the individual.[3] Pratt believes we are all called to be about the mission of God: “God never pulls you into himself without hurling you back out into mission. Jesus doesn’t pull you in to stay and soak; he pulls you into salvation to send you out as a part of his global mission.”[4] A knowledge of God, his Word, prayer, personal desires, experiences, and giftings all play a part in discerning this inward call to missions, but how do short-term mission trips help fuel and funnel people to long-term cross-cultural service?

While there are pitfalls to short-term mission trips–like seeking a spiritual high or the romantic experience of a new culture, or desiring simply to find the furthest frontier opportunity–these experiences can also serve as a laboratory in which the Lord begins to fuel the flames for long-term service.

We find a biblical basis for short-term missions in the Book of Acts, as Phillip carries the gospel outside of Jerusalem for the first time and shares it with the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26–39). God used the Scriptures and Phillip’s witness to draw the eunuch to faith and then send him back as a church planter in his own context.

First, short-term missions enables the circumstances and the context through which we evaluate a calling. While there are pitfalls to short-term mission trips–like seeking a spiritual high or the romantic experience of a new culture, or desiring simply to find the furthest frontier opportunity–these experiences can also serve as a laboratory in which the Lord begins to fuel the flames for long-term service.

Second, short-term missions also provides an intense time of discipleship that would generally be spread across multiple weeks, months, and years. These trips help expedite the spiritual formation of the individuals who are participating in them. They’re not intended simply to punch another stamp in the passport or create a new photobook, but rather to serve as a primer for long-term ministry. This discipleship begins with pre-field training: reading books, memorizing Scripture, sharing testimonies, and engaging with field personnel. It continues through on-the-field service as participants minister side-by-side with teammates with whom they are already in a covenant community (i.e., the local church). It does not end as the plane departs for home but extends into the re-entry and the debriefing that takes place after the trip. Many who were initially hoping for an “experience” end up giving testimony to how God used their experience to shape their hearts for the nations.

Third, short-term missions helps propel goers in giving toward missions and even leading future trips. As J.D. Greear attests, “People who see mission firsthand typically give more in missions offerings; in other words, money spent on short-term trips multiplies itself by creating greater willingness to give in the future among those who go.”[5] He further notes that in his own church, many who go one year as a volunteer end up leading a team the next year and eventually leveraging their lives for the cause of Christ in vocational ministry across the globe.

As someone who mobilizes college students and adults and has traveled extensively on short-term trips, I found it helpful to reflect with current Sent-Ones on the impact short-term missions had on their decision to serve long-term. Here are some of the encouragements they offered to short-term volunteers who are trying to discern whether they are being called into full-time missionary service:

  • Have the mindset of going to serve rather than just looking for the experience, even if that means doing something non-romantic. As the STM acronym suggests, we need to be a S.L.O.B. – Servant, Learner, Offering, Blessing.

  • Examine the why behind going and not just the where or the what you’ll be doing. Scriptural motivations are key in rightly following the path the Lord has laid for you.

  • A variety of short-term experiences can be beneficial, but don’t go just to collect more stamps in your passport. Use short-term experiences and vision trips to truly discern character, competency, giftings, fit, and a burden for the lostness of a particular people and place.

  • Do not allow the short-term trip to be the only influence in going; use your involvement through membership to a local church, service within that church, and affirmation of that church as markers in the sending journey as well.

So, to those who are seeking to discern the direction of the Lord in going and those who are faithfully sending: continue to encourage, advocate, and be involved in short-term missions, and do so with a biblical motivation, a heart to serve, and a willingness to lay your “yes” on the table.

The call to be on mission is a call for all Christians, wherever God has placed you. As Greear writes, “Christians do not need to be specially called to go overseas anymore than they need to be called to live missionally where they are—it is inherent to being a disciple. Each person must evaluate how he is best suited to fulfill that call.”[6] Short-term mission trips provide an opportunity for believers to be on missions outside their normal context. They can be incredibly formative, and they often lead to “catching the bug” of missions involvement. Pratt describes them as “repetitive deployment[s] . . . serving a larger strategy,”[7] and as such, they often lead to involvement in long-term vocational service. So, to those who are seeking to discern the direction of the Lord in going and those who are faithfully sending: continue to encourage, advocate, and be involved in short-term missions, and do so with a biblical motivation, a heart to serve, and a willingness to lay your “yes” on the table. It may be that on your next trip to the airport, you don’t need a return ticket because you have answered the call to lay your hand to the plow and not look back (Luke 9:62).


NOTES

[1] Andy Johnson, Missions: How the Local Church Goes Global (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 87–88.

[2] Zane Pratt, David Sills, and Jeff Walters, Introduction to Global Missions (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2014), 248.

[3] Pratt, 4–5.

[4] J.D. Greear, Gaining by Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches That Send (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 150.

[5] Ibid., 209.

[6] J.D. Greear and Michael McDaniel, “Missions in the Local Church,” in Missiology: An Introduction, ed. John Mark Terry (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2015), 556–57.

[7] Pratt, 249.

 

Ryan serves as Director of Missions and Operations with Lightbearers Ministries. He graduated in 2022 with a Doctor of Ministry from Southeastern Baptist Theological seminary, where he also serves as a trustee. He has received a MDiv in Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (2008) and an undergraduate degree from Union University in Jackson, TN (2005). Prior to joining Lightbearers, he served for thirteen years as a missions pastor in the local church. Ryan lives in Fayetteville with his wife, Rebekah, and three children: Hudson, Annie, and Hattie.




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