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Musings on Missions and Evangelism: The Rise of Short-Term Missions

01/18/2013

I am continually fascinated by the prevalence of short-term missions (STMs) going out from our churches, particularly in the U. S. The emphasis on STMs continues to grow and is now interwoven into the very fabric of our communal life and ministry. I’m guessing you would be hard-pressed to find a youth program that does not engage in STMs. This intrigues me because STM trips (particularly cross-cultural endeavors) are a fairly recent phenomenon. This practice, at least in any significant manner, started about 50 years ago. But, in those early years, short-term trips were made primarily in support of and for recruitment into long-term mission efforts and did not use the terms “short-term missions” or “short-term missionary.” That language did not take hold until the 1980’s. And yet, the practice and vocabulary of STMs is now part of our DNA. Thus, I am very interested in how such a young practice has become such a significant component of our churches, utilizing a vast amount of our time, energy, and resources.
I think there are a number of factors that have contributed to the rise of STMs. The most significant, and obvious, is the rapid increase in international travel during the mid-20th century due to the availability of commercial air travel. Other factors include the emergence of youth and college ministries, the success of the Peace Corps, and the increase in global awareness through media and technology. While those and other sociological and logistical factors are important, I think there are two theological/philosophical trends that have provided fertile soil for STMs. And understanding these two factors will help us understand the development of STMs and, more importantly, provide insight into how we can approach STMs in healthier ways.
First, the rise of STMs piggy-backed the swell of evangelism crusades (think Billy Graham and the like) throughout North America in the mid-20th century. Due to the apparent success of such crusades and ministries, the idea of presenting the gospel and producing conversions in one hearing quickly became normative in the minds of Christians. Thus, the implication for missions, in our collective subconscious, was that it is not necessary to move your family to a foreign land to be a long-term missionary. Missions and evangelism were things that could be done in a short period of time. And the prevalent message in such crusades was one of “making a decision” for Christ so you will be saved. It was a simple message, so why couldn’t anyone proclaim it? Therefore, as opportunities to travel abroad increased, this notion of evangelism spurred people towards spending their vacations and holiday breaks doing something of seeming eternal significance.
Here’s an example of this reality taken from our rhetoric. If you have ever gone on an STM trip, there is a good chance you heard something similar to the following as you raised funds and made preparations. “Even if just one person gets saved, all this money and energy and sacrifice is worth it.” Now, I appreciate the motivation of people who have shared similar words with me, but that sentiment is an indication of a deeper theological idea that continues to fund STMs and needs to be seriously critiqued.
To further illustrate my point, here is an example of STMs as evangelism crusades that I experienced about 12 years ago in Chiang Mai. I was walking through the mall, and I came upon a group of American teenagers performing a skit near the entrance. It was obviously a performance related to Jesus, so I stuck around. Afterwards, I approached a couple of them and asked what they were doing in northern Thailand. One of the young girls proceeded to explain how they were there for two weeks doing drama and evangelism presentations. She was extremely excited as she described what all they had done and what God was doing in their midst. Just the day before they had gone to a village in the mountains and performed skits. She said they had 27 “salvations” after that one presentation. Besides the fact those villagers had probably never seen a group of white teenagers before and would have raised their hands if you asked them if they believe Elvis is still alive, what struck about her description of their work was how evangelism had somehow become a one-time event instead of an ongoing practice.
My problem with the notion of evangelism as a short-term practice is its theological shallowness. (There is also the lack of cultural awareness and sensitivity, but that is for another time.) Though there are numerous historical factors that contributed to this notion of evangelism (i.e., Luther’s influence, frontier revivalism, Western individualism, etc.), the truth is that proclaiming the gospel is not about “making a decision” or “salvations.” Evangelism is about inviting people into the  kingdom of God that is breaking in around us. It is about calling people out of the reign of the powers and principalities, of sin and death, and into the reign of Jesus Christ. And this is not something that gets completed during a two-week trip overseas. Therefore, if we are going to think of STMs as evangelism, we must re-imagine how a short-term stay in a foreign culture can play a part in the long-term work of transforming communities of faith into the image of Jesus Christ.
The second factor in the rise of STM has to do with an increased emphasis on poverty alleviation, humanitarian aid and justice issues in our churches. The literature on STMs in the earlier years placed a strong emphasis on evangelism, but the past decade or so has seen a shift in focus towards helping those in poverty. The motivation to go on an STM trip in order to “serve the needy” stems from the broader trend in poverty alleviation among churches. As explained in When Helping Hurts, the vast majority of our energy and resources go to relief, while little goes to rehabilitation and even less towards development. We are really good about helping those in a tragic situation with quick, overwhelming relief. That has become our primary way to engage poverty, thus fertile ground for STMs.
If our answer to poverty is fundamentally about relief, then a short-term trip to a “poor” or “developing” country is a great strategy. It takes little effort to recruit people to go help  on a project for a week or so. We have been groomed for that type of service. However, as Corbett and Fikkert argue, poverty alleviation and economic justice will only improve when we commit to the long-term work of development. We need to change our overall approach to poverty alleviation, and, therefore, we must rethink how a short-term trip can contribute to partnered development. In other words, like I said about evangelism, poverty alleviation has to be conceived of as the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, which is fundamentally developmental.
The reason I am writing about this is that the effectiveness of STMs has, for the most part, gone unquestioned in our churches. We come back reporting stories of conversions and of helping the poor, and so we send out even more STM groups. I don’t want to say that sending out more STMs is a bad idea, but I do want to change the standards of effectiveness. If we are going to spend more money and energy on STMs, then let’s at least do the hard work of figuring out strategies that do more than perpetuate inadequate approaches to evangelism and poverty alleviation.

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4 comments

  1. Your careful wording and explanation of this phenomenon is well said my friend. It needs to be heard more and more. Those few of us that don’t do STM efforts even tend to be ostracized for “not doing what the church is called to do” by not participating in STM’s. Thanks for your years of love and dedication to the “bringing” of the kingdom. Blessings Chris White


    • Chris, Thanks for your comment. I would love to hear more from you, as a youth minister, about the practice of STMs. I know it primarily from this side of the equation. I would be very interested to know what youth ministers are saying about it. Thanks to you, as well, for your service to the kingdom of God. Peace.


  2. What ministries or STMs do you like? Is there something that is being done well? If not, name one that is close and how it could be made more effective?


  3. calvertdPosted on September 22, 2012 at 8:28 PMFirst of all, Costa Rica was a blast. I got to see my first volcano in my life and go to the wareaftll gardens. It was amazing. But, it also widened my gaze to the missions field. That there really is a need for people dying and going to Hell in a lost and dying world. The food was definitely NOT what I was used to, but I was alive and breathing by the end of the week. It was soo much fun. I am definitely going on the next mission trip that we have. I encourage any of you to go on at least one mission trip before you finish high school. Who knows, God could be calling you to the missions field. And last but not least, don’t pack a hanger in your carry on. Because the security will consider it as a weapon and throw it away. Trust me, it happened to me at the airport leaving Costa Rica. I’m glad I made it through security! So don’t miss the awesome opportunity to go on a mission trip.



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