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Short Term Missions Trends and Strategy

Short-Term Missions: Ten Emerging Trends

What a difference a few years makes. In 1970 you could count on one hand the number of youth groups doing short-term missions. Now it has become a standard feature for thousands of youth groups across the country. Many youth leaders affirm that their summer missions projects have greater impact than any other single event they schedule.

As the short-term missions movement matures, so the trends shaping it change. Those interested in short-term missions will want to stay abreast of such changes. What follows is a short list of those trends which I believe will have the most profound impact on the field in the years leading up to 2000 AD. In most cases, evidence for these trends is beginning to accumulate, but in other cases, I am simply making a forecast based on factors which are at work in the field. So here they are:

  1. From Youth Event to Missions Program Youth pastors tend to be event-oriented. As a consequence, it is easy to fall into the trap of seeing the summer project as just another event. As the idea of doing a summer missions trip becomes more institutionalized, I believe that the momentum will be in the direction of more thoughtfully developed programs which will produce continuity of vision and effort from one year to the next. In practical terms, this would be a program which maps out a stair-step progression of projects which offer increasing spiritual challenge for those participating in the program. A typical youth missions program may begin with a local project in the first year. The second year may entail an overseas project, and the third year may involve cross-cultural evangelism. By mapping it out well in advance, you give students something more to shoot for in each successive year. You set them on a track which results in increased spiritual growth year after year.

  2. Greater Accountability for Funds Stewardship has always been an issue. But accountability for funds increases as understanding of where those funds are going grows. As Keith Missel of Faith Bible Church in Cincinnati says, "Our accountability to our home church is vital. They contribute much of our support, and have a real sense of ownership of the project." Accountability requires a certain minimal knowledge base. Accountability languishes where ignorance flourishes. As missions committees and church laity become more familiar with what can reasonably be accomplished on missions trips, and as they develop a greater understanding of what the reasonable cost should be, accountability will inevitably increase.

  3. From Work Camps To Short-Term Missions It used to be as summer approached and youth groups got around to designing a really special summer experience, they would book a week at a nearby camp. They could count on fun in the pool, at the lake, and on the trail. In recent years, however, work camps have displaced camps as the "thing to do" among youth groups. Youth leaders are sensing that more entertainment is not what this generation needs. The prescription is a heavy dose of service and teamwork. Yet, as good as work camps are, an experience which fosters even greater spiritual challenge can produce more profound changes in the lives of students. A step beyond the typical work camp is a short-term mission project which challenges youth to not only humble themselves through service, but to share their faith while doing so. A work camp without testimonies and evangelism is mute Christianity. Increasingly, we will see teenagers come out of their shells and more boldly proclaim a radical faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God.

  4. From Fad to Phenomenon You still hear this in some circles: "Maybe short-term missions are just a fad." Yet one does not have to look far to see that if it's a fad, it sure has some enduring qualities. