Short-term Missions: blessing or a curse? (Part 1/2)

Sign trip. Illustration of a group of suitcases and a plane tickIn recent years there have been a number of blog articles, books and online discussions which question the validity of short-term mission teams. It might seem that short-term missions is losing its glow as people realize the inordinate cost of sending teams and individuals overseas for two or three weeks and wonder if it wouldn’t be better to use that money to invest in long-term missionaries or supporting national workers.

Over the past fifteen years we have been privileged to host literally hundreds of people, primarily students, on short-term mission trips in Thailand. We have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. We have hosted teams who have made us laugh and one or two who have made us cry. At the end of a team visit we are always exhausted and behind with 101 mundane admin and practical tasks which have been squeezed out of the schedule by the programme run for the team. Why? Why do we keep hosting short-termers? What benefit is there in a young person being supported by their church to visit a cross-cultural ministry context either on their own or in a team?

  • Mission theory becomes reality!

Many of the people who join us are on a mission placement for the first time in their lives. As they live and serve alongside us they are able to see lived out the things that have been taught by their Youth leaders, pastors, preachers and Sunday School teachers for years.  Things that they have discussed in CU meetings or bible study groups start to come to life. People and situations they have prayed for or heard others pray for are suddenly part of their everyday experience.

 

They also learn the realities of missionary life. The sweat, the traffic-jams, the fallenness of their missionaries, the inglorious grind of everyday life. They start to realize how ordinary missionary life is … and yet what an immense privilege it is to take the Gospel to those who have never heard. Rose-tinted glasses are removed and, in the best cases, they are left with a sharp, new, clear focus on the glory of God and the need of the nations to hear the name of Jesus Christ.

  • Could I? Should I? Will I?

Many short-term workers join us asking the ‘Could I, should I, will I?’ questions. Could I possibly serve God overseas? Is this what God wants me to do? Am I willing to count the cost? Serving alongside a long-term missionary, living in their home, watching their family, listening to their stories allows a short-term worker time and space to ask those really important questions. There is impetus and drive to start finding the answers. A new context, the suspension of normal routines and pressures, more time for bible study and prayer with team mates. The questions are also being asked in context. After eating rice every day for two weeks the initial enthusiasm for a new place may have started to wear off. Cultural differences, language frustrations, ministry disappointments all allow the short-term workers the opportunity to reflect on those questions meaningfully and with new understanding.

 

My first trip outside the UK (apart from a school trip on a ferry to France!) was a short-term placement in Thailand in 1994. Just about everything that could go wrong went wrong on that trip! It was a nightmare! I discovered I was allergic to mosquitoes, hated rice and curry, struggled to speak tonal languages and, as a single woman, was constantly fearful as I moved around the first mega-city I had ever seen! My willingness to ‘yes’ to long-term missions in Thailand was with shaking hands, weak knees and a tear-stained face, but it was ‘yes’ knowing that whatever happened the Lord was with me and would carry me. That short-term trip, by God’s grace, has turned into fifteen plus years of ministry among Thai students.

Other short-termers we have hosted are now church-planting in Central Thailand, serving in Indonesia, working as home-staff for another mission agency, participating as a member of a church missions group, leading work among students, studying at bible college … in every case we were by no means the only step in their missions journey but we were privileged to play a very small part in helping them to start asking ‘Could I, should I, will I?’

 

Some people may wonder whether short-term work is just about helping people to grow. Is it only about the go-er or are there other benefits too?

As recipients of short-termers we have been blessed in so many ways by their presence with us. Here are three ways we have been helped and encouraged by short-term workers.

We get tired!

Short-term workers usually arrive full of contagious enthusiasm and energy (and often with suitcases full of bars of chocolate, blocks of cheese and jars of marmite!). That is refreshing to a missionary who lives and work in a tropical country with little response to the gospel and who hasn’t been home in three years. Short-term workers provide missionaries with time to talk in their home language, share stories, laugh, joke and relax without worrying about making cultural faux pas.

 

Praying together with a short-term team is a precious reminder that the missionary isn’t the only person in the world with a burden for their people group or context. Even the process of taking short-term workers to local sights and teaching them how to behave can refresh the missionary and remind them why they love the land and the people they are serving. It can also be encouraging to realize how far you have adjusted to the new context. As one missionary friend said, slightly tongue-in-cheek, ‘I thought my Thai language was really bad until these short-term workers arrived; now I realize how much I have actually learnt in the past two years!’

 

We are limited beings with limited resources!

At one point in our ministry in Thailand we could look back and trace ever new believer on a university campus to a short-term worker. Not one short-term worker had led a student to Christ during their trip but every single new believer on that campus over a four year period had first made contact with the student ministry by turning up to an English class run by a short-termer.

Short-term workers have enabled us to run camps, make contact with hidden believers on campus, created renewed excitement and commitment among tiny, discouraged CU members, and reach out to hundreds of unreached students in a way we never could have done on our own. They have loved our kids, served at missionary conferences, painted rooms, helped set up libraries and contributed to our ministry in a myriad of other practical ways.

 

We need help to keep a global vision too!

Raising three children in Asia has been a huge privilege. It has also been challenging to raise children who speak Thai and Mandarin, rather than Welsh or French. Their world-view and childhood is as Asian as mine was British. As a family we made a deliberate decision before the children were born to immerse ourselves in Thai language and culture in every way that was not sinful. As missionaries, focused on a very specific people group in a very specific location, with a long-term passion and commitment to a specific ministry, we also need help to keep our global vision for missions.

 

Short-term workers have been a great way of introducing our children to ‘the rest of the world’. When they were small we had a world map on the wall and asked every visitor to put a pin-flag on the map to show us where they came from. By the time our eldest son was five he had eaten dinner with people from almost every continent! As we live and eat and serve with people we are also able to pray with them for their home country and their own ministry contexts. We are all reminded that there is a world outside of Thailand and other peoples and nations who need the Gospel. We hear of what it is like to be a university student, a teacher, a lawyer, an office worker, a stay-at-home mum in the UK or USA or Australia and we are moved to pray for our brothers and sisters in very different contexts and with very different challenges to our own.

 

Ann McClean, working with IFES & UFM to reach international students in Bangkok, Thailand

Check out short term options with Local Church Global Mission’s partner organisations here.

Check out the Local Church Global Mission June 7th conference here.