When did short-term missions start? One answer is that they began with Jesus. Since that the word "mission" indicates being sent, we could point out that he sent out the twelve disciples, and later sent seventy others. Perhaps these trips weren't really "missions" in the sense we use the word, but Jesus sent his disciples forth and they went. The commissions of the twelve and the seventy were hardly cross-cultural. They went to those who were pretty much like them.
The Bible does, however, describe times when Jesus took his disciples into a differing culture. One of these is recounted in John 4. Some might say that spending time among the Samaritans was not cross-cultural by our definitions, but the Samaritans were not Jews and had developed a different culture.
Jesus and the disciples, traveling from Jerusalem to Galilee, used a shortcut through Samaria to make the trip in one day. About noon they stopped at a well near Sychar. While the disciples went into town for food, Jesus stayed at the well and talked to a lady who came to draw water. When he asked her for a drink, she responded with amazement. In that culture and time, men didn't talk with women. More amazing was that he being a Jew had spoken with a Samaritan. The Samaritans were half-breed Jews--part Jew and part Gentile. Customarily, Jews did not speak with them, and certainly never ate or drank with them. Jesus' simple request for a drink was out of the ordinary.
When the disciples returned, Jesus wasn't hungry. He said, "I have food to eat that you know nothing about." That comment started a discussion. Where did he get food to eat? Jesus explained, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work" (v. 34). What did Jesus mean? Had they not been doing God's work-evangelism, making disciples, even baptizing more than John the Baptist (vv. 1, 2). Weren't they doing God's work?
The answer is "yes" and "no." God calls us to serve him with a view to finishing his work of proclaiming the Good News to everyone. God has a larger purpose which he wishes finished. Perhaps Jesus' statement reflects the fact that the disciples were merely doing good work for God. In the same way today, short-term missions often merely do good work for God. Jesus told them to lift up their eyes. One author suggests that they perhaps looked up and saw the same Samaritan woman coming back, this time with several leading men from the town (v. 30). Had the disciples not seen the people around them in the Samaritan town? Jesus wants to change our perspective. All people matter. How many short-term missions spend time among people but never see them? God wants every person to be touched with the gospel. God's purpose is not complete until the gospel is proclaimed with a viable voice that allows it to bear fruit. There is a place for humanitarian missions, but God's purpose is to share the gospel.
What Jesus wanted the disciples to see, he wants us to see today. Somebody has to actually go across borders and social boundaries to bring the gospel to people. Why go on a short-term mission--to finish the work that the Father sent us to do. The Father is seeking true worshipers (v. 23) from every people (Matt. 28:18-20, Rev. 7:9). There are many ways to describe why we go, but John 4 suggests we go to get more true worshipers of God.
The next article explores another STM from the life of Jesus and his disciples.