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“Framing the Current Short-Term Missions Discussion” (Editorial Preface to the Issue)

Author: Greg McKinzie
Published: February 2012

MD 3.1

Article Type: Text Article

Short-term missions (STM) may be the most important missiological point in question, and at the same time the most seemingly unobjectionable practice, facing the church of the present century. It is, in other words, a subject both fascinating and pressing for those who care about the church’s mission. Why is it so important? Because of its sheer volume, its practitioners’ missiological assumptions, and its potential effects, both positive and negative, upon God’s mission. Yet, all three of these points—STM’s prominence, shape, and impact—are of such significance only because the church has found STM to be, in large part, a self-evidently good idea. The explosion of STM in Western Christianity often reflects the uncritical leap of individuals and congregations—not to mention other relevant organizations—into the practice.

Critical reflection on STM has taken many directions in the missiological literature of late, including the call for a moratorium. Yet, despite increasing, judicious criticism, STM has only grown in wider Christianity.1 Given this reality, I wish to preface the issue’s articles with some general observations that might frame the discussion and reflection that the editors hope these contributions will inspire.

The practice of STM under consideration has a particular cultural shape

The question is not abstractly about missions that are short in duration. It is, instead, about the particular practice among Western churches popularly labeled STM. There is a bundle of beliefs, assumptions, and practices that give shape to the STM movement at present. Though something of a generalization, some of the most essential characteristics are: an orientation toward “results” of a certain kind, a high degree of populism, a strong concern for the self, and a romantic view of cultural difference.

These characteristics tend to govern implicitly the discussion of STM’s pros and cons. Thus, some might construe the debate in this way: although cultural difference is a challenge, it is not a major problem (romantic view); although a short-term project might not have a long-term effect on the receiver, it will forever change the life of the goer (self-orientation); although it is not possible to engage in truly relational ministry in the short term across cultural and linguistic barriers, it is possible to “make an impact” that results in believers, buildings or bandages (results-orientation); although a participant may be unequipped in many ways, he or she is still obliged to fulfill the Great Commission (populism). These perspectives tend to intersect and self-perpetuate in a variety of ways. For example, if cultural distance were such a major issue (romantic view), God would not have commissioned average “real people”2 to preach to the nations (populism). Or, this experience (self-orientation) is about forming long-term missionaries who can make the most of short-term results (results-orientation).

The point of these examples is to demonstrate the way in which the cultural shape of STM can affect the logic of the discussion surrounding it. Critical assessment happens within a context that assumes what STM is or should be and a set of values by which to judge its outcomes. Churches that recognize their cultural biases can engage in a healthier evaluation of their STM.

The pros and cons of STM are difficult to measure

The church that wishes to assess the relative value of its STM faces a knot of considerations. Though the missiological analysis has usually focused on quantifiable issues, such as the number of long-term missionaries produced or the amount of increased financial support for missions, other questions are far more qualitative in nature. The following list suggests the complexity of evaluating the various dimensions of STM relative to one another:

  • Tangible receiver benefits (conversions, buildings built, patients seen, etc.) vs. money invested: for example, does putting the roof on that building justify the trip’s expense?
  • Tangible receiver benefits vs. tangible goer benefits (long-term mission decisions, increased missions advocacy, increased offerings, etc.): for example, if receivers benefit little from pulled teeth, does an increase in missions offerings justify the trip?
  • Tangible receiver benefits vs. intangible goer benefits (worldview transformation, spiritual formation, etc.): for example, if receivers benefit little from manual labor they could have done themselves, does the discipleship experience of the goer justify the trip?
  • Money invested vs. tangible goer benefits: for example, if a church spends thousands of dollars on airfare and hotels, does the returning goers’ excitement about missions justify the expense?
  • Money invested vs. intangible goer benefits: for example, if a church spends thousands of dollars on airfare and hotels, does the returning goers’ decreased ethnocentrism and deeper understanding of God’s mission justify the expense?
  • Intangible goer benefits vs. tangible goer benefits: for example, if goers return more entrenched in their ethnocentric views because of shallow cross-cultural engagement, does one person’s decision to become a long-term missionary justify the trip?
  • Any goer benefits vs. intangible receiver benefits (instruction, encouragement, worldview transformation, seeds sown, etc.): for example, if there is no effective increase in missions advocacy or financial support among goers, does the thought that “seeds were sown” among receivers justify the trip?
  • Any goer benefits vs. intangible receiver harm (disempowerment, dependency, offense, etc.): for example, if goers consistently grow spiritually and make missional lifestyle choices as a result of an ongoing STM program, is the dependency created in the receivers (say, for church buildings) a weightier matter?
  • Tangible receiver benefits vs. intangible receiver benefits: for example, if receivers obtain emergency relief, but the cultural offensiveness of the goers damages relationships and testimony, which is more important?
  • Tangible receiver benefits vs. intangible receiver harm: for example, if many receivers make a decision for Christ, is their disempowerment through the means and methods of STM evangelization justified?
  • Intangible receivers benefit vs. money invested: for example, if nothing more than the encouragement of receiver Christians occurs, does that justify the expense of the trip?

