Ten Suggestions for Short-term Mission Workers

The 2001 edition of Operation World noted 200,000 long-term missionaries in 2,900 agencies (among Protestants, Anglicans and Independents; Operation World doesn't survey Catholic or Orthodox missionaries). About 97,000 were deployed as foreign missionaries, and 104,000 were deployed within their country in cross-cultural situations.

This labor force has been globalized: the top missionary-sending nation is still the United States, but South Korea is now second. The sending forces by region are:

–    Africa, 12,400 home and 3,100 abroad;

–    Asia, 69,000 home and 13,600 abroad;

–    Europe, 22,800 home and 16,000 abroad;

–    Latin America, 10,100 home and 3,800 abroad;

–    North America, 71,000 home and 50,000 abroad;

–    Pacific, 9,400 home and 3,500 abroad.

(There are also additional workers in sensitive areas that are not categorized into the numbers above.)

There are numerous partnerships around the world dedicated to recruiting and deploying workers: COMIBAM , MANI, CAPRO, IMA, PMA, STAMP and PJRN, among others. When we talk about “long-term, cross-cultural workers” we might mean Korean, Chinese, Indian, Nigerian or Brazilian workers. Indeed, if we were to look at workers in cross-cultural settings within their own country (not just those sent to other countries), India might very well be the top mission-sending country even though most of its workers remain within its borders.

The reality, however, is that although 200,000 missionaries sounds like a lot, this number is really not that large. With 3.6 million Protestant/Independent churches worldwide, the ratio is about one missionary per eighteen churches worldwide. (There are of course regional differences: Africa sends one missionary per forty-eight churches; North America sends one missionary per seven churches). Moreover, about ninety percent of these 200,000 workers are deployed in open, unrestricted areas. This means that less than ten percent work in the closed areas of the world.

There are more short-term workers being sent out each year—even to the unreached world. (Read an article exploring short-term missions and unreached people groups.) Although short-term work can be very helpful, there are also many pitfalls. Short-term workers often cannot function effectively without the support of long-term workers. They may take a long time to both recover from culture shock and be able to contribute effectively while they are on the field. They often do not know the language and cannot relate deeply to most locals. Because short-term workers often do not understand the relationships between the locals and the long-term workers, there is the risk of damaging those hard-fought, well-earned relationships. It may also take longer for short-term workers to appreciate a culture's strengths, which from their view may be perceived as weaknesses. They can often fail to understand that ministry in Islamic, Hindu or Buddhist areas is very different from ministry among the nonreligious, atheists or Christians of a different tradition.

Ten Commandments for Short-term Workers
Because there are so many short-term mission teams going into places with great cultural diversity, it is important to equip these teams for their travels and ministry. Here are my “Ten Commandments” for short-term workers.1 

1. Do not put anything before God. Do not push your organization, denomination or church as the greatest in the world. Do not make comparisons. In restricted-access nations, the scarcity of workers often leads to partnerships you would not often think possible. Do not automatically assume these partnerships are bad. Go as a servant to the local workers.

2. Do not introduce new concepts, ideas or doctrines that take away from the work of locals. You are only going to be there for a short time. Lift up the local work wherever possible. Realize you are not likely to achieve in a few days what locals have not achieved in years. You are part of a process; you are sowing seed. Ask how you can best serve those who are coming after you.

3. Live a pure life as a witness for Christ. Watch what you say and do. You are in a different culture and you may find temptations in unexpected places.

4. Honor times of rest and worship. Be sure to keep fellowship with the rest of your team. Do not let anything divide you. Remember stress and culture shock can bring out the worst in people—including you. Be open, transparent, full of grace and forgiving.

5. Honor the local workers, so that you will stay long in the land where you are serving. Security is often a big concern in restricted-access countries. Obey any restrictions that they place upon you, realizing these are for their protection as well as for your own. Honor the local government, “rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar's.” The country's political system may be different from what you are used to. However, this “foreign” system may work well for the locals. Political debates are not likely to push local ministry forward.

6. Do not “murder” ministry options with idle talk. There are many complex situations on the field which you, with a few weeks' experience, are not equipped to solve.

7. Keep your relationships clean and pure in all ways. Honor the relationships the local team has, and seek to raise local workers up at all times. Strive not to say or do anything that will destroy relationships local workers have with others.

8. Keep your financial dealings above board and honest. Do not be lazy: do not steal time. Seek to bless, not to take. Do not make local workers spend an incredible amount of time or resources taking care of you. Be flexible and learn to adapt.

9. Be both truthful and discreet. Be sure to find out ahead of time what you should and should not say to those who ask about your trip. Be careful what you put in print. Be sensitive to email security requirements. While you are on the field, communicate any problems you are having, but try not to share your whole life history in the email. Seek to minister to others rather than wanting others to minister to you.

10. Do not introduce anything that can cause jealousy or envy. In most parts of the world any westerner will be considered “rich.” Do not show off. Do not offer things you should not or make empty promises in the spur of the moment.

Above all, use your short-term trip to evaluate your own long-term calling. Everyone should work so that the Great Commission is completed. Your trip can help you develop a vision, understand the sacrifice and work required, build partnerships and become personally involved. Use it to the utmost, and once you are back, sit down and prayerfully identify ways you can continue to expand your involvement.

1. See also Paul Cull's “Ten Commandments”. Although there are some variations, there are also many similarities to the ones I’ve listed above.

Justin Long manages strategicnetwork.org and is senior editor for Momentum, a magazine devoted to unreached peoples. He can be reached at [email protected].