For the first time in the history of Christianity, local churches are presented with the option of affordable, short-term international missions.
A pastor in rural Louisiana can now take a team from his church to a remote village on the other side of the planet for a one-week trip.
But should he?
There is no question that every Christian should participate in the fulfillment of the great commission to all nations, but is short-term mission work the faithful way to pursue the great commission?
These are questions that every pastor must wrestle with.
Is the investment worth it? If not done well, short term mission trips can be a waste of resources. They can even unintentionally do more harm than good. Some mission trips look more like glorified tourism than biblical missions. Wealthy Americans fly into impoverished areas and exchange some temporary relief for some quality Instagram photos and some cool experiences with little to no long-term kingdom impact.
But it doesn't have to be this way.
I type this from 30,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean.
Our team is returning from ten days in Southeast Asia where I had some time to reflect on short-term missions. Here are five tips for effective short-term missions:
Short-term missions are often only as fruitful as they are helpful to local long-term missionaries.
It is impossible for short-term teams to know the needs, understand the context, and establish long term discipleship ministries without the partnership of someone on the ground doing the work of the ministry year around. Churches should seek partnership with like-minded long-term workers and should prioritize assisting and strengthening them.
Our church partners primarily with a missionary family in Southeast Asia. They have made significant sacrifices to labor in a difficult context. They are human. They get discouraged, lonely, and homesick. They go through spiritual highs and lows and they need gospel partnerships that will stir them to run the race with endurance. They need gospel partners who will celebrate their victories and share their burdens.
On this trip, we brought suitcases full of supplies and resources for their continued work. On each trip, we seek to serve them in whatever ministry they would ask of us. We often invite this missionary family to tell us not to come if it’s a bad time or if our presence would not be helpful for their work.
The best gospel partnerships are also gospel friendships where open communication and honesty is welcome. As we departed from the airport this morning it felt as if we were saying goodbye to family.
Having received aid from the church in Philippi, Paul writes, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil 1:3-5). May our missionary partners be able to write similarly and genuinely.
God's design for the accomplishment of God's mission is God's church.
In every context, the most powerful engine for kingdom expansion is the local gathered body of believers that makes the gospel visible. One of our primary goals for our partnership in Southeast Asia is to resource and equip a church plant in an under-resourced part of the world. We want to equip them for the work of the ministry that they will continue to do long after we have boarded our flight home.
Short-term missions are most valuable when they equip the local churches to reach their own people and send their own missionaries. This is the great commission: making disciples and teaching all that Jesus commanded so that they might go and do likewise.
Missionary work in the New Testament is church planting and church strengthening work.
“Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches” (Acts 15:40-41).
This week, we had the privilege of meeting in the home of a family who had just converted from Islam. The whole household had come to faith and was baptized just a week prior. This decision ostracized them from their extended families and friends, but their joy was infectious. We were invited to their home to teach the doctrine of salvation. We taught three sessions on regeneration, justification, and sanctification complete with times of question and answer.
Afterward, the wife spoke up and voiced her appreciation. She said, “many people come to this country to do good works, but you have come to teach the truth. We need more of this.” I don’t think she knew how profound her comment really was.
Short-term missions for disaster relief are essential. Short-term missions that focus on orphan care and the alleviation of poverty can be helpful.
But, in every scenario, the Christian person must prioritize the spiritual need as the most ultimate need. Handing out food to the hungry without leading them to the bread of life may feed them for a day, but it will leave them famished for an eternity.
The Christian person should care about all types of suffering, but we must care about eternal suffering most. All mission work should in some way support, strengthen, or participate in the ministry of the word as the ultimate end, even if providing for physical needs is the means to that end.
When Paul writes to Titus laboring in the difficult context of the island of Crete, he does not give instructions for health care, food distribution, or construction projects (though none of those things are bad and are often necessary).
Paul prioritizes, rather, the establishment of church leaders who can teach sound doctrine and rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:9). May we not neglect the spiritual needs for the physical needs, nor neglect the physical needs for the spiritual needs.
There is a recent pressure in some evangelical churches to measure missional success by how many people a church can send on short-term missions.
This pressure, however, can be unhelpful and even harmful.
While I understand the good intentions of the emphasis, I do not think it is consistent with the biblical example. It seems that the Holy Spirit set apart just Paul and Barnabas for the church planting work to be done among the Gentiles. In fact, it would have been impossible to expect every member of the church at Antioch to travel to help Paul and Barnabas for a week each year.
I am afraid that this pressure to involve as many people as possible results in financial waste and fruitless missionary endeavors.
In most of the hardest to reach places, large mission teams can make ministry very difficult.
Large groups often draw unwanted attention in areas that are hostile to Christianity. Large groups can also make it difficult to build meaningful relationships, especially where translation is required for conversation with locals. And large groups can create logistical difficulties for lodging and travel. American Christians have a hard time accepting that sometimes less is more, but in international missions, this is often the case.
If the goal is truly effectiveness in global disciple-making and not the building of our own church brand or providing our own members with international experiences, then we may need to focus on sending fewer--but better-equipped--people.
Is it reasonable to spend thousands of dollars to send church members to make disciples in a foreign context though they aren’t making disciples in their own context? Is it wise to send people not trained in sound doctrine to a place where the greatest need is teaching sound doctrine?
There is no formula for this, but we should be aware that our missional efforts can often be more influenced by our Christian sub-culture than by the Bible’s example and the Spirit’s leading.
Again, the key is listening to the needs of our missionary partners and prioritizing their needs over our desire to get our own church members involved.
The best short-term mission trips are investments for the long-term mission.
The church plant we have partnered with in Southeast Asia just celebrated their one-year anniversary. It was my third time visiting with that church plant and their leaders and I am only now beginning to develop the kind of trust and the kind of partnership that I hope will bring long-lasting fruit.
Each time we visit, we bring a small team equipped to lead seminars on the Bible. We model expositional teaching and we address doctrinal issues that they are facing in their context followed by extended times of question and answer.
This small church plant experiences pressure from heretical voices all around them, but with every visit, we hope to strengthen their commitment to the word of God and their ability to discern between truth and error. Every visit is a small investment for the long-term goal – that God would strengthen this church plant to become a doctrinally sound multiplying church. One day, we will no longer be partnering to plant this church, but we will be partnering with this church to plant others throughout their region. That day, however, may be many years from now.
The best short-term missions are part of a long-term commitment.
There will always be more missions to do than your one local church can do. We are all playing our part in God’s mission to expand his kingdom to every tribe, tongue, and language. We must, therefore, prayerfully follow the leading of the Lord to know where and how our local fellowships can best invest in God’s global work through the sending of short-term and long-term missionaries.
The five tips in this article do not say everything there is to say about this topic, but they can at least provide some starting places for evaluating your own church’s missional endeavors.
Brandon Langley is an NOBTS alum and the pastor of St. Rose Community Church.