Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 8, no. 1 (Winter–Spring 2017)

done_all Peer Reviewed Article

Short-Term Missions among Churches of Christ: A National Survey

Gary L. Green

This paper interprets the results of a national survey of practices and perceptions related to short-term missions among Churches of Christ in the US. The author organizes the discussion of implications into four domains: (1) local church participation, (2) pre-trip preparation, (3) the trip itself, and (4) post-trip reflection. The paper concludes by characterizing a typical short-term-mission scenario among US Churches of Christ and identifying positive and negative trends.

In 2006, Robert Priest et al. reported that “there is good reason to believe that more than one and a half million U.S. Christians travel abroad each year on ‘short-term mission trips.’ ”1 Some estimate that the number now approaches two million per year.2 Since thousands of organizations and tens of thousands of churches are involved in short-term missions, it is difficult to determine the numbers with precision. What these trips actually accomplish is also unclear in many cases.

Within Churches of Christ, Gailyn Van Rheenen and Bob Waldron conducted the most recent survey of mission work in 2002. The following paragraph describes the state of short-term missions at that time.

Our survey showed that 72 percent of the responding churches sent members on at least one mission trip during the two years preceding the survey. Thirty percent of these went to domestic mission points while 65 percent of the campaigns were to international locations. An encouraging note is that 37 percent of the churches participating in these mission trips sent at least 20 of their members, indicating the depth of commitment in these churches.3

In order to understand the current participation of Churches of Christ in short-term missions, the present survey was conducted.

Method

A survey of thirty-two questions about short-term mission was sent as a surveymonkey.com link to all churches on the 2015 Nationwide Church of Christ Database as provided by 21st Century Christian Inc.4 The survey was sent out on November 19, 2015, and the last data collected on January 13, 2016. In order to be as inclusive as possible, no selection criteria were applied to the survey recipients: churches were not excluded or chosen based upon any criteria of size, location, budget, or current missionary work. Participants were asked to indicate their agreement to participate in the survey with the understanding that the survey results would not reference individual churches.5 The research was open to any congregation of the Churches of Christ.

It should also be noted that participants could opt in or opt out of the survey. Thus, the sample is not a clear cross section of churches. It is also a survey for churches and not individuals; many Christians are involved in missions through universities, non-profit organizations, or individual efforts. These are not taken into consideration in the survey.

After allowing for bounced addresses, opting out, and incompletions, 138 completed responses were gathered from the 4023 emails sent; a response rate of 3.4% overall and 3.9% once bounced emails were excluded. The low response rate is probably attributable to a range of issues including lack of designated mission leader, lack of interest, volunteer workers, and length of the survey.

The introductory paragraphs of the survey were as follows:

This survey is conducted in order to accurately describe the state of Short Term Missions in Churches of Christ. It requires your honest response with one answer per question unless otherwise stated. All responses are confidential in that no individual will be singled out for analysis but only group percentages or averages. Thank you in advance for the few minutes this will take.

For the purpose of this survey, Short Term Missions (hereafter referred to as STM) is defined as a cross-cultural missionary trip lasting less than one year in length. It can be to a different culture within the USA, e.g., inner city, refugee camp, distant region, etc., or to a different culture outside of the USA.

Results

In order to facilitate a more complete understanding of the results, this portion of the article will follow the same order as the survey unless otherwise noted. Interpretation of the results will be presented in the discussion section.

Question 2: How many members are in your congregation?

  • 0–100 members = 30.4%
  • 101–500 members = 52.9%
  • 501–1000 members = 10.9%
  • > 1000 members = 5.8%

Thus, the vast majority (83.3%) of respondents were churches with less than 501 members.

Question 3: How many members of your congregation participated in an STM this year?

0–100
members

101–500
members

501–1000
members

Over 1000
members

0–20
participants

39/40 (97.5%)

50/72 (69.4%)

2/15 (13.3%)

n/a

21–50
participants

n/a

16/72 (22.2%)

6/15 (40%)

1/7 (14.3%)

50–100
participants

1/40 (2.5%)

5/72 (6.9%)

5/15 (33.4%)

1/7 (14.3%)

101–250
participants

n/a

1/72 (1.4%)

2/15 (13.3%)

3/7 (42.9%)

Over 250
participants

n/a

n/a

n/a

2/7 (28.6%)

  • 66.7% of churches reported 0–20 members participated in an STM.
  • 84.8% of churches had 50 or fewer members participate in an STM.

Question 4: Within what percentage range of your congregation does this (the answer in #3) represent?

  • 89.6% of the time, less than 25% of a congregation participated in a STM.

Question 5: How many members of your congregation participated in STMs in the year 2010?

  • Churches sending 0–20 people decreased slightly (73.3% down to 66.7% in 2015).
  • Churches sending more than 50 members on a STM almost doubled (8.2% up to 15.2% in 2015).

Question 6: What was the average number of participants in each STM this year?

  • 71% of groups are composed of 10 or fewer people.
  • Only rarely (11.1%) of the time will a group be composed of more than 20.

Question 7: What was the average number of participants in each STM in the year 2010?

  • Data for 2010 was virtually identical with data for 2015 varying by less than a 2% increase or decrease in every category.

Question 8: How many STM trips did your congregation take this year?

0–100
members

101–500
members

501–1000
members

Over 1000
members

1–2 trips

29

45

6

1

3–5 trips

5

22

5

1

Over 5 trips

n/a

3

4

6

  • 63.8% of churches take 1–2 trips per year.
  • 26.0% of churches take 3–5 trips per year.
  • 10.2% of churches take more than 5 trips per year.

Question 9: How many STM trips did your congregation take in the year 2010?

  • No significant change from 2010 to 2015.

