YouthWorker Journal: Wearing helmets and matching black leather jackets, the 28 Desert Angels of Teen Missions International roar through the countryside of Zimbabwe on motorcycles. Under the guidance of veteran missionaries, the American short-term mission team travels to villages demonstrating "drip culture" agriculture and sharing their faith in Jesus Christ through music, drama, puppet shows, and a gospel film.
At the end of the 6-week tour, the Angels' lives have been radically changed. Kids speak of God convicting them of their material wealth and showing them how they could minister to others. And best of all, they estimate that about 700 people have given their lives to Christ as a result of the Desert Angels.
The Desert Angels trip is one of thousands of international short-term mission trips that occur every year. The short-term missions movement is booming more than ever, but it's also coming from a much different paradigm.
"We're Building Kids"
"It's the biggest change in missions in America," says Dr. Sherwood Lingenfelter, dean of Fuller Theological Seminary's School of World Mission. "We have declining numbers in career recruits and an increased number of short-termers."
Lingenfelter believes that the change is in large part due to the fact that the U.S. church has more wealth than ever before, and people no longer view short-term missions as a misuse of funds. Also with professionals available to take care of the logistics, short-term mission trips are easier and safer than ever before.
The obvious difference in the short-term paradigm is the time commitment of the missionary, but there's another fundamental difference in the philosophy that guides many short-term trips. Robert Bland, director of TMI, says that helping the villagers in Zimbabwe wasn't the overriding purpose of the Desert Angels trip.
"We tell our people who are leading our teams that we're building kids, not buildings," says Bland. "The purpose isn't just what we'll do for these people, but what these people will do for us…. There is not a single purpose in missionary work…but to us this is the first purpose."
Kids who go on these trips are often changed, sometimes radically, by the experience; and there are many other positive ways God works through short-term trips. But the emphasis many short-termers place on the life change of the missionary—as more important than the effect on the person being ministered to—is a fundamental shift of philosophy that many think is problematic.
God at Work
A Teen Mania short-term mission team was recently blessed to see the fruit of their mission's efforts in Costa Rica. After they finished their drama presentation, a Costa Rican man approached them and excitedly asked to share his story. Seven years earlier he had been riding his bike through a park when he noticed a crowd. That crowd was watching a Teen Mania drama. He stopped to watch the drama, and that day he met Christ. The man went on to say that he was now serving as a pastor in his local church!
In the summer of 2000 alone, Teen Mania took over 5,000 students on mission trips to 27 countries, usually presenting the Gospel through drama because of the students' language limitations. Jose Cano of Teen Mania admits that it's not always known how audiences respond to their dramas, but their teams do impact the locals who work closest with them.
"I've had translators say, 'I never thought of having a quiet time with God before I started my day until I saw these team members doing it,'" Cano says. "For many of these translators this is the first time to do it [evangelism] in their own country. They say, 'You know what? We don't need Americans to come down here and do this!'"
Cano says that many Teen Mania groups leave the costumes and props from their drama presentations so the locals can continue the work after the teams are gone.
While the short-term missionaries' long-term impact on local communities is often unknown, Cano believes that the most tangible fruit of short-term mission trips is the dramatic impact the ministry has on the kids who go on the trips. Taking kids outside their cultural comfort zone almost always helps them grow in their faith. This reality motivates Cano to go to work every day.
"It's a high for me to see one kid, a missionary, take off from here and return completely changed because they see something they've never seen before," says Cano. "I can't get that anywhere else."
Sean Lambert works with Youth With A Mission in San Diego, CA and has been involved in short-term missions for 22 years. He estimates that his ministry has organized the construction of over 900 houses in Mexico. Lambert points to James 1:22 as a reason the trips have such an incredible impact on kids.
"It says don't be just a hearer of the word, but a doer," says Lambert. "When you hear the word of God and do it, you grow. It creates an appetite for discipleship. Bang for the buck, youth guys say it's the best growth producer they do all year…. It creates a disciple rather than someone who's just trying to get through life and not fall into hell."
A Fundamental Change in Missions Philosophy
Representatives from all three of these short-term mission agencies said that the life change of the students who go on the trips is a high motivation for taking the trips. But this emphasis on using mission trips to grow and develop the missionary is a drastic divergence from past mission paradigms. Most mission paradigms were based on the Great Commission—the goal being to spread the Gospel to others, not use an overseas experience to grow personally and become better disciples ourselves. Effective discipleship calls for prioritizing culturally appropriate methods of ministry, often requiring long-term missionaries to sacrifice themselves in order to minister within the context of the culture.
