With over one million North Americans doing Short Team Missions (STMs) annually, they are a dominant if not controversial influence in missions practice today. Do STMs advance or hinder the Kingdom? Do its members respect or abuse local culture? How can their effectiveness be maximized?
Throughout the research, there are numerous perceived positives attributed to STMs. The following list from Bill Taylor’s article, “The Place of Short-Term Missions” (in Mission Today), suggests that STMs
- offer hands-on, direct contact with cross-cultural missions
- provide realistic vision for the global task
- provide opportunities to see God at work in the life of an individual and in the local church
- offer the opportunity to increase the burden and passion to pray
- offer the opportunity to have deep exposure to local needs
- may help one to become an intercessor or missions mobilizer
- give opportunities to embrace or renew passions for serving locally at home
- show how the power of one’s personal life may greatly impact others in one’s home culture
- may encourage the consideration of making a commitment for longer term cross-cultural service
- show through one’s life a life of total commitment to the will of God (Taylor 1996)
Equally valuable to consider are critiques of STMs. The following list from Alex Smith, who wrote “Evaluating Short-Term Missions: Missiological Questions from a Long-Term Missionary,” says that STMs may be
- short-sighted convenience without long-term commitment
- self-centered individualism without deep altruistic concern for other
- instant gratification without distant responsibility
- intense activity without deliberate purpose – lacking significant eternal goals
- social service participation without evangelistic proclamation that short circuits spiritual duty
- immediate satisfaction without eternal consequences
- humanistic self sufficiency without theological reflection and analysis – unevaluated self dependency (Smith 2008, 56-57)
Brian Howell, an associate professor of anthropology at Wheaton College in Illinois, did an ethnography on a STM in which he was a participant observer. His findings are described fully in his book, Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience (Howell 2012).
Howell provides the following suggestions for framing a STM experience so as to maximize its significance and effectiveness:
Preparing to go:
- Spend as much time studying the history, economics, politics and spiritual context of the community as is spent preparing for the activities.
- Invite people from the country or community to which the team is travelling to address the group.
While in the field:
- Spend time talking to leaders of the community—Christian and non-Christian—about the problems, solutions and initiatives already at work.
- Present visits to a museum, educational institution, monument or natural site as part of the mission rather than “just tourism.”
When the team returns:
- Plan several mandatory follow-up meetings to review what people have learned, how it has affected them, and what changes they have made or should make in their thinking or behavior.
- Prepare a presentation of the trip, focusing on resources in the country and the work going on there, rather than a portrayal of the needs and how the team met them. (231-234)
*Excerpts taken from “Short Term Missions: Tourists, Sojourners, Culture, and Mission,” a paper that I presented last week at the Kingswood simulcast site of the annual meeting of the Canadian Chapter of the Evangelical Missiological Society.