What’s Happening in Short-term Mission?

Should short-term mission be granted status as a new, bona fide missiological strategy? New it’s not—but bona fide, and potentially strategic it can be.

Yet before we ponder either the age or strategic possibilities of what Ralph Winter (U.S. Center for World Mission) termed one of the “least anticipated major mutations in modern mission,” let’s first try to wrap our fingers around a definition. Short-term mission has always been set apart from career or long-term mission by the distinction of time. But how much time—two weeks? Two months? Two years? That’s subjective, and best determined on a case-by-case basis with a given sending entity and receiving field. A better definition would still encompass time, but rather than prescribing a fixed number of weeks or months or years, would use the term “temporary.” A better definition would also add the terms “swift” and “volunteer” to more accurately describe what short-term mission really is.

Short-Term Mission is Temporary
A short-termer’s on-field work is intentionally temporary by design. Although long-term career work can be cut short for various reasons, traditional long-term career missionaries tend to view their on-field contribution in primarily one location over the course of their lifetime. Short-termers view their on-field contribution as temporary, fully expecting to return back home and re-engage in whatever primary activity they left behind.

Career missionaries often buy the equivalent of a one-way ticket, because they’re not sure when or if or how they’ll return back home. Short-term missionaries almost always buy round trip tickets, because they know exactly when they’re coming back home.

Temporary is not meant to suggest either good or bad. It is meant merely to help provide understanding of what short-term mission is and isn’t, and therefore how it can best be used as an innovative strategy when long-term career strategies are not a workable option.

Short-Term Mission is Swift
Perhaps the greatest asset short-term mission brings to the table is its ability to swiftly, rapidly place missionaries on-field. Traditional career missionaries often spend years in pre-field training. Short-termers can be deployed within just a few weeks or months—and some within just hours.

Certain types of work may require extended training for maximum effectiveness, such as Bible translation or frontier church planting within an unengaged unreached people group. But many types of strategic mission work in certain fields do not require multiple years of preparation. Jesus tells us that many fields are “ripe unto harvest” right now, and simply need laborers—now! Not theologians, not ripened missiologists, not seasoned thinkers—but laborers, people willing to sweat, work hard and do whatever needs to be done. (Remember, Jesus’ only requirement for missionary service is empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Everything else—no matter how much sense it makes or how good it sounds—is man’s requirement.)

When a field is crying for laborers, it sometimes takes years to form and send career missionary teams. Unfortunately some career teams fall apart during their pre-field preparation, bonding and deputation process. Worse yet, some crumble the first months on-field, producing virtually no kingdom return on the hundreds of thousands of dollars supporters invested in their intended efforts. But in just a few months short-termers can be recruited, trained and sent. And there are times—many times—when the rapid, swift short-term strategy is actually the better financial strategy to employ.

Short-Term Mission Usually Consists of Volunteers
Most short-term missionaries are not paid a salary or wage. They are volunteers who donate their time. Long-term career missionaries receive a salary (a fixed guarantee or raised monthly support). From the United Stated Internal Revenue Service’s perspective, all long-term (paid) missionaries are either employees or subcontractors, and are taxed accordingly. They’re professionals—and not volunteers—by definition.

A paid professional also suggests a certain competence and expertise in the person’s place of business or work. Because of more extensive training, long-term career missionaries are often screened and placed because of this expertise. On the other hand, short-termers often do not have the same extensive training, and do not therefore have a professional level of competence with respect to comprehensive missiology. Therefore it is usually correct to define short-term missionaries as non-professional volunteers.

Yes—short-term is also done by paid professionals. But most of the time, short-term mission is done by non-paid, non-professional volunteers.

How Long Has Short-Term Been Around?
Short-term mission strategies have been used as far back as the early biblical times. Moses used a short-term strategy at least twice: Consider the temporary forty-day, twelve-man fact-finding team he swiftly deployed from Kadesh into Canaan (Numbers 13-14); or his temporary five-day, two-man team swiftly deployed—with less than a day’s notice—from Shittim to Jericho (Joshua 2). Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Nehemiah, Jonah, Jesus, the Apostle Paul, Philip, Barnabas, Peter, Tychicus, Titus, Apollos, the women, the twelve disciples and the seventy (seventy-two, actually) disciples were also involved in short-term mission strategies that were all temporary, swift and usually done in a non-professional volunteer context. How long has short-term mission has been around? More than three thousand years.