Again, the values involved in the assessment make all the difference. For example, one who values evangelism may justify a significant economic investment in STMs aimed at conversions while minimizing, say, the need for long-term work or potential intangible harm of receivers. One whose priority is the formation of goers may not give other outcomes as much attention. Or one who observes negative outcomes for receivers and limited positive outcomes for goers may easily criticize the value of a building or the quantity of money invested.

A more substantial treatment of Scripture needs to inform the definition of STM

Biblical insight is a vital part of the value system that each congregation employs in the critical assessment of its STM. There is a tendency in the literature to defend the general practice of STM on the basis of proof-texts.3 Because there are many so-called missions throughout Scripture that are short in duration, some feel that STM has indisputable biblical precedent.

The difficulty, as I have argued above, is that a particular kind of STM is at issue—not a vacuous notion of “missions that are short.” Therefore, it is theologically imperative to move beyond the validation of STM in principle on the basis, for example, that Paul was in this or that city for a short length of time. In other words, the discussion should no longer define STM primarily in reference to the length of the mission. The question was never whether it is possible to accomplish something valuable to the kingdom in a short time. Indeed, are not many (perhaps most) of a long-term missionary’s encounters or endeavors actually short-term by typical definitions? The difference lies not primarily in length but in dynamics.

Even the short-term dimensions of long-term mission (LTM) are ideally about mutually empowering relationships situated in cultural appropriateness. The reason that LTM is the standard by which critics so often measure STM is not that it is longer! Rather, LTM is long because long-term missionaries take the time to ensure the vital dynamics of Christian mission. A congregation’s approach to a biblical understanding of STM must comprehend the role of mutually empowering relationships and cultural appropriateness in the interpretation of Scripture, if it is to move beyond a superficial validation-seeking exercise. A missiologically sound approach does not ask how long a “mission” in the biblical narrative lasted but what was at stake in its execution.

When “short-term missions” means, as it often seems to do, “short-term task completion” (results-orientation), the emphasis will naturally fall upon the amount of time necessary to complete the task. The solution to this error is not just refocusing on the definition of the task itself. To reiterate one example above, those who advocate evangelism and conversions over other factors often root their position, at least rhetorically, in a particular definition of mission (including STM) vis-à-vis Scripture. That is a debate unto itself, which has much to do with a biblical perspective on STM. Yet, even assuming a congregation determines which tasks are rightly mission—whether evangelism, construction projects, or medical campaigns—the question remains. Is the congregation, in the length of time an STM allows, able to undertake its task in the mode of operation consonant with the biblical narrative?4

As a congregation turns to Scripture in the evaluation of its STM, it should neither be satisfied with a superficial hermeneutic of duration (cataloguing how long biblical examples lasted) nor feel justified by a mere definition of mission that legitimizes the task (asking whether the STM goal is consonant with the congregation’s understanding of kingdom). In simplest terms, it is critical that the congregation’s handling of the biblical narrative inquire not only as to what to do and how long to do it but also, and perhaps principally, how to go about service in God’s mission.

Two perspectives reign: minimizing harm and maximizing benefit

Because the basic problem concerns how STM is done and not how long it lasts or what it entails, the most helpful resources for churches are those that address the dynamics involved in STM. Within these resources, there are two tendencies. Some observe that STM has been harmful in many cases and would seek to equip churches to minimize their footprint, so to speak. In this perspective, churches must learn to do less damage. Others believe that STM is essentially beneficial and would seek to equip churches to maximize their positive impact. Churches must learn to do the most possible good.

Two excellent works represent the harm-minimizing tendency:

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

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor . . . And Yourself (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), esp. ch. 7 in the context of the whole book.

It is noteworthy that these books, which have to do with the effects of STM on receivers, deal with cultural appropriateness and mutually empowering relationships. There is an important truth hidden in this observation. Those who write about the receiver—that is, what STM effects in ministry—tend to do so from a harm-reduction perspective, because the truth is that the receiver can both benefit from and be harmed by STM, while the goer is in no real risk of harm. The goer can maximize the benefit to self, but if she does not, there is no risk to her. This is the fundamental power dynamic that churches must come to terms with in order to assess their STM soberly: the receiver must be at risk in order to receive benefit, while the goer can bless from a position of invulnerability.

