1 Thessalonians 1:4-6
“For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Thessalonians 1:4-6)
The effectiveness and usefulness of short-term mission was researched and discussed, as short-term international missions reached tsunami proportions, prior to the pandemic. Missions in general was crippled in immediate post-pandemic years due to complications of international travel, acquisition of visas, and other hindrances. Let us take a few minutes to consider, “What may I expect from a short-term missionary experience?” If I expect something that such an experience can’t give, I may be setting myself up for a disappointment — or worse — drawing wrong conclusions from that disappointment. What are some unrealistic expectations of short-term missions?
Some young adults wrestle with the question of whether God is calling them into a career of missionary service. Do they have the necessary gifts for cross-cultural missionary service? So they hit on the plan of going for a limited period of time to find out. Sort of a trial run. This is a big mistake. What one tries out in a few weeks or months, or even a couple of years, is not the missionary vocation. It is sort of like trial marriage — the couple is trying out something, all right, but not marriage!
The essence of missionary service is identity with the people, a love that bonds. Just as Christ came to become one of us, so is every missionary who follows in His train — ”as the Father sent me….” Effectiveness — success — in missionary work is intimately tied to the level of identification the missionary has and the people sense that he has. This includes understanding, appreciating, and adapting to the culture and, above all, mastering the language. None of this can take place in a short period of time. Therefore, to test one’s potential for missionary service would require becoming a missionary! Or at least some years of living and learning among the people.
A leader in urban ministry told us that when he took teams of short termers into the Watts district of Los Angeles, the people would always ask them how long they intended to be there. Not until they moved in with the intent of becoming one with them, did the people begin to accept them. You can’t “try out” incarnation, you have to do it.
A second unrealistic expectation is to overestimate the value of one’s contribution. Unless the short termer has a special skill that is needed by the people, such as a medical doctor, the contribution to advancing the cause of Christ will be modest. Short term missionaries are not going to save the world, contrary to some of the glowing promotionals surrounding the enterprise. They should not be disappointed if they do not see a seismic spiritual impact. The work of evangelizing a people and planting the church is the task of long-term commitment to such a vocation. Thus, if I expect a short term on the mission field to test my gifts and calling, to make a major contribution, or to fulfil a lifetime of obligation to Great Commission living, I will either be disappointed or misled.
But short-term service can do great things. First of all it can provide an unequalled educational experience. Those who have a thorough preparation for the experience, good supervision in it, and adequate de-briefing will learn a great deal about another culture, about missionary work, and about themselves.
Second only to education is the opportunity for inspiration. For the person who goes into it with the pores of his mind and heart wide open, the short-term experience will infect with the excitement of what God is doing in the world. This is not only life transforming, that inspiration often infects others upon re-entry to the home base. Since inspiration is one of the great benefits of short-term service, specialists in the field caution us that a term of more than three months and less than two years is hazardous. During the first few weeks and months, the excitement of the new experience is exhilarating, but if they stay beyond the time of initial euphoria, the reality of the spiritual warfare hits home. Since they have not entered the battle with long-term commitment or with cultural adaptation and language fluency, the experience often becomes bitter and short circuits any possibility of lasting inspiration.
As a result of the peerless education and inspiration of short-term experience on a mission field, the greatest outcome for the cause of world evangelism is that short termers provide the major reservoir of recruits for career missionary vocation. It doesn’t hurt to go short-term with the idea in mind that it may indeed be a stepping stone toward a life-time investment in the great enterprise of bringing the world to obedience to Christ. One interested in missions should go, invest, and serve well, yet manage expectations for that experience. It may be that God has additional work for us to accomplish for the sake of the Kingdom. How will you find what that is?