Current Short-Term Mission Trends
With an eye toward bona fide strategic use of short-term mission for world evangelization, practitioners need to note the following four trends affecting the bigger short-term mission picture:

1. Exponential Growth
In 1965 student researcher Thomas Chandler noted only 540 individuals from North America involved in short-term mission. In 1989 an estimate by a Fuller School of World Mission doctoral student put the number at 120,000. Three years later it had more than doubled to 250,000. By 1998 Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies (EFMA) vice president and former InterVarsity Mission Urbana director John Kyle’s research put the figure at 450,000.

In 2003 Peterson, Aeschliman and Sneed estimated at least one million short-termers were being sent out from a globally-sent perspective each year. In 2004, Robert Priest, director of the doctoral program in Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, reported he was beginning to locate data suggesting the number could be as high as four million.

Who is sending all these short-termers? In the United States alone, there are currently at least forty thousand sending entities (thirty-five thousand churches, thirty-seven hundred agencies and more than one thousand schools) that do the sending.

Why the explosion of growth? Among the myriad of possible answers lie six plausible explanations over the past six decades—all of which are sociologically immense and therefore outside of any missiological ability to direct or control:

1940s: World War II. Many mission societies began soon after the war ended. There was a flood of energetic, enthusiastic young people coming home from the war. Many had traveled far and wide, seeing devastation in much of the world first hand. For the first time in history we saw relatively young people who had experience in worldwide travel and who now had a global perspective. Combine that with a passion for God’s glory among the lost, and it’s easy to see why direct hands-on involvement in Christian mission began growing after the war.

1950s: Modern Airplane Travel. The idea of the average citizen flying commercially didn’t really take hold until a decade after the war. By the mid 1950s more planes were in the air, air travel was not seen as the exclusive domain of the rich or the military and the cost of a flight was within the financial reach of more citizens. As a direct result, “average” western Christians could now go virtually anywhere in the world with relative ease and speed.

1960s: The Peace Corps. US President John Kennedy launched the Peace Corps in 1961. By 2005, more than 182,000 Americans had become Peace Corps volunteers in one of 138 nations. This government-sanctioned “blessing” to travel abroad, to volunteer time to make a difference in a developing country for a cause greater than one’s self–did this have a positive impact on the growth of Christian short-term missions? I think it’s safe to assume that it did.

1960s–1990s: Rise of Postmodernity. Thanks in part to the growing societal distrust of leaders in the 1960s (due in large part to the confusion and manipulation surrounding such mega-events as the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War), young people began fighting stock answers and prodding behind what they were now beginning to perceive as leadership rhetoric and spin. They began demanding that experience and action match what was said. Experience therefore was now being equated with “truth.” The experience-equals-truth equation (which was becoming one of the characteristic hallmarks of emergent postmodern thinking) was further accelerated by the mesmerizing sight/sound/sensory experience now being generated by the film, television and music industries. The impact of these two sociological phenomena on current postmodern Christianity is that it compels its pew-sitting participants into the actual hands-on “experience” of missions.

1990–2000s: The Internet and World Wide Web. Contact with far away places is no longer the domain of the news media or the highly-networked socialite. Average people now easily communicate with missionaries in far away places, making the world seem a much smaller place. As my writing colleague Wayne Sneed notes, “Before the Internet, Joe the missionary was someone we heard about from the pulpit on Sunday nights. Now, going five thousand miles to help Joe my friend (who emails me every week) is revolutionizing Christian mission.”

The Holy Spirit. Rapidly growing numbers alone don’t prove God is behind the flurry of short-term mission growth. Yet the Lord of the harvest cries out to us to pray for laborers, and commands us to go and make disciples. And two thousand years later? With somewhere around 4.8 billion people currently crawling their way along the wide road to hell, only an insane person would refuse to recognize the church’s colossal failure. But because short-term mission allows swift, immediate response by any believer to the action explicitly demanded by the gospel; because short-term allows temporary engagement by Christian people not called, or not yet called, into full-time professional ministry (realistically, that’s the overwhelming majority of the church); and because short-term mission allows lay non-professional volunteers (again, that’s the overwhelming majority of the church) opportunity to perform what God commands of all disciples—regardless of age, gender, race, culture, training, social status, economic status or experience—perhaps short-term mission is a current “tool” the Holy Spirit has launched in order to accelerate completion of the Father’s command.

