Re-Envisioning Short Term Missions

Over the last few days, I’ve been diving into some thoughts on short term missions. Up to this point, I’ve only spoken about some of the problems that we, as American ministers, often commit in our attempt to help. Its been a little rough at times, but I think that a proper diagnosis and analysis of the situation is important for us as we move forward towards something better that God has for us. If you didn’t see the previous posts, I recommend you head back and get to reading them. The first was on discipleship and effectiveness, then the second was on money and perceptions.

Today, I’m looking forward to talking about something that I am much more excited about. Despite what you might think from the previous posts, I believe that there is a lot to be excited about in the missions movement of recent years. The fact that so many people are wanting to get involved shows so much promise and I believe that as we pray and move forward, God is going to do more and more to see the global harvest come in. Below are some things that I think can help get us there, this list is far from comprehensive, but I think that it can get us going in the right direction.

This is something that I hammer on whenever I get the opportunity. A two week trip is too easy to be that effective and there are so many blind spots (some of which I spoke of in the previous posts) that can make the trip, in fact, detrimental. When we decide that we are going to make more of the trip than just going for a couple weeks (or the six months of preparations), we are saying ’yes’ to be a part of what God wants to do in that place for the long haul. Perhaps, that means the Lord is calling you to a long term mission in that city, but even if He’s not, I believe He still wants us to extend our involvement in that place.

My first sponsorship photo of Awadhi

When I first felt God calling me to Africa, I made a point to apply forwhatever short term teams my university was sending there. I applied for Tanzania and Mozambique and was accepted for Tanzania. When I found out that we would be working at a small orphanage called Treasures of Africa, I felt the Spirit incline me to do something beforehand. I decided that I would sponsor a child at the orphanage. That child ended up being Awadhi and that relationship, that sponsorship, radically changed my life and propelled me into a deeper discipleship and calling. It was a simple enough decision. I decided to send $100 every month and pray for this little boy. But God used it to open me up more and more to making the short two weeks into something far more.

When missionaries follow Jesus’ calling to a particular nation, they realize that this calling is going to take of their own time, effort and finances. While they may not know how long they’ll be there whether it be a few years or a lifetime, they nonetheless know that it is going to take time. Short term missions trip offer an opportunity for those that the Lord wants in the US to make a similar commitment to missions in another country at the same time. What would it look like to make a multi-year commitment to one ministry in one country and have that be the country that you visited?

This will inevitably take more sacrifice. Sacrifice of potential other opportunities. Instead of hopping to another country and another ministry every summer, you put one spot on your map for however many years and say, “I’m going to bless the socks off of that ministry. I’m going to pray for them everyday. I’m going to encourage the church leaders and missionaries there through letters and emails. I’m going to advocate for them stateside. I’m going to give money generously and sacrificially towards the Kingdom-work that I see them doing.”

Commit yourself to believing in faith, then seeing with your eyes that God is doing something there. You can then feel assured that you are fulfilling your calling to those nationals that become disciples of Christ.

We have a church in Costa Mesa that took us on as missionaries last year. This is an Assemblies of God church and we are a non-denominational ministry. While this church is on the site of my alma mater, Vanguard, I personally never attended there. Nonetheless, they have circled Moshi on their map and decided to pour money and prayers into the Kingdom work there. Therefore, they support multiple ministries/missionaries in Moshi and are committed to seeing God exalted in that city. I think that’s pretty cool.

A couple days ago, I mentioned an email conversation that I had with a guy from a supporting church of ours and he brought up the standards that they are setting up for people that they would send on short term teams. They won’t send people that don’t have fruit on the tree in their own city. That is an important standard and brings us to the question of how is local fruit and global fruit related?

