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Short-term Missions May Not Be As Bad As You Think

Short-term Missions May Not Be As Bad As You Think

By Mitiku Adisu

Summers are for travel and beaches. Here in the U.S. summers are also the season for intense missionary activity. The term “short-term missions” (STMs) is now become so versatile that it incorporates every age group from all walks of life migrating South (namely, Africa, Latin America, and Asia) for what could last days, weeks or even months. Selection is based on availability of funds, connections and, of course, interest. Some destinations are favored over others. Repeating the same destination disallows a chance to experience exotic cultures and cuisines. Doing something (anything) is preferred to doing nothing, and so on.

Cancellation of student loan is the incentive for some and for others sightseeing and building resumes for jobs or entrance to graduate school. For (youth) pastors STMs provide an opportunity to be creative about budgetary expenditures that ultimately benefit their respective churches.

In a matter of four decades, the “mission industry” has grown from a few hundred to over 2 million people taking a two-week trip at an estimated cost of more than $2.4 billion. Thus says a Princeton University study. By the way, that sum easily equals or tops the national budget of several African countries. More info here.

Short-term mission is now an unstoppable force. Life-long and long-term mission are in decline. Churches and industry sectors have a lot to lose or a lot to gain depending on intensity of their activity or mood of the times. Obviously, such an event would require careful planning, fund-raising, and working on tangible projects, reporting, networking and honing strategies.

The first question that comes to mind is whether this is the best use of scarce resources? This is a legitimate question. After all, everything belongs to the Lord (including you and I) and we are instructed to be good stewards. Different people have offered different reasons as to why it is or it is not the best use of resources. Some have suggested giving the money to natives goes a long way to create local employment and also for evangelization by locals. Culture and time, goes the argument, limit the effectiveness of the short-term missionary.

What is lost in the suggestion is, however, that giving money may itself end up corrupting the relationship between sending and receiving churches. The idea of creating local employment sounds good but not sustainable. And the suggestion discounts the power and wisdom of a sovereign God and his Holy Spirit to use human limitations.

Some also wonder if STM is just another of those passing fads. Does anyone here remember what WWJD stood for?

Irrespective of the views we hold, short-term missions do have a redemptive quality to them. They open up new horizons especially for American youth. Isn’t that what is generally lacking? We live in a global world. One needs to be exposed to new cultures, places, and faces first before identifying one’s role in them. Travel, Mark Twain had once said “is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

But there is another aspect to travel that distinguishes the Christian from the rest. It is that Christ orders those who follow in his footsteps to “go” and He with them to bear witness to his transforming power “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the earth.” (Matt.28:19-20; Acts1:8)

To be part of this endeavor one needs to have experienced firsthand the transforming power of Jesus. For a complacent Northern Christian seeing African Christians joyful in the midst of untold hardship may do the job. We never could pin down the Lord or be His counselors as to how He should arrange circumstances.

And as in all cases, there are abusers of privileges of Christian service. But for those who earnestly seek the Master’s will for their life, here are our humble suggestions (not in any particular order or in any way final).

1. Talk little, listen more.
2. Allow yourself to be ministered to; invite from among immigrant communities in your town or from countries you visited to minister to your church (not as trophies or entertainers but as individuals who have a story to tell). We share Jesus, not just experiences.
3. Don’t pretend you are there to solve problems; the problem you solved may be the one you created. In other words, things are more complex than you think. Several reports on Ethiopia, for example, have tried to paint the recurring religious tension as a clash between Christians and Muslims (read: good and evil). That is not only simplistic but could indeed fan (not least public relations) flame.
4. Don’t make yourself indispensable to the communities you visit.
5. Pray without ceasing.
6. God has children in all regions of His world. You are one of them.
7. Christian service is never a one-way street. HIV/AIDS and poverty are tearing down families in the Southern hemisphere; it may be divorce and irresponsible consumption habits in the northern hemisphere. What reciprocity regime could be established to address that?
8. Don’t revel in comparing your condition with those apparently less fortunate. True, it may cause you to be grateful. It may also result in a proud spirit. Don’t compare Honduras with Kenya or Kenya with South Africa; it will only lead to unwarranted generalizations. And don’t forget your visit was only for few days or possibly couple weeks to a small corner of a nation.
9. Ask, What do churches of the southern hemisphere have to teach those in the northern hemisphere? Are northern churches teachable?
10. Did you make some friends? Prayerfully keep working at it. It is all about relationships. You never know where that will lead or how and when the Lord wishes to use them.

Are STMs about you or about others? If they are about you your spiritual rewards will be minimal; if they are about others they will be full and overflowing. First, you will be sensitized in ways you never dreamt possible. You will begin to discover neighbors and diverse communities you never knew were there. Think and pray about nurturing those connections you’ve made. This is best done before the excitement wore off. And now that you have seen deep poverty and environmental degradation at close range, you need to ask how these two relate to global politics? Could Northern and Southern churches pool their resources to avoid overlaps and to provide a concentrated ministry that included advocacy? Having interacted with non-white cultures how should you henceforth deal with race relations on the home front? The same churches that showed disdain for immigrants often are the first to volunteer to 'go to the ends of the earth.' In the end, if you fail to make connections that lead to actionable strategies your efforts would have been in vain and lacking in compassion. What do you say?

Copyright © 2008 by The Ethiopian Church Journal. All Rights Reserved.