2. Codified Standards
The missiological validity of short-term mission has been rightly questioned on countless occasions—especially when it pertains to frontier mission work among unengaged and unreached peoples. The anecdotal evidence abounds on both sides of the fence: there are stories of scandal and selfishness; there are stories of success and indelibly changed lives. But until recently, no “standards,” no “best practices,” have existed to help mission strategists separate the short-term wheat from the short-term chaff.

Developed over the course of two years by more than four hundred people from across the United States, the U.S. Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Mission (SOE) was recently launched in October 2003. It formalizes the ethical and operating procedures many sending entities believe should be standardized. The SOE helps improve any short-term mission program by mandating periodic training and peer review for sending entity leaders. For the first time in US history, a national code of ethics now exists to help donors, parents, volunteers, churches, field personnel and others to help distinguish effective short-term mission programs from glorified vacations.

3. Agencies No Longer the Only Sending Entity
The number of short-term mission sending agencies is on the rise (around 3,700 US agencies currently send short-term missionaries). Many of these groups are small ma and pa operations that know nothing of the EFMA or IFMA or other similar traditional mission networks. But what they do know is that God called them to send as many short-term groups as they can muster, to help a certain people in a certain country somewhere in the world.

However, these thirty-seven hundred agencies pale in comparison to the thirty-five thousand US churches which do the same. Thousands of people in thousands of churches also believe that God has called them to send their own church teams to help certain people in certain countries somewhere in the world. Increasingly the church sees itself as the direct recipient of the Great Commission, and is beginning to put its local feet to the worldwide task.

Christian schools (colleges, universities, high schools, home schools) are also hearing the Great Commission call—and responding personally. Schools now send thousands of short-termers, often issuing academic credit for the effort. Some of the major school sending entities include Wheaton College, Master’s College, Bethany College of Missions, Azusa Pacific University, Messiah College, Vanguard University, John Brown University, Northwestern College (IA), Northwestern College (MN), Bethel University, Trinity International University, Biola University, Taylor University, Point Loma College, Gordon College, Oral Roberts University and others.

Other Christian institutions—none of them chartered or organized for Christian mission—are also beginning to respond personally to the Great Commission. Christian radio stations, campus fellowships, community hospitals and other groups have founding charter documents that state the purpose of the given group, and the purpose was something other than cross-cultural Christian mission. Yet these groups, too, are beginning to send short-term missionaries themselves.

4. Improved Literature
Until recently, very little solid printed literature existed to guide short-term mission practitioners in their work. The little that was available was often self-published and usually provided only anecdotal evidence to support the bias (either for or against) of the given author. Or it was a graduate study so entrenched in the given school’s academic requirements that the average practitioner couldn’t make use of it (nor could the average practitioner easily get a copy of the study in the first place).

Fortunately we are now entering a season in the short-term mission industry where better editors and known publishers are beginning to release quality books and other material authored with solid content which is directly applicable to the short-term practitioner’s needs.

Short-Term Mission In the Future
Should the Lord tarry, the next few years will likely challenge the prevailing mission community at-large to grapple with these three changes:

1. Fields Will Limit their Short-Terms to Proven Groups
Receiving mission fields will begin to recognize the value of short-term groups submitting to the United Kingdom Code of Best Practice or the Canadian Code of Best Practice or the US Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Mission. As a result, many fields will begin limiting the short-term missionaries they receive to only those who comply with one of these code-setting networks. Receiving fields will therefore have demanded—and can now enforce—a higher quality of short-term mission.

2. Formal, For-Credit Academic Training in STM Methods
Several Christian schools now provide courses in world missions—and many of those provide entire degree programs in some aspect of missiology or Christian cross-cultural study as well. But as of this writing, I know of no credit-granting institution which provides an entire for-credit degree program in short-term mission.

But some savvy school administrator somewhere will soon recognize not only the importance of providing for-credit courses, but an actual entire degree program in effective short-term mission methods and strategies. The first school to actually figure this out will have applicants lined up a mile long waiting to get in.