Books that take the benefit-maximizing viewpoint, in contrast, tend to focus on the goers.5 Some focus on the devotional experience, because STM can be uniquely spiritually transformative. Tim Dearborn’s Short-Term Missions Workbook is a leading example.6 Others even describe STM as an essential method of discipleship, “a perfect pedagogical approach to initiate spiritual, cognitive, affective, and behavioral transformation.”7 Though there is opportunity for discipleship in STM, when concern for self dominates the motivation and experience of STM, something has gone awry.

Even when a strong critique of self-orientation is present within the benefit-maximizing disposition, the outlook tends to gloss potentially serious concerns for the receivers. A major publication in this vein is Maximum Impact Short-Term Missions. The authors state that when a trip is only about the goers, it is not mission.8 The book is concerned primarily with “effectiveness,” yet it does not deal with the actual effects of STM, positive or negative. There are a few passages where the authors make a passing comment about potential “problems” caused by goers, but there is no discussion of harm to receivers. The cast of the whole discussion is toward positive impact, the language affirming that STM can maximize effectiveness, the tacit belief being that ineffectiveness—not harm to receivers—is all that is at stake. This seems to be the case, in part, because of an assumption that “Great Commission efforts” are implicitly good by virtue of being such. Given that the “impact” of STM is the fulfillment of the Great Commission, and that this is a matter of either positive impact or maximum impact, the book as a whole is concerned with the management of STM participants and facilitators in order to be effective rather than ineffective—not with the prevention of harm.9

These two perspectives offer good advice that is somewhat contradictory. Some warn us away from overestimating the impact of STM efforts. Goers are merely a piece in God’s mission, and they should not expect their limited contribution to be the game-changer for receivers. Moreover, harmful colonialist attitudes often color STM service and goers’ estimation of its value to receivers.10 The best posture for goers, then, is that of a learner. It it a properly humble approach that moderates the emphasis on their work’s importance, communicates respect to receivers, and allows for significant personal growth. Yet, others do well to warn against focusing on the self. Mission is about God’s purposes, and STM’s primary concern should be their realization in the lives of others. When STM is primarily about learning, even when it is couched in the need for humility, it is primarily about the goer. Using receivers in order to create a learning experience is abusive and equally imperialistic.11 The tension is clear: go as a learner, but do not make it about yourself. Congregations must navigate these waters carefully.

STM is inevitable

In one sense—that of the realist—critics must come to terms with the fact that churches will do STM. The statistics suggest that STM has moved out of the realm of fad, into the realm of operating assumption. While some church leaders may conscientiously object, they will not be the majority; at least not in the near future. The question shifts, then, from whether to do STM to how to do it. The literature considered above is indicative. Whatever one’s tendency in the debate, the assumption is that churches are going to do STM—so they had better figure out how to do more good and less harm.

Yet, there is a second sense in which STM is inevitable. If missional-church thinkers are right, then congregations must revision STM in terms of what it means to be a global citizen when the church is missional by its very nature. The globalization that has made STM possible as an operating assumption—including its economic, communication, and transportation possibilities—shapes every aspect of the Christian’s life. The missional nature of the church means that its members are always sent and always intentionally engaged. The global nature of the church’s existence means that Christians are constantly involved in short-term relationships that cross cultural barriers. David Livermore writes:

As we begin to be more honest about the fact that short-term mission trips are simply another piece of thousands of experiences in our lives that change us, we’ll be motivated in appropriate ways, which in turn will help us engage more effectively. Let’s stop thinking about short-term missions as a service to perform and see them as another expression of a seamless life of missional living that includes giving and receiving.12

A congregation can organize and delimit a group STM experience, but whether it does or not, it needs to equip its members to engage in culturally appropriate, mutually empowering relationships in every aspect of life. Therefore, congregations can view equipping for a specific STM as relevant to far more than just the trip itself. If STM is becoming an operating assumption, then in the best case scenario the average church member’s capacity for mutually-empowering, culturally-appropriate relationships is becoming an operating assumption as well.

Congregations should not generalize their assessment of STM

Congregations engaging in critical reflection should think not in terms of all STM but of their specific STM. What does this particular STM entail? What are the values guiding its evaluation? How do the potential pros and cons of this specific project weigh against one another? Does the congregation have the resources necessary to maximize benefit and minimize harm to this people group in the process of this undertaking? Generalizing the discussion can undermine both mutually empowering relationships and cultural appropriateness, as both are context dependent.

This issue

The articles by Ben Langford and Spencer Bogle, teammates in Jinja, Uganda who recently transitioned back to the US, come from their presentations at the 2011 Christian Scholars’ Conference. Both of these papers deal with difficult issues facing long-term work in majority-world contexts: namely, the nature of mission strategy and neocolonialism. Drawing a simple connection to the STM theme of the remaining articles, if these are problems for long-term missions, how much more for short-term? The dynamics Langford and Bogle discuss are just the sort that inform missiologically sound STM. We leave it to the reader to make the best applications.

