Home Outreach Leaders Articles for Outreach & Missions Darren Carlson: Toward Better Short-Term Missions

Darren Carlson: Toward Better Short-Term Missions

[Editor’s note: This is a three-part blog series by Darren Carlson that will appear on churchleaders.com for the next few weeks. This article originally appeared on The Gospel Coalition.]

It is easy to be critical. I was once listening to a teacher from a European country lecture at a U.S. seminary on the evils of short-term missions. It was a highly critical lecture (with which I largely agreed), but there was no direction for what was appropriate in short-term missions. I don’t think he realized that he was actually participating in what I would classify as a short-term mission trip—a full-time intensive visit to another culture for a focused time of vocational ministry.

In the first article, I laid out the history of short-term missions and some of the opportunities it has provided. The second article pointed to some of the problems that surround the enterprise. Now I want to offer a way forward.

Change the Name

This may be a personal preference, but I think it would be helpful to rename “short-term missions” and instead call it “short-term ministry.” I believe the title of missionary should be reserved for those committed to being in another culture for longer than a year. So we all live on mission in the context where God has placed us, and when we leave that context for a short period of time for a focused time of ministry, we are participating in short-term ministry. When we serve in another culture, we then should call it “short-term cross-cultural ministry.”

Short-Term Cross-Cultural Ministry Should Be an Extension of Local Ministry

At this risk of stating the obvious, your short-term cross-cultural ministry should be an extension of your local ministry. If you have thousands of Hispanics in your surrounding area, but only interact with Hispanics when you send a short-term team to Mexico, your local mission has a hole in it. There is a high concentration of Somali Muslims living near my church. Before our church considers sending short-term teams to Somalia to reach out to Muslims, it should first consider how to serve and reach the neighbors God has brought to us. It feels like the Great Commission in reverse. Local ministry and short-term cross-cultural ministry should not be in competition; rather, both should be part your church’s vision.

Ask the Missionaries

To protect against doing unintentional harm, go directly to the missionaries your church supports and trusts to find out whether they would like a team to come and partner with them. These missionaries can also provide helpful feedback that comes from experience and understanding. Just make sure they feel the freedom to say no and dictate the details of the trip, such as how many people should come. I know of a missionary who asked for eight people, and the church responded by sending more than 100 youth. We need to listen! Some of the best short-term trips involve just two or three key friends sent by the church to visit a missionary in difficult place. If your church doesn’t support long-term missionaries, I would suggest doing so before you consider short-term cross-cultural ministry.

Focus on Long-Term Partnerships With Local Churches

The next step is to work primarily through local churches with a long view in mind. When your short-term ministry team leaves a particular setting, Christians will still live and work where you visited. Your desire should be to serve at the request of and under local church leadership. Your disposition should be one of a learner, with the humility to take your cues from national leaders. You need to be careful, especially when dealing with money. But if you can build a level of trust, the most effective trips will be extensions of another church’s ministry. This might lead to bringing fewer team members but result in much more effective ministry.

For example, a church in India has an orphanage, a pastor-training school and a history of church planting in unreached villages. They don’t need teams of people to do projects they already know how to do. They need funds. I am familiar with this ministry, and the pastor who runs it is a good friend. Small teams have traveled there to assess these needs. With the help of a few churches and organizations providing strategic funding, they have housing for the children (that the ministry in India built with people they employed), a place to train their pastors and a sponsorship program to help a trained pastor plant a church in unreached areas. If you wonder how you could sponsor pastors in ways that do not lead to unhealthy dependence, read these helpful articles.

So instead of spending $30,000 for 10 people to build and paint buildings, we spend a third of the money exploring a long-term partnership and the rest providing work for the Indian people and long-term support for the ministry. If a similar scenario presented itself in parts of Africa, I would be much more cautious. But with this very specific situation, long-term partnership allows both parties to mutually benefit in ways that I believe honor God on the gospel.