Question 10: Rank the following groups of people involved in STM from most participation to least participation with the most participation receiving a 1 and the least participation receiving a 6.

0–100
members

101–500
members

501–1000
members

Over 1000
members

Youth (12–18)

3.75

3.14

1.67

2.0

College (19–23)

3.43

3.26

2.92

2.38

Singles (24–30)

4.19

4.28

4.0

3.88

Young Marrieds (19–29)

4.2

4.10

4.5

5.29

Middle Age (30–50)

2.5

3.0

3.92

3.38

Older (50+)

1.97

2.78

3.64

4.0

Question 11: Please rank the importance of the following goals for your STM(s) with the most important goal receiving a 1 and the least important receiving a 6.

Responses are listed below in order of most important to least important; weighted total score is given to the right. The lowest weighted score indicates the most important goal.

Evangelism

1.78

Growth of participants

2.85

Orphan care

3.37

Construction

3.49

Medical

3.63

Sports

5.45

Question 12: How long was the average STM including travel days to and from?

  • 38.9% of STM trips lasted 7 days or less in length.
  • 31.3% of STMs lasted 8–10 days.
  • Combined, 70.2% of STMs last 10 days or less.
  • Only 16% of STMs exceeded two weeks in duration.

Question 13: What was the cost of the average STM per person? Please include all expenses including airfare, ground transportation, hotels, food, materials, tourism, etc.

  • 19.2% cost less than $1000.
  • 49.2% cost $1001–$2000.
  • 16.9% cost $2001–$3000.
  • 7.7% cost $3001–$4000.
  • 6.9% cost more than $4000.

Question 14: What percentage of the church’s annual budget—not just mission budget but overall church budget—is allocated for STMs?

0–100
members

101–500
members

501–1000
members

Over 1000
members

0–10%

29

61

12

6

11–20%

5

21

n/a

n/a

21–30%

1

n/a

1

n/a

31–40%

1

n/a

1

1

41–50%

n/a

n/a

n/a

n/a

Over 50%

n/a

n/a

n/a

n/a

Question 15: What percentage of the church’s annual budget—not just mission budget but overall church budget—is allocated for LONG TERM MISSION work (work longer than one year)?

0–100
members

101–500
members

501–1000
members

Over 1000
members

0–10%

26

36

7

n/a

11–20%

6

20

5

5

21–30%

4

12

n/a

2

31–40%

1

2

2

n/a

41–50%

n/a

1

n/a

n/a

Over 50%

n/a

1

n/a

n/a

Question 16: What percentage of the church’s annual MISSION budget—not overall church budget but only mission budget—is allocated for STMs?

0–100
members

101–500
members

501–1000
members

Over 1000
members

0–10%

20

35

6

3

11–20%

3

18

5

1

21–30%

2

10

1

3

31–40%

2

1

2

1

41–50%

2

4

1

n/a

Over 50%

7

5

n/a

n/a

Question 17: What percentage of the church’s annual MISSION budget—not overall church budget but only mission budget—is allocated for LONG TERM MISSION work (work longer than one year)?

0–100
members

101–500
members

501–1000
members

Over 1000
members

0–10%

20

14

2

n/a

11–20%

4

8

1

n/a

21–30%

1

9

1

n/a

31–40%

1

4

1

n/a

41–50%

1

9

1

1

Over 50%

11

27

8

7

Question 18: How does the annual mission budget compare to the annual mission budget in 2010?

0–100
members

101–500
members

501–1000
members

Over 1000
members

Decreased

5

10

1

n/a

Same

18

24

1

2

Increased

12

35

12

6

Question 19: Please rank the following items in order of cost for your STM(s) from the most expensive item as #1 to the least expensive item as #7.

Responses are listed below in order of most expensive to least expensive; weighted total score is given to the right. The lowest weighted score indicates the most expensive item.

Flights

1.50

Hotel / overnight arrangements

2.81

Supplies

3.65

Ground transportation

3.66

Donations / gifts

5.03

Preparation material

5.16

Debrief material

7.02

Tourism

7.02

  • 86.4% of churches marked flights as the most expensive part of the STM budget.
  • 59% of churches marked hotel / overnight accommodation as the second most expensive item.

Question 20: Where did the STM stay at night?

  • Response frequency to the options of hotels, hostels, homes, and “other” is almost equal.
  • Only 1.5% of STMs stay in tents.
  • There is no common trend among STMs regarding where the groups stay despite the consensus that this category is the second most expensive item in the STM budget.
  • Those reporting a star rating for the hotel where they stay gave the following distribution.6

1 star

12.1%

2 star

9.1%

3 star

51.5%

4 star

9.1%

5 star

3.0%

Question 21: What percentage of the STM trip cost was related to rest, relaxation, or tourism?

  • 76.2% of churches reported that less than 5% of the trip cost was related to rest, relaxation, and tourism.
  • Combined with the next category, 93.9% spent 10% or less of their trip funds on rest, relaxation, and tourism.
  • No church spent more than 15% of the STM cost on rest, relaxation, and tourism.7

Question 22: Who led the STM? You may check more than one option.

  • No one category was clearly dominant.
  • 37.7% indicated “A missions committee member or missions deacon” led the STM.
  • When the categories referring to staff members are combined, 47.7% of churches agree that someone on staff led the STM.
  • When staff answers are combined with other categories referring to local church leadership, someone in a recognized leadership position leads 70.5% of STMs.
  • When categories that include the words “former missionary” are combined, 24.6% of churches reported that a “former missionary” led the STM.

Question 23: How was the approved trip leader selected?

  • No clear consensus emerged from the options given.
  • When write-in responses referring to some form of approval were added to existing categories, 57.8% reported some form of approval system for STM leadership.

Question 24: Which most accurately describes the way the STM participants prepared for the trip?