When short-term missions are primarily focused on the growth of the missionary, the typical result is ministry that isn't effective over the long term.
"People who go [on short-term trips] get an experience. It benefits them," says Dr. Jehu Hanciles, a native of Sierra Leone and professor at Fuller's School of World Mission. "…But there's very little you can do as far as effective missionary enterprise in that short of time."
This may be the first missions movement in church history that's largely based on the needs of the missionary.
"That says something about our therapeutic culture," says Lingenfelter. "Our culture focuses a lot on the healing of ourselves, as opposed to the healing of others. I guess too much self-reflection ultimately takes us in a direction different from the challenge that Jesus gives us—to take up our crosses and follow him."
In addition to short-term missions' tendency toward self-focus, short-term trips, even multiple trips, don't necessarily enhance true cross-cultural understanding. Lingenfelter says that a short-term missionary never goes through what missiologists call a paradigm shift. Thus cross-cultural situations continue to be interpreted through the missionary's own cultural framework, instead of the missionary learning over time to identify with another framework.
"To go through a process to change that [framework] just can't be done on a short-term trip," says Lingenfelter. "It takes learning language, living with people…. The fact of short-term missions is that, however long you're there, you never have to change the way you do your work."
Short-term mission trip leaders who've never gone through this cultural paradigm shift need to be humble and cautious about their level of cultural understanding, lest they lead trips that are irrelevant to the mission field.
Lambert says he's seen his share of short-term mission trips that lacked cultural understanding: "I talked to the director of World Vision in Mexico City and he said, 'My church gets painted once a year whether it needs it or not.'…Sometimes a youth leader will say to me, 'My junior highers want to paint,' and that's the fourth time a particular fence has been painted. But Mexican culture is very affirming, so they won't say anything."
This kind of missionary work is a sort of benevolent colonialism in which Americans enter a foreign culture and impose unneeded "good."
These mistakes might be the result of an underlying paternalism in the Western church. Westerners might think: We know what these people need. or We have a good idea to help these people. But when Westerners decide what kind of missions they will implement in foreign countries without legitimate local ownership, the result can be irrelevant work done with vast expense. This is damaging both to the local body of Christ and to the fulfillment of the Great Commission.
Toward More Effective Short-Term Missions
Ideally, a short-term trip would not only transform the life of the missionary but also be relevant to the community in which the missionary ministers. This ideal is difficult to attain when Westerners lead short-term missions without the equal partnership of the people in the mission field.
Mutual partnership is crucial to Hanciles' idea of successful short-term missions. Hanciles suggests that short-term trips are most effective when initiated by a local church to help sustain an already existing or envisioned local ministry. Hanciles also emphasizes that true partnership means that a Western church needs to be open to receiving short-term missionaries themselves (which he wonders if they'd be willing to do).
"We have to think in terms of partnership and interdependence," says Hanciles. "This starts by getting to know one another, appraising each others' needs, and understanding how the churches can benefit each other."
In striving for the goal of culturally relevant short-term missions with long-term impact, Lingenfelter has a radical suggestion: "The best thing we could do would be to make it more difficult for people to go," he says. "Instead of trying to get everybody to go, lay out a challenge and see who'll commit to a longer time of prayer and preparation to go."
Lingenfelter points to a short-term trip he led to Chad. When he initially announced the trip, 45 students showed interest. He invited the group to come pray with him weekly for a semester. By the end of the semester, eight kids remained. Lingenfelter says a small group is better because he can train them beforehand and coach them throughout the trip. In addition, because Lingenfelter's team worked in partnership with the local church in Chad, the trip has had a long-term impact.
Global partnership through short-term missions has the potential to connect Christians around the world and make an eternal impact for Christ. When done through interdependent local partnership, short-term missions are valuable tools that can change the lives of all those who participate.
Ultimately, each organization and team that takes international short-term mission trips must humbly evaluate their motivation, be honest about their goals, and be culturally informed about the effect of their methodology. And while it's true that one of the fruits of a short-term trip is a life change for the missionaries, this should be viewed as a result and not the motivation for the enterprise.
As Hanciles puts it, "If people are going for their own benefit, then why call it missions?"
Marshall Allen spent five years on staff with Young Life International, three as a missionary in Nairobi, Kenya, and two as a missions administrator in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Currently, he's a freelance writer and is finishing his Master's degree at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. This author bio was current as of the date this article was published.