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Michael S. Wilder and Shane W. Parker. Transformission: Making Disciples Through Short-Term Missions. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010. 247 pp. $19.99.
Transformission, by academics and former youth pastors Michael S. Wilder and Shane W. Parker, takes on the subject of how short-term missions (STM) can be used to develop disciples of Christ. Although there is no definitive length for STM, the authors narrowly define STM as trips of one to two weeks in length for the purposes of their book. The audience they have in mind are those people from a sending country—presumably the US in this case—who are involved in the process of planning and executing STM.
Commendably, the book’s focus is in many ways the practice of discipleship independent of its connection to STM. There is a lot of wisdom in the content on discipleship, much of which the authors connect only casually to STM. Wilder and Parker assert that God intended the Great Commission to include not only making disciples of people of all nations but also the transformation of the believing Christians who take the gospel message abroad. In light of this assertion, the authors challenge the misguided practice of sending ill-prepared young people to far-away lands in the name of making disciples while little thought is given to making disciples of those being sent. They expose the tendency to treat STM as the end when they should be seen as a contributing means to the greater task of disciple-making.
The authors are emphatic that STM are subordinate to the making of disciples and that if the local church is not serious about disciple-making, then it should reconsider sending people on STM. In making this point, they go so far as to state, “We see STM as having little value for long-term initiatives and intentions of the Church and kingdom unless they occur, primarily, as an element in the discipleship process of all who go” (173). While it may seem odd for proponents of STM to describe them as “having little value,” the quotation clearly demonstrates the primacy they place on discipleship. The authors also recognize the oft-heralded shortcomings of STM but counter that the problem lies in the traditional focus of STM. If the entities that commission STM would see making disciples—especially of those being sent—as the goal and adjust their preparation, execution, and expectations accordingly, then STM would yield more abundant and longer-lasting fruit for the kingdom.
The authors dedicate several chapters of their book to reporting historical precedence, academic research, and anecdotal evidence in the attempt to change the mind of those cynics who do not believe that STM have a place in serious long-term missions. While these chapters lay an interesting foundation for the rest of the book, they do not seem to have the weight of argument necessary to convince those who doubt the value of STM. The recounting of the history of student-led STM as carried out by the likes of the Wesley brothers, Hudson Taylor’s China Inland Mission, and others is unconvincing due to their abbreviated treatment. The encapsulated summaries do not tell enough of their stories, especially with respect to the results of their work, to sufficiently make the point. Similarly, while some of the academic research is compelling, in the end even the authors admit that the dearth of information and lack of consensus among researchers make it difficult to draw a convincing conclusion as to the efficacy of STM with respect to the development of disciples. As for the testimonies from former STM participants, their inclusion certainly makes for interesting reading, but few skeptics will be convinced by a handful of biased anecdotes from former student missionaries.
The authors devote a considerable portion of their book to the persuasion and instruction of those leaders (e.g., youth and campus ministers, parents of students) who already employ STM and those who may consider it in the future. The members of this group are in need of field-tested principles and practices which might convince them of STM’s potential role in discipleship and provide them a means for realizing it. Unfortunately, with regard to such content, the authors offer too little, too late. Only the latter chapters cover this subject and even then fall short in developing clear and concrete proposals that the reader could synthesize and apply to his or her context. On one hand, I sympathize with the authors’ disclaimer that they cannot prescribe “a [mission] trip in a box” (174) due to the complexity involved in considering the cultural specifics and diverse objectives that each mission point presents. Yet, it seems reasonable that most readers of a book whose title is Transformission: Making Disciples Through Short-Term Missions are going to expect a bit more how-to material than is given by two men who have the wealth of STM experience and education that Wilder and Parker have. Certainly the reader will not go away emptyhanded, but they still seem to have left room for developing more universal principles and practices without running the risk of handing the reader a cookie-cutter STM program.
As a whole, the section on STM apologetics is likely too light to convert many skeptics while the portion devoted to practical application may be lacking for those looking for STM best practices. As such, it runs the risk of not satisfying either audience. At the same time, this book may well serve to pique someone’s interest in STM’s potential for discipleship and serve as a primer on how best to pursue them in their context. If that is indeed the case for some readers of Transformission, then Wilder and Parker should consider their contribution successful.
Speaking personally, I can relate to the premise of Transformission, since I became a career missionary as a result of STM experiences while studying natural resource management at Texas A&M. Without those experiences, it is doubtful that I would have ever considered missions as a career. As a missionary on the field I have worked with a number of short-term student missionaries and interns and have seen some of them return to the field. In fact, I am currently assisting one former campaign participant and his teammates to settle in Chile, where they will begin their work as career missionaries. Of course, the majority of those who have come to Chile on STM have not returned, but many of them are more involved in mission ministries through their local churches than they would have been otherwise. In a fitting twist, a young married couple who spent 18 months on the field as interns under my supervision are now serving on the missions committee at my supporting church in Denver, Colorado, as my supervisors. Without this couple’s service on the field, which inspired a greater commitment to world missions, my family may have been forced to return to the US when we lost financial support in our tenth year. In my supervision of STM workers, I consistently tried to make sure they had a personally transforming experience by approximating as much as possible genuine missionary life while facilitating meaningful interactions with the local people and culture. Any results produced for the work on the field were always a secondary concern. The priority was given to who the volunteers would become through what they experienced. That reflects the premise of Transformission, and I am confident that the aforementioned results testify to the efficacy of that philosophy.
Hopefully more of those involved in planning trips and receiving groups will be awakened to STM’s potential in the critical area of disciple-making. The success of STM should no longer be measured by whether people had a good time and were kept sufficiently busy for ten days, whether they went home with a feeling of mission accomplished, however fleeting, or whether they returned with good stories to post on a social networking site. Surely the Great Commission, as envisioned by God, given by Jesus, and carried out with the help of the Holy Spirit, was meant to play a greater part in the transformation of lives and the expansion of the kingdom than that. Being made into disciples while making disciples of others is what Christians are to be about; everything we do should be a means to that end. With that in mind, Wilder and Parker ask the hard questions, Should we even be doing STM? and, if so, Should we be doing STM like we have always done? Perhaps Transformission will inspire us to ask the same of our STM plans and convict us to give honest answers.