  • 23.4% = no special preparation.
  • 30.5% = a monthly meeting.
  • 17.2% = a weekly meeting.
  • 14.0% = only one meeting.
  • 12.5% = every other week meetings.
  • 2.3% = only readings.
  • Thus, a combined 60.1% of churches require participation in multiple meetings of some sort while 16.3% of churches required only one meeting or only readings.

Question 25: Indicate how much importance was placed upon thoughtfully and appropriately engaging the local culture during the STM from most important as #1 and least important as #4.

  • 87.6% of churches reported that significant or moderate effort was made.
  • 1.68 was the average weighted score.

Question 26: How are the STM participants debriefed after the trip (check all that apply)?

  • 71.3% of churches required a presentation.
  • 45% of churches required a “one-time meeting.”
  • 12.4% of churches reported “no debriefing.”
  • 4.7% of churches required multiple weeks of meetings.

Question 27: Where did the STMs go (check all that apply)?

The responses appear below in descending order. (Churches could select more than one option; hence, the total adds up to more than 100%. Mexico—a country—was a separate option due to the common confusion of whether to include Mexico in North or Central America.)

Central America

49.2%

North America

33.9%

Africa

29.2%

Mexico

21.5%

South America

20.8%

Asia

18.5%

Caribbean or Bermuda

18.5%

Europe

13.9%

South Pacific

5.4%

Question 28: What percentage of your STM trips went to support a long-term missionary(s) that your congregation also supports?

0–100
members

101–500
members

501–1000
members

Over 1000
members

0%

14/37 (37.8%)

23/70 (32.9%)

2/14 (14.3%)

2/8 (25%)

0–10%

7/37 (18.9%)

12/70 (17.1%)

4/14 (28.6%)

1/8 (12.5%)

11–20%

n/a

2/70 (2.9%)

1/14 (7.1%)

n/a

21–30%

n/a

7/70 (10%)

1/14 (7.1%)

2/8 (25%)

31–40%

n/a

2/70 (2.9%)

n/a

1/8 (12.5%)

41–50%

n/a

1/70 (1.4%)

1/14 (7.1%)

2/8 (25%)

Over 50%

16/37 (43.2%)

23/70 (32.9%)

5/15 (33.3%)

n/a

Question 29: What long-term effects have you perceived from your STM efforts (check all that apply)?

Responses are below in descending order.

The missionary was encouraged.

77.5%

The mission church grew spiritually.

75.2%

The mission church grew numerically.

48.0%

Buildings were constructed.

45.7%

The mission budget and/or missions contribution grew.

34.9%

The mission point leadership was trained and/or taught.

32.6%

Other

23.6%

STM participants joined the missions committee.

12.4%

  • 66.6% of “other” responses had write-in answers related to the participants’ spiritual growth.

Question 30: How did your congregation determine where the STM should go and/or what it should do (check all that apply)?

Due to the option to “check all that apply,” responses total more than 100%. When descriptive write-in answers were reallocated to the categories given, the following are the results.

  • 53.1% repeated trips to a former location.
  • 50.0% supported a long-term missionary.
  • 26.3% went to a work suggested by the church membership.
  • 9.7% were taken in partnership with another church or organization.

Question 31: Which answer best describes how you measured your effectiveness/success?

  • 41.0% indicated that effectiveness is measured by anecdotal stories or not at all.
  • 32.0% indicated some option involving surveys or an assessment of participants, the missionary, or the local church.
  • 9.3% indicated documentation of long-term growth of the mission church.
  • 5.4% indicated follow up visits to the field by leaders.
  • 1.6% indicated feedback from the mission church. When answer from write-ins were reassigned, it can be argued that this number rises to 4.5%.

When the categories were conflated into subjective/qualitative or objective/quantitative and the responses in the “other” category were assigned to these options, then the following were the results:

  • 48.9% subjective/qualitative.
  • 51.1% object/quantitative.

Question 32: Rank the following 7 goals of STMs in order from most important (1) to least important (7).

Responses are listed below in order of most important to least important; weighted total score is given to the right. The lowest weighted score indicates the most important item.

Evangelization at the mission point

2.48

Spiritual growth of the STM participants

3.07

Development of relationships at the mission point

3.10

Numerical growth for the mission church

4.10

The relief of suffering at the mission point

4.19

Physical development at the mission point

5.26

Distribution of literature at the mission point

5.47

Discussion

For ease of discussion, the survey questions have been organized into the four domains of (1) local church participation, (2) pre-trip preparation, (3) the actual trip, and (4) post-trip reflection.8

Domain 1: Local church participation

Data indicate that Church of Christ congregations most frequently number around 100 in size.9 The survey, however, tended to be overly represented by midsize congregations (52.9%). Hence, the numbers reported in areas of size, frequency, and cost might be higher than those of the average smaller congregation.10

In two out of three congregations, the following scenario unfolds. One or two STMs with less than ten members on each trip are taken each year. This is basically the pattern that has been happening since—at least—the year 2010. These low numbers are probably due to many factors including but not limited to travel logistics and cost management. On the upper end of the spectrum, one in four congregations conducts three to five trips per year but with the same number of participants (0–10) on each trip.

Based upon the questions regarding participation and averaging all categories, the average STM team will be composed of four people older than 50, three people between 30 and 50, two youth, and one college student. This exact distribution is probably rare but when all groups are averaged, this is the composition. However, the composition of the group changes when church size is taken into consideration. In churches greater than 500 in size, the youth group and college students are the most represented in STMs. In churches with less than 500 in attendance, the older generation (+50) is clearly more participatory than either the youth or college population. It is likely that these changes are representative of the composition of the respective church bodies in general.11

Regardless of church size, absent will be the single professionals, graduate students and young marrieds. Youth and those either established in their careers or retired from their careers enjoy much more flexibility.12

In a society that praises youth, and in which the youth STM may have already replaced the summer camp as a “right of passage,” one might expect the youth group to represent the most common STM participant. These expectations appear valid in congregations that are of substantial enough size to possess large youth and college groups. That congregations of less than 500 tend to have more participation from older members than youth or college members should not be discouraging. One would hope that the wisdom which accompanies age would make older members less prone to rash words or actions that can be interpreted locally as offensive. “Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?” (Job 12:12 NIV).