God’s Kingdom is at work in all places. He is in the process of turning people’s hearts back to Him and renewing all things. This takes place on every continent (yes, even Antarctica). God wants to do something in Thailand, Kenya, Uruguay, Bosnia and your city. He is no respecter of persons in that He is calling all to Him without discrimination. Kingdom work is Kingdom work. I mean this in the least cliché way possible, the Lord wants you to live on mission in your own city. You are a minister of the gospel all the time. Segregating our missions outlook between what we do overseas and what we do at home is detrimental to our spirituality and our witness, especially when you consider that you are going to be far more effective in your own cultural context of home. Allow your desire for international missions be the spark that ignites your passion for the mission opportunities in your very own city.

Furthermore, local fruit doesn’t mean only ministering to people that are just like you. It is quite easy in the US to minister cross-culturally to someone right down the street. For example, I am from California and throughout my life, there have been opportunities at pretty much every church that I’ve been a part of to go down and do ministry in Mexico. While those opportunities would come by from time to time, I rarely heard of outreaches to the Mexican community in the very city in which the church was in. I’m talking about Paso Robles, Costa Mesa and Long Beach, there is a considerable Mexican population in each of those cities. That is a blessed opportunity to get down to Kingdom work in our own backyard.


Teaching at a Tanzanian Christian School as an intern in 2009

As you would gather from reading up to this point, one of the problems that I observe in short term missions is just that they are too short. A simple remedy to that would be to make it longer. Makes enough sense. My 2009 internship in Tanzania was honestly an integral part of my move to Tanzania just five months later. Internships of two or three months in the host country pack a lot more punch on both sides of the equation. The short term missionary intern is given a lot more opportunity to get into the pace of life of their host country and foster deeper relationships with the nationals they meet. At the same time, they are often put in a position where they can really aid a ministry during a time of need.

It also helps that interns come by themselves or in a group of two or three. That helps them become more self-sustaining and hence less of a stress to their host missionaries. They then get more of an opportunity to enjoy the relationships and learn from the missionaries and national leaders, hence aiding in their own discipleship.

Discipleship Training Schools (DTS) are similar to cross-cultural internships in the focus on commitment to discipleship. A DTS allows the short-termer to experience more of the culture that they’re in while being fed and stretched to grow spiritually themselves. This too takes more of a time commitment, but we shouldn’t shy away from commitment, because what you’re doing is putting down spiritual roots in your own life and advancing the Kingdom more effectively in other people’s lives. That’s worthwhile.

Possibly the most important way to make the most of any ministry opportunity is intentionality. This certainly goes for short term opportunities like a DTS or an internship. These opportunities present a better chance to really experience God and be effective, but it isn’t automatic. God calls all of us to live lives that are intentional. We must go into these experiences not only hungry, but laying it all out for God, striving for more of His Spirit and more of His kingdom. That’s how we make the most of any spiritual experience.

The path that we walk must be humility. Sad to say, many of our downfalls are caused by a lack of humility. I’m not simply talking about people that you can tell are proud and brash. Beyond that there are everyday mistakes that we make, because we assume that we know what is best. This stance is something that is bred into our culture and is silently lethal to not only missions, but our own spirituality.

The truth is that the center of Christianity has already begun to move, and in many people’s views already has moved, away from the west and has landed in the majority world. We go to these places expecting that we are going to wow them with our service, only to find that the people there are hungrier than us and their churches experience far more growth than ours back in the states. There is something to be said for that.

Jesus’ teaching is clear that it is better to serve than to be served and it is better to honor than to be honored. While we normally give mere lip service to the former, we hardly even consider the latter.

So what does it look like to walk humbly, to just serve and honor others in short term missions? Three little words will go a long way here. Listen. Submit. Acknowledge.

Unfortunately, we often come into short term missions with our own idea of how things ought to go. We know what we want to do, what we want to bring, how long we will be there, how many people will come and the like. That can make it very hard to accommodate within a ministry in the host country. Listen to the missions contact whether that be a national pastor or a missionary. If they say they need six people, don’t send fifteen. If they ask you to bring certain supplies for them, don’t waste all your space on personal items or things that are unnecessary. If you tell them that you want to bring a team of twenty people for ten days and they tell you that what they really need is two people for the whole summer, suck it up and see how you can help. Very likely, they may be more in need of prayers and money than a team of people at all.

