by Craig Greenfield
Imagine if I were to write this letter to my local dentist:
Dear Sir, I’d like to come and be a dentist for two weeks. I’ve been meeting once a month with a small group of others who also want to be short-term dentists, and we have our t-shirts printed and we’re ready to come.
P.S. Can you drive us around, translate for us, and help us take cool photos for our Facebook pages?
I’d like to be a fly on the wall when the dentist receives that letter. Perhaps it’s time we recognize that most of what we call “short-term missions trips” are not “missions” at all. If our mission is to go and make disciples of the nations, how can we make a single disciple if we can’t even speak their language? With a tract? How can we teach someone to follow Jesus in five days? With a handy flow chart? How do we transform a situation of poverty or trafficking? With a Christmas shoebox? Nope. None of the above. Jesus spent thirty years immersed in one culture before launching his ministry. And he was the Son of God! When he sent out his own disciples two by two, they went to places where they spoke the language and understood the culture already. They went as cultural insiders, not cultural outsiders. And they went empty-handed.
So, let’s reexamine the label, “short-term missions” and replace it with something that will better reflect what is really going on. We don’t have short-term social workers, or short-term bioscientists. We don’t have short-term gastroenterologists or short-term politicians. So why do we have short-term missionaries in ever-increasing numbers? Here’s the problem: we’ve created in our minds a false continuum. At one end of the continuum is “short-term missions” and at the other end is something we call “long-term missions.” We think of them as pretty much the same thing, but with differing lengths of service. But they’re not the same. And by naming them both “mission” we may be missing the point.
It might help at this point to situate “long-term missions” properly. Let’s agree that there is no such thing as a part-time Christian. There is no such thing as a follower of Jesus who is not in full-time service to God. If you are a full-time banker, and a part-time Christian—you might be deluded. Which begs the question, what do we mean when we say we are going into “full-time Christian ministry?” What were we doing up to this point?
As followers of Jesus, we are all called to a vocation. That’s the term we need to embrace. It will put everything else in its proper place. Our vocation, whether in butchering, baking or candlestick-making—is the primary means we have been given to serve God. Some of us will have a vocation as an architect or a writer, as a parent or a nurse. And some of us will have a vocation in cross- cultural service among the poor. Humanitarian work, Bible trans- lation, social entrepreneurship—these have all been lumped into a catch-all category called “long-term missions”—but they are just different variations on every Christian’s call to pursue a vocation that serves God, and God’s upside-down kingdom. When we see that each of us has a unique and important vocation, we’ll no longer single out some as more spiritual than others. We’ll support and pray for all equally. And we’ll develop a theology of work that works.
Now that we understand how “long-term missions” has been unhelpfully differentiated from anyone else’s vocation, we can better understand why “short-term missions” is such a misleading term. Again, these short-term missions trips are generally not “mission.” They are not part of a vocation to serve cross-culturally among the poor because a vocation does not take place in two weeks or two years.
So, what is it we are really trying to say with the descriptor “short-term missions?” In many cases, a primary motivation for these trips is learning and personal transformation. When that is the case, consider three more honest and accurate alternatives names for such “short-term mission” trips:
Vision (or Exposure) Trips
A focused intentional time where we ask God to open our hearts to the plight of the poor. What the eye has not seen the heart cannot grieve over. So, it’s natural that when people find themselves face to face with poverty for the first time, something significant happens. The rest of our lives are irrevocably shaped by what we have witnessed. We gain vision.
A time when our theology and understanding of the world is rocked to the core and deconstructed. When we travel as learners, eager to have our minds expanded and preconceptions challenged, we will not be disappointed. This category includes those who travel as part of their vocation—as a builder, surgeon or dentist for example—but are open to learning from God while they are passing on expertise to others in another country.
A time when we seek vocational discernment at the margins. To pursue a vocation in any field without having a perspective that takes into account the world’s poor (among whom God’s heart and good news is centered) is folly. How can we be a banker for God, if we don’t know how the financial services industry affects the poor? How can we be an architect or planner for God, if we don’t know how the design of cities affects the homeless? How can we be a teacher, if we don’t bring the reality of the world’s poorest to our students? These trips have the potential to reshape our vocation (and we might for example choose to serve overseas from time to time), or even to spark the discovery of new vocations.
In short, there is no such thing as a two-week vocation. And there is no such thing as “short-term missions.” Let’s get our labels right, and hopefully our practices and understanding will follow.
Adapted from an essay called "Stop Calling It a Short-Term Missions Trip" by Craig Greenfield. In Re-Imagining Short-Term Missions, ed. Forrest Inslee and Angel Burns. Wipf & Stock, 2022