Across the board in the USA, STM budgets are on the rise.13 Responses in this study indicate that in 77.7% of churches, the STM budget makes up 10% or less of the church’s mission budget. Only churches that are 101–500 in size indicate a tendency, though weak, to budget more than 10% of the annual budget to STMs. When only the mission budget is considered, it is still rare that any church allocates more than 20% of the mission budget to STMs. There is a clear tendency for smaller churches to allocate a higher percentage of their mission budget to STMs. As church size increases, the percentage of the mission budget allocated for STMs decreases. There is an inverse relationship between church size and percentage of the mission budget dedicated to STMs.

Although the focus of this survey is on STMs, questions were included about long-term missions. What was discovered was that the percentage of a church’s annual budget dedicated to LTMs tends to rise with congregation size though no congregation reported allocating more than 30% of the annual budget to LTMs. In smaller congregations (less than 100), it appears that the norm is for 0–10% of the overall budget to be dedicated to LTMs. On the other end of the size spectrum, no church over 1000 in size reported allocating less than 10% of the annual church budget to LTM support.

When the mission budget—not overall church budget—is reviewed, the same tendency holds true: the larger the congregation, the higher percentage of the mission budget allocated to LTMs. Most churches (52.6%) with less than 100 members allocated 0–10% of the mission budget to LTMs. Among congregations of 101–500 in size, only 19.7% reported allocating 0–10% of their mission budget to LTMs. This number dropped to 14% and 0% for churches 501–1000 and greater than 1000, respectively.

An impressive 28.9% of small congregations—those less than 100 in size—reported dedicating over 50% of the mission budget to LTMs. This percentage grew with each jump in size category until churches over 1000 reported 87.5% of their mission budget is allocated to LTMs. Thus, the tendency reported by churches in this survey is that as church size increases, the percentage of the mission budget dedicated to STMs decreases and the percentage dedicated to LTMs increases.

It is possible that dedicating a higher percentage of the budget to STMs is more common among smaller congregations due to the fact that smaller congregations often cannot afford the cost of LTM support. With that in mind, it is admirable that so many (28.9%) of small congregations actually dedicate over 50% of their mission budget to LTMs. It is possible that some congregations had little if any mission budget prior to member participation in STMs. If this is the case, then the STM participation may have led the congregation into LTMs.14

How one interprets the numbers related to overall annual budget and missions most likely depends upon where one is standing when one reads the numbers. If one stands in the shoes of missionaries and mission churches who often work with insufficient resources in the majority world or under other difficult conditions, then it might be disappointing that only 2.2% of churches dedicate more than 30% of the annual budget to STMs and only 5.4% of churches dedicate more than 30% of the annual budget to LTMs. However, if one is standing in the general fellowship of North American evangelical churches, then the fact that 19.2% of churches dedicate over 20% of the annual budget to LTMs might be quite encouraging.

When the question of budget amount over time was introduced, the survey results were quite encouraging. Since the year 2010, only 14.4% of churches under 500 in size reported a decrease in the mission budget while only one congregation over 500 in size reported a decrease. Among congregations less than 100 in size, half (51.4%) reported that the mission budget stayed the same since 2010.15 Growth, however, was reported in the mission budgets of the majority of all churches over 100 in size. Among larger congregations of 501–1000 and over 1000, growth in the mission budget since 2010 was reported in 85.7% and 62.5% of the churches, respectively.

Domain 2: Pre-trip preparation

When the average congregation puts together an STM, it does so with two primary goals: evangelism and growth of the participants. These two responses rose to the surface on two separate questions easily taking priority over all other options.

One might question how Boomlets and Millennials define evangelism and if this might have had an effect on reporting. However, the most common generation involved in STMs in congregations less than 500 in size is the older generation (age 50+). Boomers have always been active and driven by a strong belief in progress. Hence, Boomers most likely view evangelism as a positive activity and overt primary goal more frequently than Millennials or Boomlets.16

At the same time, those filling out the surveys are most likely of the Boomer generation. When this is coupled with the fact that many in our heritage perceive the “right” answer for doing missions is overt evangelism as opposed to medical aid, housing development, sports ministries, and so forth, then one would expect evangelism to be the primary focus of STMs.

The two questions about goals made it clear that “growth of the participants” is a very high priority. It is not uncommon to see an increase in STM member participation in other areas of church life following a trip. Yet, the effect of STMs on participants is a matter of debate in missiology, and more studies are needed to determine what actually happens over time. Much of the quantitative research on STMs is based upon studies that are not well designed scientifically: they lack control groups, longitudinal studies, and/or triangulation with other populations. Hopefully, better methodology in studies can be employed in the future to resolve the apparent discrepancy between the quantitative and qualitative findings related to the results of the long-term effect of STMs on participants.17

My primary concern with “growth of the participants” as a goal is its potential conflict with the ultimate example of missions—the life of Jesus. Jesus did not come to earth to improve himself but rather to give himself fully in sacrificial love for others. He not only called his disciples to respond to the great commission but also to the greatest commandments—love God and love others. While “growth of the participants” is a positive outcome to be embraced, caution should be exercised not to allow short-term missions to become so focused upon the participants that authentic love for others is adversely affected. Perhaps “the growth of the participant” is a better bi-product than goal.

