Can We Do Short-term Missions Well?

Converge short-term missions
By Roger Peterson, director of International Ministries partnerships

If you haven’t already played a part of in a short-term mission, it’s likely you will. More and more people feel the tug to live out an important piece of their Christian faith through participation in one or more short-term missions during their lifetime. These great opportunities beg some important questions.

As we attempt to understand what God is doing, we will make sure our short-term mission is in sync with missio dei, God’s already-in-place global purpose, rather than mutating to “missio me.”

The most prominent factors contributing toward short-term missions done poorly are:

1. When leaders fail to recognize, understand and connect with missio dei.

2. Leaders who plan independently of the seasoned, time-tested mission structures. Unfortunately, many highly energized and godly sending churches often overlap efforts and don’t know how to coordinate their well-intended endeavors with other sending entities or with host receiving partners. 

For example, one Mexican pastor's church was painted six times in one summer — by six different short-term teams. One Brazilian orphanage director's church sent short-term mission teams that built a very nice concrete block wall — right in the middle of his kids’ soccer field, simply because the sending church leaders had taught their youth that short-term missions build walls when they go on mission trips.

3. These first two factors combine to result in the third factor: Leaders who orchestrate “short-term missions trips” rather than true “short-term mission.” It creates a “missio me” at the expense of missio dei. For example, when the stated or unstated purpose of a short-term mission is to disciple the youth. 

Discipling short-term team members is not a bad byproduct  — except in this example the short-term mission is being done at the expense, and unacceptable abuse, of missio dei. If all short-term missions aim at discipling or pursue other byproduct personal blessings, we have put the cart before the horse, and all we return with is expensive jet lag.

Note in all three factors it’s not the short-termers themselves that contribute to short-term missions done poorly. Rather, it's their short-term missions leaders. This is an important distinction to grasp for people committed to employing strategic, vital short-term missions done well. Missions that line up with what God is already doing can therefore contribute significantly toward the fulfillment of his venerable, age-old global purpose.

short term missions

Three factors contributing to short-term missions done well

God is on the move today, just as he always has been. Millions are responding each year to countless short-term missions opportunities. What does it take to make sure short-term missions cooperate with what God has already been doing?

First, as short-term missions leaders we need to realize we are not “starting” missions in our churches or youth groups or schools or agencies just because we get together a team of folks and go help someone somewhere, as noble as that may be. God has an ancient, active purpose going on everywhere around the globe. No tribe, no tongue, no nation has ever been exempt from God’s longing for reconciliation through the cross of Jesus Christ. 

Our job as missions leaders is to learn how God has already been working in that culture and among that people where we feel called to go. Our honest gut intention needs to be to understand and fulfill that already-in-place purpose.

Second, we need to humbly repent of our independent, I-can-do-it-by-myself attitude. Yes, we are Americans, so let’s be bold and challenge the in-bred spirit of independence. Let’s subordinate what we would like to try to do on our own in favor of God’s ongoing global plan. Let’s search out the battle-scarred, seasoned organizations or on-site teams to help us frame our short-term missions around missio dei. Let’s link with  national churches and mission agencies already locked into the ongoing, longer-term aspect of what God is already doing within their culture and people.

Third, we need to stop creating short-term missions trips and instead begin participating in true “short-term mission” that contributes toward fulfillment of God’s already-in-place global purpose. We do this in part by holding ourselves accountable to excellence. 

The great church, school or other groups you belong to may already be sending out short-term missions. If not, perhaps God will call you to be a part of establishing a program within your church or other sphere of influence. Now you know how to make sure your short-term mission is centered around what God is already doing.

Have questions? Contact Susan at

Adapted from an article published in the fourth edition of the mission course and book Perspectives on the World Christian Movement and Mission Maker magazine, 2009, pp 81-83.

    Point - September 2018

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