3. New Short-Term Mission Networks Will Bypass Traditional Networks in Attendance and Membership Numbers
Traditional mission networks such as the IFMA and the EFMA—as good and necessary as they are—have plateaued and now struggle to maintain one hundred member mission societies. Unless such groups are able to re-tool their understanding of who the new mission sending entities are, the overwhelming majority of the forty-thousand US-based short-term sending entities won’t give them a second thought.

Short-term sending entities are already beginning to band together, completely bypassing the traditional mission networks. The UK Code of Best Practice was launched in 1998 and achieved sixty member “organisations” within its first few years. The US Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Mission is just two years old (as of this writing) and already has eighty members—and is forecasting membership of more than eight hundred sending entities within the next five years. The National Short-Term Mission Conference (held every January in either California or Florida) draws around three hundred attendees each year, helping to train short-term mission team leaders and improve short-term mission programs.

Older conferences and associations must make radical changes in order to incorporate the newer short-term practitioners into their much-needed spheres of influence. Older conferences and associations have an immense wealth of experience and insight to draw from—all of which is desperately needed by short-term mission practitioners. But history shows an overwhelming refusal for many such older groups to adequately adjust to the changing times. And the result will be newer short-term mission networks which spring up and completely bypass the very groups that could—and should—be helping them.

Short-term mission has been around for a long, long time—at least three thousand years. It has been sometimes composed of sloppy work and selfish agendas. But with or without the help of the older traditional mission networks, the pressure of forty thousand US short-term sending entities and their one million or more short-termers has already created its own standards of best practice, better training and launched networks designed to improve the effectiveness of short-term mission efforts.

Short-term mission can be a bona fide (and perhaps the best?) missiological strategy when the field need is for swift, temporary, non-professional volunteers.

Following are some Case Studies >>

Bethany College of Missions (BCOM), Minnesota, USA
Although recently amended to a much more intensive short-term phase, a core piece of the original four-year curriculum requirements of Bethany College of Mission was short-term mission. Not short-term mission trips. But short-term mission outreaches. Not just one—but two of them prior to graduation.

etween their freshman and sophomore years, all students were sent out in teams (six to twelve students per team) on three-week outreaches around the globe, including many fields where Bethany’s career missionaries work. Students didn’t waste time just observing missionaries or national people, but engaged hands-on in the work being done by the receiving missionaries and their national hosts. Many of the college faculty were trained to lead these teams. Returning for their sophomore year, students (and the faculty who accompanied them) continued their study of mission and the Bible no longer from a theoretical vacuum, but now from the womb of actual hands-on missionary experience—student and teacher together.

One year later, students then spent their entire junior year (nine months) overseas on a second short-term outreach (usually in pairs or much smaller teams). Students tackled the local language, wrestled with the culture, survived its gastrointestinal consequences and at times even battled the ideologies of missiology with the local missionaries. All the while, students remained engaged in hands-on missionary work as determined by their field receiving hosts. Some students had a great nine-month outreach, while others crashed and burned. Returning back home for their senior year, the faculty spent the remaining year applying balm to students’ battle scars and working through all the issues encountered while on the field.

When students graduated that fourth year, most were ready for some serious kingdom work wherever God sent them in the world.

Youth With A Mission (YWAM), Worldwide
Loren Cunningham launched YWAM in 1960 as an evangelistic outreach program focused on getting youth into short-term mission. Now forty-five years later, YWAM’s website lists nearly sixteen thousand full-time staff and more than twenty-five thousand short-termers in more than 149 different nations. Yet when speaking off the record with some YWAM leaders, unofficial estimates run as high as 300,000 or more short-termers per year. YWAM is unquestionably the largest mission sending group in the world—not because of their financial fund raising savvy and ability to pay high buck salaries—but because of their innovative use of short-term missionaries.

In their early years, YWAM’s growth didn’t really take off until they initiated their DTS (Discipleship Training School). Although it varies from one YWAM base to another, the usual three-month DTS consists of about two months of training living in community (students and staff together) followed by a one-month short-term mission outreach, with everyone trusting the Lord to provide all the financial support needed. DTS training focuses on knowing God, then on making him known, using an extremely high-level of very personal student/teacher interaction involving key teaching topics that result in personal issues resolution and much prayer. DTS students are taught to hear the voice of God—and then obey.