Perhaps “the growth of the participant” is a better bi-product than goal of STMs.

The goal of each STM is perhaps also related to the leader of the STM. It is encouraging that the survey indicated that most churches vet the leader using some form of approval system. One would hope that this approval system helps to keep the focus of the STM on healthy goals.

The survey revealed that in 7 out of 10 cases, the STM leader is a recognized leader—staff, committee member, deacon, or elder—in the local church. One would hope that leadership in the local church translates into maturity for the STM, though it does not necessarily automatically translate into missional understanding or cultural sensitivity. Another positive effect of this tendency is to connect STMs with the heart of the local congregation.

It is intriguing that most (75.4%) of STM efforts were not led by a former long-term missionary. On the one hand, it reflects the amateurization of missions experienced in churches today.18 For a movement that once held high the banner of “priesthood of all believers,” it is a short step to the “mission of all believers.” If these STMs are conducted well, this can be positive. The statistic might also reflect the nature of the small congregation with limited connections and opportunities. It is conceivable that many churches simply do not have former missionaries in their relationship network who are experienced in their area of interest and available at the right time.

On the other hand, the statistic is concerning. Scripture repeatedly calls us to seek the wisdom of those who are more experienced and points out the danger of a failure to do so.19 One has to wonder how many STMs fail to reach their full potential or even result in undetected damage due to a lack of cross-cultural experience and missional understanding at the leadership level. The inexperienced eye may look but not see.

How many STMs fail to reach their full potential or even result in undetected damage?

The passing on of this experience—or lack of it—lies at the heart of STM preparation. In 6 out of 10 churches, STM participants are required to attend multiple meetings prior to departure. What happens in those meetings and how effective they are is a subject for further research. Yet, it is encouraging that the majority of churches recognize the seriousness of the STM endeavor to the degree that sequential meetings are required for preparation.

The flip side means that in 4 out of 10 churches, this recognition might not be at the level that it should be. It is concerning that this number of trips can be taken in the name of Jesus without more significant preparation. If the primary goal of the STM is indeed evangelism, then the ability of the average church member to communicate effectively across cultural barriers might require more preparation. In fact, the concept that we know what is best for another person in another culture without deeply engaging in a dialogue of understanding is “the assumption that allowed Rome, England, and Spain to say their colonialist domination was not purely self-centered.”20 To represent Christ cross-culturally requires our best efforts, not our best assumptions.

This potential lack of preparation also begs the question of the response given to question 25 regarding “thoughtfully and appropriately engaging the local culture.” 87.6% of respondents said that “significant effort” or “moderate effort” was given to the issue. One has to question: if only 6 out of 10 churches required more than one meeting to prepare for the trip, how does that translate into significant or even moderate effort? Perhaps the answers more accurately reflect intentionality than actual measured effort. If so, then the intention should be lauded and the effort enhanced.

Domain 3: The trip itself

As would be anticipated, most STMs are, well, short. For 7 out of 10 groups, the trip lasted ten days or less and cost less than $2000.

When cost is broken down, the greatest expenses for STMs are travel and overnight accommodations.21 That churches attempt to keep costs to a minimum is reflected in the fact that when hotels were used, the vast majority reported using a 1–3 star hotel.

Another indication that churches attempt to keep STM costs to a minimum and stay focused is the set of responses regarding tourism and relaxation. Responses from two questions indicate that tourism is the lowest cost of most STMs, composing less than 10% of the overall cost for 9 out of 10 trips. Thus, even though the lure of adventure and the opportunity to see other parts of the world might be built into the nature of STMs, the budget of the trips is rarely guided by tourism per se.22

One might speculate that the low focus on tourism might be precipitated by STMs returning annually to the same location in support of long-term missions (LTMs) supported by the congregation. This, however, is simply not the nature of the STMs reported in the survey. An amazing 50% of the respondents indicated that STMs were taken to locations unrelated to their church’s LTMs or that only 1 in 10 of their STMs were taken to support an LTM of the congregation. In other words, 5 out of every 10 churches either never or very rarely connect their STMs with their LTMs. Only 3 out of 10 churches reported that at least 50% of their STMs were sent to support the LTMs.23

There seems to be little correlation between the long-term efforts and the short-term efforts in congregations. Though this might indicate a disconnect between STMs and LTMs at the level of the local church, other factors may play a significant role in the lack of correlation. As noted previously, many smaller congregations do not have an LTM with whom to connect. It is also possible that a congregation’s LTM is located in a region or situation where STMs would not be appropriate due to cost, timing, or cultural context. It is also possible that membership within the local church has changed so that a new focus for mission effort has arisen that is in addition to the church’s LTM. In other words, multiple issues might be involved.

The lack of correlation between STMs and LTMs brings us back to the question of the reported goal of STMs as evangelism. If effective evangelism involves relationships, and 50% of all STMs are not connected to long-term relational efforts, then is it even possible for these STMs to accomplish their primary goal of evangelism with any degree of effectiveness?

If effective evangelism involves relationships, is it even possible for these STMs to accomplish their primary goal?

When it comes to the geographical nature of site selection for STMs, the survey asked respondents to indicate the area where their STMs worked. The frequency of visits to each area was not questioned. Thus, the results actually reflect whether an area is represented in STM trip selection rather than the actual proportion of trips to the area. With that in mind, the survey indicates that when respondents determine where to take an STM, Central America and North America are the most commonly represented areas, while Europe and the South Pacific are the least. Again, it may be that the locations that are less commonly represented in the survey results actually received multiple visits per year from respondents. Yet the question simply measures “representation of the country in the selection process.”

The upside of the results is that we are interacting with our closest neighbors. One can hope that the focus close to home means that we are as concerned with those across the fence as we are with those across the world.

