The Future of Short-Term Missions

Short-term missions (STMs) have become a normal part of many church calendars. Most mega-churches will list their short-term projects in a brochure for their members. Though exact total numbers are impossible to find, estimates are that more than four million people annually go on short-term trips from the United States alone. The pace of change in the short-term movement has been as remarkable as the overall growth in numbers.

A number of years ago, I noticed certain trends emerging in short-term missions. Many are still in effect, but ten stand out. Each of these ten are undergirded by five factors that drive the pace and nature of the changes afoot in the market.

Driving Factors

– The STM market has matured—STMs are no longer a novelty, though they are becoming increasingly specialized.  

– Increased terrorism and confrontation between Jihadist Muslims and Christians has complicated travel.

– The cost of transportation has been decreasing due to ever-growing, worldwide linkages.

– The cost of communication is decreasing (thus making STMs easier to organize) due to the prevalence of Internet telephone services and cell phones.

– The economic growth of developing countries has introduced new possibilities. Countries like China and India have growth rates approaching ten percent; this is coupled with large populations of unreached people.

A generation ago, author Alvin Toffler introduced the concept of “future shock.” According to Toffler, “Future shock is the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.” We are seeing this in STMs. Change is occurring so fast that it is passing up many STM practitioners. The five factors above propel the pace of change in the market and have resulted in these ten overarching trends.

1. Internationalization of the Movement
We are seeing a huge increase in indigenous workers. One US-based ministry, Christian AID, claims to support ninety thousand indigenous workers alone. In China there is a movement called “Back to Jerusalem” which calls the Chinese Church to take part in the Great Commission. This movement has begun sending short-term and long-term missionaries. Indian missionaries are being sent out both short and long-term by the thousands. Emmanuel Ministries International in India graduated over ten thousand missionaries from its Bible schools last month.

In contrast, the US Church is in decline, following a trend similar to the European Church of forty years ago. In his book Revolution, George Barna estimates that only one third of the seventy-seven million people attending church weekly will still be attending a local church in twenty years.     

2. Web-based Networking
Databases like, or facilitate the process of connecting an individual with a STM that meets his or her criteria. Those setting up STMs will engage in increased networking. Databases will continue to merge and expand, linking an increasing number of international workers. The percentage of short-term missionaries that find opportunities through the Web will continue to rise. At Adventures in Missions (AIM), over fifty percent of individuals use the Web to find a STM trip.

3. Cheaper Projects
Fueled by a commitment to low-cost projects, Youthworks has increased from having four hundred participants in 1994 to thirty-seven thousand participants in 2005. Missions committees are becoming more sophisticated and asking for greater accountability for funds. Increased “competition” inevitably pushes prices down. As project costs come down, it becomes easier for more STM participants to go.

4. Increased Excellence
Agencies are increasing their emphasis on preparation and follow-up. Delta’s “Next Mile” project s a collaborative attempt to address issues associated with pre and post-trip situations. The Seven US Standards of Excellence in Short-term Missions lists close to one hundred subscribing agencies. More missions committees are improving their effectiveness in STMs by asking, “Why are we doing this?” More short-term agencies are using STMs as an opportunity to disciple participants. AIM features “listening prayer” as a key component of the project. This helps participants to learn to listen for God's direction in how and where to minister.

5. Partnerships
Church partnerships that start out as summer projects progress into long-term partnerships with  multi-year commitments and the exchange of pulpits (pastors preaching at the partner church). This is a relational generation and STM leaders today are giving relational ministry priority. Long-term, suburban-urban local partnerships are growing in communities throughout North America. Additionally, the Charismatic Church is growing much faster than the Evangelical Church around the world and will likely be the source of an increasing number of partnerships.

6. More Sponsoring Agencies
More than forty thousand North American churches, agencies and schools currently sponsor short-term missionaries and this is sparking greater innovation and opportunity. Denominations such as the Southern Baptists have established their own internal short-term missions agencies. Other associations like Willow Creek and Saddleback focus on cause-specific missions projects such as AIDS in sub-Sahara Africa.

7. Demographic Stratification
The following are several examples of how mission agencies and churches are using demographics to specialize their trips:

Teen Missions International offers “Peanut trips” whose requirement is that “you must be [age] seven before the project ends.”

– More agencies like OnMission are offering “vacations with a purpose” which target couples and families.

– Christian colleges like Taylor University (Upland, Indiana, USA) or Wheaton College (Wheaton, Illinois, USA) feature short-term missions in their athletic calendar and as a part of their academic curriculum.

– AIM offers four-day men’s projects featuring construction of homes in Mexico.

The short-term mission project has become a standard item on many youth ministry calendars. However, many of these trips are taken every other year. Many students have experienced the inoculation effect. They say, “Yeah, I’ve been on a bunch of mission projects—I’ve done that.”

8. Safety Concerns
Tourist terrorism, such as the bombing in Kuta Beach, Bali, will likely spread and become a global blight. US immigration policy has tightened. If other countries follow suit, STMs will become more difficult to organize. Muslim outrage and rioting such as took place outside Paris, France last year is likely to spread. The 11 September 2001 bombings on the World Trade Center led to more parental concerns about youth projects and now constrain STM agencies in their offerings. The possibility of another terrorist attack looms large. In addition, outbreaks such as the Asian Bird Flu, if pervasive enough, could completely shut down the STM movement for a time.

9. From Phenomenon to Fad

Hybrid projects are increasingly being offered. Consider the following examples:

– Some time back, a man called me proposing a short-term missions cruise. The idea was that at each new port, the cruisers/missioners would pour down the gangplank and distribute tracts to the locals. 

– Brio magazine-sponsored trips to Peru for 13-year-olds which cost US$2298.

– Radio station-sponsored trips.

– High school-sponsored trips (where no one was responsible for discipling participants).

– Women’s project to China where a major attraction is shopping.

– Drama projects to Europe where a major attraction is sight-seeing.

The reality is greater numbers of short-term groups are spending money with little missiological impact.

10. Shorter and Longer
Two-week projects were common twenty years ago; today, the six-day project is standard for high school students. High school groups are looking to travel less in order to save money and time. Most people are tactical, not strategic – they are more motivated to fill their calendars than they are to push for missiologically sound partnerships.

On the other hand, and Missions Year are examples of ministries that offer one-year experiences. SVM2 calls participants to two-year commitment to missions and hearkens back to the Student Volunteer Movement that began with the Haystack Revival a hundred years ago.

We live in a fast-changing world. Change in the way we do short-term missions is inevitable and is driven by a variety of factors. We can’t know what the changes will be, but we can count on needing to deal with them.

Seth Barnes is founder and executive director of Adventures inMissions, AIM has taken over sixty thousand peopleon missions projects.