What makes YWAM unique is that it is the only missionary organization that has had ministry outreach within every single geopolitical nation in the world. No other missionary society has come remotely close to accomplishing this. But YWAM has, because they’ve come up with a relatively simple short-term mission system to swiftly and temporary send volunteers to every corner of the globe.

Perimeter Church, Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Perimeter Church (thirty-five hundred members; five thousand weekly worshippers) began in 1977. Perimeter held its first mission conference in 1979, sent their first short-termer (one person for two years) to Sudan in 1982, and their first short-term team in 1986. Fast forward to 2004, where Perimeter now trains a cadre of church volunteers who in turn train, prepare and debrief the dozens of “GO (Global Outreach) Journey” short-term teams the church sends out each year.

The innovative factor in Perimeter’s use of short-term teams is that they work primarily within the 10/40 Window, including many restricted access nations. Each of Perimeter’s “GO Journey” teams works with one of Perimeter’s national church planting partners, specifically assisting their long-term church-planting efforts. And throughout the pre-field, on-field and into the post-field portions of each short-term outreach, Perimeter leaders are also intentional about helping develop world Christian attitudes and life-change behaviors in each of their short-termers.

Perimeter’s short-term teams work well in the “mission frontiers” of this challenging part of the world, because Perimeter has invested (and still continues to re-invest) time and money with their national church planting partners in order to make it work for everyone involved— the senders, the goers and the receivers.

Southeast Christian Church, Louisville, Kentucky, USA
SECC began in 1965, growing in less than forty years to more than seventeen thousand weekly worshippers. SECC’s first short-term mission was a large team of sixty people (too big, says Global Missions minister Brian Wright) to Jamaica in 1990. In 2002, SECC sent fifty-seven short-term teams—more than 750 SECC members—to twenty different nations.

What makes SECC’s short-term mission outreaches innovative and effective are two items: their strategic and accountable link to the field; and their three-level “line upon line, precept upon precept” methodologies. SECC’s “Great Adventure” mission outreaches go only to SECC-supported partners (strategic link to the field), and are planned within three levels:

(a) Exploration (closer, easier, less costly, about five days);

(b) Excursion (outside the U.S., more cross-culture, about 10 days); and

(c) Expedition (culturally and geographically far away, two weeks or longer).

KTIS AM/FM, St. Paul, Minnesota, USA
Started in 1949 when Billy Graham was president of Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota, KTIS has grown to more than 250,000 weekly listeners in the central Minnesota and western Wisconsin area. Additionally, their SkyLight Network now feeds programming to more than 250 Christian media affiliates around the United States. KTIS currently places in the top five of one of the highly competitive “morning drive” Twin Cities markets which consists of dozens of well-financed secular stations.

In the late 1990s, Music & Promotions director Dan Wynia wound up in Belize for a few days—and came back to the station with an unquenchable burden to help ramp up evangelistic broadcast efforts in Belize. KTIS has since provided money, equipment and technical expertise on several occasions—most of that delivered through short-term efforts.

More recently (2003 and 2004), KTIS partnered with my organization, STEM Ministries. After selecting six of their own people, we went live on-air and recruited another two dozen people to form a team of thirty short-term missionaries (more than seventy listeners made preliminary application for this team). These “average listeners” were trained and joined the KTIS staff to provide a three-day media seminar for Christian broadcasters in Belize, some on-site technical trouble shooting, prayerwalking for the peoples of Belize, some construction and building efforts and ministry to HIV-infected prisoners.

KTIS discovered an innovative way to put international feet to the Gospel they broadcast locally every day. They discovered how to help transform passive listeners into active missionaries. Their secret? Short-term mission.

Editor’s note: For Standards of Excellence in short-term missions, go to http://www.stmstandards.org/

This article excerpted from a chapter in Innovation in Mission, gen. eds. Jim Reapsome and Jon Hurst, published by Authentic. 2006. Waynesboro, Georgia, USA. Permission granted from publisher. Cannot be reproduced in any way without permission from Authentic.

Roger Peterson is CEO of STEM IntÌ¢‰â‰ã¢l. He is also chairman, of FSTML (Fellowship of Short-Term Mission Leaders) and chairman of SOE (US Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Mission).