The downside of this is that it again raises the question of evangelism. If 92% of Australia and 90% of New Zealand are unchurched, then why are these areas less represented24 One can understand that travel to these locations is both expensive and time consuming. Also, that outreach is needed everywhere and that some of the more receptive locations are in the western hemisphere is valid.25

Domain 4: Post-trip reflection

The questions that dealt with reflection on the trip led to interesting insights. The most common responses to the question of long-term effects were “the missionary was encouraged” and “the mission church grew spiritually.” Both of these responses were very strong with respondents, indicating that they were observed 77.5% and 75.2% of the time, respectively.

As a former missionary and current missionary-care worker, I believe that supporters’ visits to the field are critical for missionary longevity. The chance to share ministry and spend time in dialogue with supporters on site is invaluable.26 STMs can be part of a healthy, intentional, balanced approach to LTM support.

LTM workers may struggle with casting a vision of what a healthy larger congregation might look like. As Rich Mullins once sang, “It’s hard to walk beyond your vision.”27 Visits to the field through STMs by spiritually healthy supporters provide the opportunity for vision casting both collectively and individually. Thus, the view that an STM helped a mission church grow spiritually is legitimate; however, whether this is more perceived than actual is a valid question and will be dealt with below.

The third most frequent response to the question of long-term effects was that “the mission church grew numerically.” Again, if the top goal of STMs is evangelism, then the fact that this is the third response given to the question of long-term effects raises the question of how effective the efforts of STM evangelism actually are.

The remaining options given for the question of long-term impact are all much more quantitatively measurable responses—teaching conducted, buildings constructed, joining the mission committee, and increased financial contribution/offering. The fact that these are objectively measurable, while encouragement and spiritual growth are subjectively measurable, makes the comparison difficult.

When asked how STM success is measured, the results demonstrate that the effect of 1 out of 2 STMs is objectively evaluated. Yet, all responses to the effects of STM are somewhat shadowed in doubt, since half of all efforts rely strictly upon anecdotes or no measurement of any sort.

That STM participants return from a trip feeling excited and blessed is understandable and even expected. Yet, to interpret that excitement as growth is probably an overstatement. The review of work by Ver Beek in 2007 indicates the need for better evaluation of STMs, and Moreau postulates STMs might even lead to a negative effect on participants over time.28 Now that we know that the results of only 1 in 2 STMs is objectively evaluated, it is a hope that one outcome of this review will be that churches will begin to scrutinize more closely what is actually happening during and after STMs.

Truly lamentable is the fact that our efforts are conducted and evaluated from only one side of the table. Only 6% of respondents indicated that locals or outsiders were petitioned for any type of evaluation of effectiveness. What does it say about paternalism that we conduct STMs and evaluate STMs without input from those we feel called to serve?

What does it say about paternalism that we conduct and evaluate STMs without input from those we serve?

Dr. Duane Elmer tells the following story of the monkey and the fish as a parable about conducting missions without local input.

A typhoon had temporarily stranded a monkey on an island. In a secure, protected place on the shore, while waiting for the raging waters to recede, he spotted a fish swimming against the current. It seemed obvious to the monkey that the fish was struggling and in need of assistance. Being of kind heart, the monkey resolved to help the fish.

A tree precariously dangled over the spot where the fish seemed to be struggling. At considerable risk to himself, the monkey moved far out on a limb, reached down and snatched the fish from the threatening waters. Immediately scurrying back to the safety of his shelter, he carefully laid the fish on dry ground. For a few moments the fish showed excitement, but soon settled into a peaceful rest. Joy and satisfaction swelled inside the monkey. He had successfully helped another creature.29

In no way is this critique given to question the hearts of those involved in STMs. On the contrary, it is a call to go beyond the heart and truly determine how efforts in the name of Jesus are being conducted. In the story, the monkey had a wonderful heart of compassion. Jeremiah reminds us that the heart, however, “is deceptive above all things” (Jer 17:9). In order for STM efforts to be evaluated properly and to avoid falling into a self-affirming trap of paternalism, it is crucial that more than 4.5% of our efforts receive feedback from locals.

Unfortunately, when attention is given to what happens to participants after a STM, the results indicate a deficiency. The most common response given regarding debriefing is “presentation to the congregation” (71.3%). Presenting to the congregation certainly provides an avenue for reinforcement of all that is positive and for Q&A. Yet, it is rare that any congregational presentation involves deep critique, self-evaluation, or the reporting of any negative outcomes. Simply put, congregational presentations are typically more pep rally than evaluation.

Simply put, congregational presentations after STMs are typically more pep rally than evaluation.

Meeting together once after an STM was indicated by almost 1 out of 2 respondents. The factor of concern with this answer is that it indicates the low frequency of ongoing debriefing—meeting more than once—that takes place. In fact, only 5.4% of respondents indicated that some form of ongoing processing is required of STM participants. Again, this raises the question of evaluation.

“Growth of the participants” was the second most common answer regarding STM goals. Yet, if this is truly a high goal, then effort to achieve that goal after the trip is severely anemic. In 9 out of 10 cases, churches trust that the experience without any intentional sequential processing will produce lasting spiritual change in participants. Studies, however, indicate that greater learning comes through processing an experience rather than experience alone. To slow down and process seems counterproductive in our hurry-sick world; yet the evidence is convincing.30 It is a shame that great spiritual experiences that cost considerable time and effort are rarely reflected upon in-depth after the fact. The financially and physically difficult portion of the STM is already accomplished but the easily accessible chance to make the change permanent is not pursued.

Another concern is that churches rarely know what participants are actually thinking. What many could describe as a great trip might not be so great in the minds of all participants. Church members come from a wide range of experiences that include abuse, pain, neglect, poverty, and more. How members are adversely affected by exposure to those same features during an STM trip can go undetected without better follow-up.

