Urbana and Short-term Missions

Thousands gather for the triennial Urbana conference

Since its beginning in 1946, Urbana, InterVarsity’s triennial student North American missions convention, has challenged delegates to submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ and join in God’s mission of bringing the gospel to the whole world. Stacy Woods, first president of InterVarsity, said in 1951, “To me one of the greatest motives in this whole matter of foreign missions is ordinary everyday obedience to our sovereign Lord and Master.”

At Urbana, students have listened to God’s call on their lives and responded. However, over the decades, the nature of their commitments have changed. Of the seven hundred students who attended the first convention in Toronto in 1946, nine went out to spend their lives in Afghanistan as career missionaries. Many others lived out life-long commitments in service around the world. In the 1970s the missionary agencies at Urbana were asking students to commit to two years overseas with the assumption that they would decide whether or not to make a lifetime commitment to the foreign mission field. At Urbana 03, many mission agencies offered short-term experiences of one to two weeks.

General Trends in Short-term Missions
With faster communication, easier travel and a more mobile population, the very nature of short-term missions has changed. Rather than being sent by mission agencies, many individuals go overseas with groups organized through local churches. These churches often have little expectation that the participants will return to the mission field for a lifetime of service. According to Abram Huyser Honig, “Between one million and four million North American Christians reportedly participated in STMs [short-term missions] in 2003, and the number keeps rising.” 

The goals and results of these experiences differ from program to program and person to person. Some assume that the goal of STMs is to change the life of the person sent overseas. For instance, people going overseas may seek to simply develop a broader view of God’s mission and their role in it. Robert Priest and Terry Dischinger studied seminary students and found that experience in a well-organized short-term mission did change the ethnocentricity of the participants. They had more positive feelings toward the ethic group visited during the project. 

On the other hand, Kurt Ver Beek, professor of sociology and Third World development at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA, surveyed 205 people involved in a short-term project: 127 North Americans who went to Honduras to rebuild houses devastated by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and seventy-eight Hondurans who had their homes rebuilt. The study found that neither group had experienced notable life changes. While the participants reported that they gave more to missions and would like to keep in touch with the people they met in Honduras, the church mission budget was not significantly increased and letters or emails were not sent.

Another goal of STMs might be to benefit those being served by improving their physical situation and by sharing the gospel. Judgment differs as to how well this goal is met by the short-term missionary project. According to Jo Ann Van Engen, “Short-term missions groups almost always do work that could usually be done (and done better) by the people of the country they visit.” 

However, Erik Lawrence, the short-term coordinator for Africa Inland Mission (AIM), sees benefits in sending short-term missionaries to the field. “Most of the missionaries who serve long-term with AIM went on a short-term trip prior to committing their lives fully to serving as foreign missionaries. In this way, it could be said that the greatest benefit to the people we serve is that even though a person may come and work for a few weeks and go home, they sometimes commit to returning to Africa and give many years serving the people there.”

Making the Most of Short-term Mission Trips
InterVarsity offers students short-term opportunities both in the United States and abroad. These programs are often organized to benefit those being served. For instance, urban projects offer tutoring to children in American cities and many of the global mission projects involve teaching English to students overseas. However, the thrust of the programs echo the basic message of Urbana, namely, submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ and obedience to his commands in one’s life. Studies have shown that students who have participated in these short-term projects are changed. After graduation, ten percent of the participants purchased a home in the inner city and nearly twenty percent began attending a church where the congregation was primarily a different ethnicity. Of those who traveled overseas on an InterVarsity global project, one-third changed their major in college in preparation to serve overseas after graduation. 

In a session entitled “What If I Don’t Go Overseas?” at Urbana 73, Dr. Donald Curry spoke about what he learned on his short-term missions trip.  He repeated the message of Urbana, challenging students to yield to the claim of Jesus Christ on their lives.

After graduating from medical school, Dr. Curry worked in a mission hospital in rural India for twelve weeks. He was motivated by a desire to be more like Jesus and thought that he could be a more godly Christian in an overseas setting. However during his time in India, Dr. Curry discovered that “in rural India, just as much as in urban Canada, lay the potential for living a dull, humdrum Christian life, one dictated by the norms of the society.”

Dr. Curry spoke about the parable of the master giving talents to his servants to be invested and the profit returned to him (Matthew 25:14-30). Dr. Curry told the Urbana audience that he saw three lessons in the story for those who would be obedient to God’s command to declare the gospel to the outermost parts of the earth.

“In this parable, Christ was speaking to me. I was one of the servants,” he said. “Three things struck me as I considered the analogy. The first was that I have been given talents to invest, whether I feel particularly gifted or not. All three servants were given something. I cannot use the excuse that in Jesus Christ's Great Commission I have nothing to offer, so I will sit on the sidelines and let my pastor or the missionaries that my church sends out do the work. If I have made a commitment to Jesus Christ, I have been given a role to play; I have been given a talent to invest for his glory.”

“Second,” he continued, “ I noticed that faithful investment and not ability was rewarded; both servants that invested were given similar rewards. The Lord is not calling me to be successful in this world, though this may come, but to be faithful. Third, it seems from the parable that the surest way to lose everything is not to invest, not to risk what I have been given.”

Dr. Curry suggested several areas where we are asked to take risks for the sake of the gospel. He challenged Urbana delegates to allow themselves “to get into stretching experiences. By this I mean situations where you do not feel entirely secure in your ability to control the outcome.” He admonished them that, “unless we are willing to risk financially now, the chances are good that we never will.” He concluded by telling the delegates that they should be willing to gamble in relationships, “allowing others to know you as a person at the risk of their rejection.”

Urbana continues to declare the message of submission to God’s purposes in a person’s life. Jim Tebbe, InterVarsity vice president of missions and director of Urbana 06, makes this clear. “All of us in missions know that short-term missions are with us to stay,” Tebbe says. “Nevertheless I would argue that there should be no such thing as a short-term missionary. People may go to another country for a limited period of time but God calls them to stay involved with his purposes in the world for the rest of their lives. It is not just going but also through prayer, staying in touch, giving and support of others who go that all of us can continue to be part of God’s mission. Short-term implies that you stop doing it when the limited time is over. A missions trip should be just the very beginning.”

Kristine Whitnable is a writer for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. She also teaches medical ethics and theology as an adjunct professor for Marian College, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, USA.