Missiologist C. Philip Slate provides a short history of STM among US Churches of Christ, drawing a parallel between Evangelical STM practices and concluding with some practical suggestions for future STM efforts. In the course of the article, Slate also briefly advocates the procedures of Let’s Start Talking (LST), a leader in STM among Churches of Christ. Thus, the subsequent article, by LST’s cofounder Mark Woodward, follows somewhat seamlessly. Woodward utilizes years of LST experiences in order to bring to life the recommendations of the well-known Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Mission (SOE). Woodward provides an accessible starting point for congregations to better organize their STM efforts. Jason Herman’s article continues in the practical vein, focusing more narrowly on student ministry STM. Herman takes Nehemiah’s story as a paradigm for STM and integrates it devotionally into sample pre-trip training material. Combined with an administrative task checklist, the article provides a perspective on the kind of preparation that can help to prevent a shallow STM.

In the Reflections section, two authors continue the conversation. First, Larry Wu considers objections to STM from the perspective of a relief worker, seeking to debunk the dichotomy between relief and development. Second, Earl Lavender discusses university-organized STM from the perspective of a professor who desires to promote missional practicums for students of all fields. Both authors advocate STM in a particular form, admitting to certain limitations but articulating values that justify the respective practices in their view. Attention to the way that each develops his case will prove instructive to the reader.


Corbett, Steve, and Brian Fikkert. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor . . . And Yourself. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009.

Dearborn, Tim. Short-Term Missions Workbook: From Mission Tourists to Global Citizens. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003.

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

Moreau, A. Scott. “Short-Term Missions in the Context of Missions, Inc.” In Effective Engagement in Short-Term Missions: Doing It Right!, ed. Robert J. Priest, 1-33. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2008.

Peterson, Roger, Gordon Aeschliman, and R. Wayne Sneed. Maximum Impact Short-Term Mission: The God-Commanded Repetitive Deployment of Swift, Temporary, Non-Professional Missionaries. Minneapolis: STEMPress, 2003.

Wilder, Michael S., and Shane W. Parker. Transformission: Making Disciples Through Short-Term Missions. Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2010.

Other Recommended Reading

Fann, Anne-Geri’, and Greg Taylor. How to Get Ready for Short-Term Missions: The Ultimate Guide for Sponsors, Parents and Those Who Go! Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006.

Priest, Robert J. Effective Engagement in Short-Term Missions: Doing It Right! Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2008.

Richter, Don. C. Mission Trips That Matter: Embodied Faith for the Sake of the World. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2008.

1 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), 1-33, for statistical analysis of Protestant missions agencies. Though comparable recent studies are not available for Stone-Campbell churches per se, anecdotal observations would suggest a parallel trajectory. See C. Philip Slate’s article in the present issue.

2The phrase comes from Roger Peterson, Gordon Aeschliman, and R. Wayne Sneed, Maximum Impact Short-Term Mission: The God-Commanded Repetitive Deployment of Swift, Temporary, Non-Professional Missionaries (Minneapolis: STEMPress, 2003), ch. 1.

3Peterson, Aeschliman, and Sneed, 198, for example, even label their argument as a presentation of “proof-texting passages.”

4There is not space here to argue adequately what that mode is. Still, the Incarnation remains, in my opinion, the fundamental reference point. Jesus is the paradigm for mission, short-term or long-, and consequently gives shape to the church’s understanding of mutually empowering, culturally appropriate relationships.

5“The top reason people participate in short-term missions is for the life-changing experience it promises them.” David A. Livermore, Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 53.

6Tim Dearborn, Short-Term Missions Workbook: From Mission Tourists to Global Citizens (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003).

7Michael S. Wilder and Shane W. Parker, Transformission: Making Disciples Through Short-Term Missions (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2010), 54.

8Peterson, Aeschliman, and Sneed, 119, 179-81. They are, nonetheless, keen on the idea of “serendipity” for STM participants and the “give and take” that results in benefit for the goer (see ch. 7).

9The clearest expression of their perspective is their discussion of a hypothetical scenario in which all Christians participated in STM: “It’d be messy, it’d be confusing, and there’d be millions of problems (literally). But could it be done? The massive problems it would create still pale in comparison to problems four to five billion people have who aren’t yet walking in the full reality of God’s love and His redemptive plan for all of creation.” Peterson, Aeschliman, and Sneed, 118. The authors minimize even “massive problems” (the only time in the book when they discuss the possibility of such) in comparison with the potential positive impact, strongly suggesting an evangelism-at-all-costs or an ends-justify-the-means approach to STM. Harm reduction is not in view.

10Livermore, 13, 94.

11Peterson, Aeschliman, and Sneed, 180.

12Livermore, 148.

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