Short Term Missions as a Spiritual Exercise
by Bob Young

Short-term missions (STM) have exploded in the last decade. Thousands of Christians have spent time in areas of the world generally considered mission fields-whether in the U.S. or in another country. Some of these efforts have yielded wonderful fruit, others have been as much a hindrance as a help to the missionary or church on the field.

My first experience with a STM was in the mid-1990s when I took a group of college students on a spring break trip to Honduras. Frankly, we were "green." We had only a general idea as to why we were going and what we were to do. However, our inexperience and lack of orientation proved to be a blessing. We fit right in with "Latin Standard Time." We had little timetable, so we spent time with the locals. We walked instead of riding everywhere, because we had not arranged appropriate transportation. We were available to deal with unseen "emergencies." On Sunday morning, we started the 2-mile walk to church. Along the way, we helped an "eye clinic" team we had never met clean the community center after a Saturday evening wedding party. The community center was at least presentable-more than one could say for us and our Sunday clothes. After extended worship in a language the students did not understand, we checked back--the Sunday afternoon eye examinations went on as scheduled. We spent our evenings teaching at the English school, because we met someone who said they could use our help. We sang and prayed, and hopefully some of the students learned a little English. We talked to children, and played with them at a school and at several orphanages. As we concluded the week, our host family said, "You have restored my faith in short-term mission trips. You accomplished more than the groups that come with carefully laid plans." God uses us in our weaknesses. Gracias a Dios! (Thanks be to God!)

I have sponsored many STMs since-both stateside and abroad. All types of STMs have unique challenges. This article introduces some essential dynamics of STMs abroad, with visits to unfamiliar cultures and locations. The illustrations come from my experience in Latin America, but have parallels and applications in other cultures. The article addresses (1) the importance of spiritual preparation, (2) the need for a philosophy of missions, and (3) the challenge of working in the cultural context. The last area is illustrated with five examples--conflicts in thinking, time use, problem-solving, decision-making, and sources of power.

1. The importance of spiritual preparation. If we did many things wrong on the trip I described above, we did some things right. First, the students spent lots of time in preparation and prayer. We faithfully met weekly for the first 10 weeks of the spring semester. The students learned a few words and phrases, and listened as various cultural rights and wrongs were described. But most important, the students prepared spiritually. We prayed together, and individually. We asked churches to pray for our efforts. If STMs are spiritual exercises, it only makes sense that participants must prepare spiritually. We go as ambassadors of Christ, not as secular agents.

2. Developing a philosophy of missions. An often overlooked aspect of STMs is the importance of knowing what is to be accomplished, with appropriate cultural sensitivity. Because a STM group is not going to be on the field for very long, the tendency is to overlook the importance of having a mission philosophy to guide the projects. In reality, a mission philosophy is just as important in STMs as in long-term mission work. This does not necessarily mean developing an extensive multi-paged document, but it is important that the group have an understanding which can guide their actions and interactions during the STM. A basic philosophy I use is this: "We will not do anything for the local church that they cannot sustain once we are gone." Often buildings are built, contacts made, and studies arranged that are beyond the capacity of the local church to sustain once the STM team is gone. Your philosophy of mission may address cultural sensitivity, rules for gifting and relationships, and similar concerns.

3. Working in the cultural context. In my experience in Latin America, cultural sensitivity demands that I keep cultural differences in view. I explore five differences here to help you begin to think about these and other areas in your own STM plans.

My purpose is that this discussion might renew your commitment to the power of STM efforts. I also wish that you might understand how necessary is deliberate spiritual preparation for effective STM trips.

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Last updated May 5, 2008.