Likewise, STMs are only partially about the effort of the participants directed towards the local work; much time and energy is spent in fellowship with other participants from the sending church. It is my experience in working with more than 800 summer interns evaluated through the Cerney-Smith stress assessment and debriefing interviews that trauma experienced on STMs can commonly be attributed to the interaction between participants or between participants and the missionary.31 It is also my experience that this trauma is frequently unreported due to the fact that the participant “doesn’t want to upset anyone” or “get anyone in trouble.”

Thus, an STM trip that most report as wonderful and a huge success might actually have adverse effects on the spiritual life of a given participant who quietly internalizes the trauma he/she experienced. Left undetected, this trauma can become the proverbial “bitter root [that] grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (Heb 12:15 NIV).

Conclusion

The average scenario of short-term missions for these Churches of Christ—without consideration of church size—is the following:

The congregation conducts one or two STMs per year with less than ten participants. Of the participants, four people are older than 50, three people are between 30 and 50, two are from the youth group, and one is a college student. The trip will last less than 10 days and cost less than $2000 per person, with most of that going towards the flight and hotel costs; a very small piece of the cost will be for relaxation or tourism. The hotel will be in the 1 to 3 star range, and the congregation will spend less than 10% of the church mission budget on the trip. A staff member who has never served as a missionary will lead the trip to somewhere in North America or Central America to a work that stands a 50/50 chance of being related to the congregation’s long-term mission work. Usually the leader will require participants to attend more than one meeting in order to prepare for the trip. The STM will be focused on evangelism, with the hope that it will result in personal growth of the participants. Upon return, the STM group will make a presentation to the congregation. The effectiveness of the trip may or may not be evaluated and the STM team will meet only one more time. The leader will not ask the local people at the mission site to give any feedback about the trip.

And then next year we will do it all over again.

This national survey has served to capture a bird’s eye view of STMs in the Churches of Christ. That view is both encouraging and concerning. It is encouraging that most churches engage in STMs with the help of vetted leaders who require some level of preparation prior to the trip. It is widely reported that participants grow spiritually from the experience and, in about half of the cases, a long-term work of the church also benefits from the trip. It is encouraging that mission budgets tend to be holding steady or increasing. The level of participation by the older generations indicates that these generations are using their disposable income and time to bless the work of the church in missions.

A big concern is the lack of measurable outcomes for most STMs. Frankly put, are we actually accomplishing what we propose to accomplish? It is hard to say at this time. Welcoming feedback from the people STMs serve would be a great place to start, and it is lamentable that in 95% of the cases, the sending church never asks the local people at the mission site for feedback.

It is also concerning that STMs are not more frequently connected with a church’s long-term mission work. Though there may be multiple factors involved in the explanation of this fact, there is, at best, a 50/50 chance that a given STM connects with a church’s long-term effort.

Similarly, it is of concern that the long-term effect on participants is not known. If the vast majority of participants do not engage in any form of intentional sequential processing, then it again raises a question regarding the true long-term effect of the STM, not only at the mission site but even in the heart of the participant.32

In the age of globalization, short-term missions have become part of the fabric of missions in the local church. I hope this survey has helped to clarify what that fabric looks like and how to strengthen it in the Churches of Christ.

To him be the glory.

Dr. Gary L. Green left his veterinary practice for missions in 1989. Following a master’s degree from Harding University, he and his wife spent nine years in Venezuela and Costa Rica. He then established and directed the WorldWide Witness internship program at Abilene Christian University (ACU). Through this program, he helped prepare over 800 students for cross-cultural internships and cooperated with over 60 missionaries worldwide. From 2013–2016, Dr. Green served as the Associate Director for the Halbert Institute for Missions at ACU where he focused on team building. In 2014, he published Now What? Spiritual Discernment for Cultural Encounters, a debriefing guide for short-term missions. He and his wife currently serve fulltime in missionary care.

1 Robert J. Priest, Terry Dischinger, Steve Rasmussen, and C. M. Brown, “Researching the Short-Term Mission Movement,” Missiology: An International Review 34, no. 4 (October 2006): 432. See also Robert Wuthnow and Stephen Offutt, “Transnational Religious Connections,” Sociology of Religion 69, no. 2 (June 2008): 218.

2 “Research and Statistics,” http://shorttermmissions.com/articles/research.

3 Gailyn Van Rheenen and Bob Waldron, The Status of Missions: A Nationwide Survey of Churches of Christ (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2002), 50.

4 21st Century Christian, Inc., 2809 12th Ave S, PO Box 40526, Nashville TN 37204. Access to this database is a “for cost” service provided by 21st Century Christian.

5 Agreement to participate served as question #1.

6 When a hotel rating was given as a range such as 2–3 or 4–5, only the higher rating was used for the data.

7 This information correlates well with the results from question 19 in which churches ranked “tourism” as the least expensive factor in their STM budget.

8 Domains for discussion with their corresponding questions are as follows:

Domain 1: Local church participation. Questions related to church size, group size, and costs; these include questions 2–10 and 13–18.

Domain 2: Pre-trip preparation. Questions related to preparation, goals of the trip, and leadership of the trip; these include questions 11, 22–25, 32.

Domain 3: The actual trip. Questions related to trip length and location; these include questions 12–13, 19–20, 21, 27, 28, 30.

Domain 4: Post-trip reflection. Questions related to debriefing and evaluation; these include questions 26, 29, 31.

9 Thomas H. Olbricht, “Churches of Christ,” in The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, ed. Douglas Foster, et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 213.

10 Reasons for this high representation might indicate lesser participation in STMs by smaller congregations or simply that there was no member with the time, responsibility, or information to fill out the survey.