The second part of this is to submit. The overseas ministry is the spiritual authority in this situation. Make sure that they know you’re behind them, regardless of whether or not you get to do exactly what you want. Too often, I feel, ministries are forced to take on a team or some service just because its better than nothing. They don’t feel secure in the relationship enough to say what they actually need, because they don’t want to miss out on the partnership altogether if the team decides to go in another direction upon hearing the ministry’s requests. This would be especially true for national church leaders that are in hopes of American partners.

The third part is really the attitude of the heart in submission, and that’s to acknowledge. The overseas ministry knows better than you and the team. What you think is a really good idea, might in fact be a really bad idea. Don’t be discouraged by that, but just recognize that God put this overseas ministry in your life to turn your compassionate heart into an effective expression of God’s kingdom. Acknowledge that they know best and submit.

So many of our missteps would be cured if we would just listen, submit and acknowledge the overseas ministries that we seek to partner with. In my estimation, this approach enhances our follow-up, our relationship with the local church/ministries and helps us become more culturally sensitive. It will also help us refrain from making poor judgments or expressing false perceptions. A person walking in humility will recognize that they don’t know a ton about the culture after only a short time and will hence hold their tongue from broad generalizations and rash statements.

I would be remiss to not take this all the way to its potential furthest extent. I’m not saying that short term trips ought to stop. I am not saying that. They can, if done properly, be a part of global missions. What I am saying is that some teams are better not sent and that could be a team being sent from your area.

What we ought to be after is growing spiritually and advancing the Kingdom. If a particular short term team or trip isn’t going to do that very well, it’d probably be better to stay home, donate that money to a worthwhile cause and pray for the nations. Over the last few days, you’ve read about different reasons that this might be the best option.

The elements that I’ve discussed in this blog are not either-or, but both-and. Its not enough to go for an internship, if you aren’t willing to give and pray beyond that when you return to the states. Its not enough to just cancel the trip, if you aren’t going to focus on local ministries while supporting global ministries with prayer and finances. The fact is that the Lord has endowed Americans with prayer, intellect and financial prowess to play an important role in His cause for every nation. Every Christian is called to fulfill the Great Commission both locally and abroad in one way or another. I invite and encourage you to play your part.

Like I said from the start of this series, I’m just a small voice in a sea of meaningful people talking about this important subject. Though this series is over, I encourage you to read more and more importantly, act. Your church does missions, both globally and locally. Be a part of that and make an impact for Christ and His Kingdom.

For more on the subject of Short Term Missions check out this recent series of articles by Darren Carlson on The Gospel Coalition:
1. Celebrating The Short Term Missions Boom
2. Why You Should Consider Canceling Your Short-Term Missions Trip
3. Toward Better Short-Term Missions

I also highly recommend a couple books that I’ve enjoyed and learned from:
When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett is incredibly informative and thorough. This is a must read for those that are outreach minded (which all Christians ought to be). Read this book, you’ll learn so much.

Revolution in World Missions by K.P. Yohannan has been a widely circulated book that sheds light on missions in Asia, but can be applied to some degree to other majority world countries. The thing that I like about this is his perspective as someone from India and how that has translated to the way that he runs his organization. His views on money are to be carefully considered by American church goers.

Author: Brandon Stiver

I am a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, living and working in Moshi, Tanzania. My wife is named Melissa and we have three children: Moses, Promise and Shepherd. We are directors over an orphan care ministry called Kingdom Families; advocating for the needs of orphans and vulnerable children and assisting families to welcome them into their homes as sons and daughters.

One thought on “Re-Envisioning Short Term Missions”

  1. Very thought-provoking and a reminder to be good stewards of our resources and to figure out how they can best be used to build God’s kingdom and help others, even if it’s not what we would have chosen or thought best originally.

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