11 That larger congregations have a high number of youth involved in STMs is consistent with the research of Priest, et al., who found that “94 percent of megachurch high school youth programs organize short-term mission trips abroad for their youth, with 78 percent doing so one or more times per year.” Robert Priest, Douglas Wilson, and Adelle Johnson, “U.S. Megachurches and New Patterns of Global Mission,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 34, no. 2 (April 2010): 98, http://www.wfstapleton.net/resources/Mid-U.S.+Megachurches+and+New+Patterns+of+Global+Mission+.pdf.

12 2015 research indicates the average retirement age in the USA is 64 for men and 62 for women; those enjoying good health can often spend many years participating in STMs. Alicia H. Munnell, “The Average Retirement Age: An Update,” Center for Retirement Research, Issue in Brief 15-4 (March 2015), 1–5, http://crr.bc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/IB_15-4.pdf.

13 Some estimate that US protestant churches now spend as much as $3.4 billion on STMs every year. Gilles Gravelle, “Short-Term Missions & Money,” Moving Missions, http://movingmissions.org/short-term-missions-money.

14 It is also possible that in some cases the effect of inoculation against LTMs is occurring as churches participate in STMs. See A. Scott Moreau, “Short-Term Missions in the Context of Missions, Inc.,” in Effective Engagement in Short-Term Missions: Doing It Right! , ed. Robert J. Priest (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2008), 16.

15 Churches reporting 1–5% growth in the budget were included in the “same” category.

16 The attitude of Boomlets—born after 2001—is still forming, since the oldest of the generation is only 15 years of age. Millennials—born 1981–2000—tend to see religion as part of the personal sphere and not public sphere. Since evangelistic efforts that lead people to a point of decision may result in a negative response and sour the relationship, Millennials are prone to avoid the issue. Within a generation that suffers from frequent broken relationships due to divorce or transient families, evangelism is a dangerous proposal. For more on the beliefs and worldviews of the different generations, see the work of William Strauss and Neil Howe, including their work at http://fourthturning.com.

17 For a good overview of the studies conducted on STMs, see Kurt Alan Ver Beek, “Lessons from the Sapling: Review of Quantitative Research on Short-Term Missions,” in Effective Engagement in Short-Term Missions: Doing It Right!, ed. Robert J. Priest (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2008), 475–502.

18 For a good article on the concept of amateurization of missions, see Justin Long, “The Democratization and Amateurization of Missions,” http://www.justinlong.org/democratization-amateurization.php.

19 See Prov 11:14; 12:15; 13:10; 19:20; 1 Kgs 12:1–17.

20 David A. Livermore, Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 94.

21 Several “write-in” responses indicated that STMs stayed in homes, camps, churches, or other free options. Yet, these were in the minority.

22 It should be noted here that only the church budget was taken into consideration; no questions were asked related to how much individuals may add to the trip for tourism purposes.

23 A second question related to STM site selection received a slightly better response when 50% of respondents checked “we focused on supporting our long-term missionaries.” This might be an intention but not a reality. The subject is worthy of further research.

24 61.1% of Australians self-identify as Christians, though only 8% assemble on a given Sunday. See The McCrindle Blog, “Church Attendance in Australia,” March 28, 2013, http://www.mccrindle.com.au/the-mccrindle-blog/church_attendance_in_australia_infographic; Glenn Capuano, “2011 Australian Census—Christian Religions,” .id: The Population Experts, August 30, 2012, http://blog.id.com.au/2012/population/australian-census-2011/2011-australian-census-christian-religions. 48.9% of New Zealanders self-identify as Christians, though only 10% assemble on a given Sunday. See Statistics New Zealand, “2013 Census QuickStats about Culture and Identity,” April 15, 2014, http://www.stats.govt.nz/Census/2013-census/profile-and-summary-reports/quickstats-culture-identity/religion.aspx; Mike Crudge, “Pop Quiz: When Did Church Attendance Peak in New Zealand?” Mike Crudge: Communication, Church, Society, July 19, 2013, http://mikecrudge.com/2013/07/19/pop-quiz-when-did-regular-church-attendance-peak-in-new-zealand.

25 John L. Allen Jr., “The Dramatic Growth of Evangelicals in Latin America,” National Catholic Reporter, August 18, 2006, http://ncronline.org/blogs/all-things-catholic/dramatic-growth-evangelicals-latin-america.

26 One would hope that the days of missionaries spending twenty years on the field with no visit is over—although I can sadly attest to visiting a missionary last year who has only been visited by a supporter once in 28 years. In some locations, the danger is now approaching excessive frequency of visits that distract from the work at hand. Research indicates that too little or too much missionary care is detrimental to the long-term health of the missionary. For more on the concept of too little or too much missionary care see Detlef Blocher, “What ReMAP I Said, Did, and Achieved,” in Worth Keeping: Global Perspectives on Best Practice in Missionary Retention, ed. Rob Hay, Globalization of Mission (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2007), 19.

27 Rich Mullins, “Hard,” A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band, Reed Arvin, 1993, compact disc.

28 Moreau, 15–16; Ver Beek, 474–502.

29 Duane Elmer, Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006), 27–28.

30 Giada Di Stefano, Francesca Gino, Gary Pisano, and Bradley Staats, “Making Experience Count: The Role of Reflection in Individual Learning,” working paper, Harvard Business School, Dec 5, 2016, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers2.cfm?abstract_id=2414478.

31 WorldWide Witness program, Halbert Institute for Missions, Abilene Christian University. Student participation in summer internships from 2002-2016 totaled 810.

32 To address the issue of debriefing STMs over a period of time, see Gary L. Green, Now What? Spiritual Discernment for Cultural Encounters (Franklin, TN: Carpenter’s Son, 2013).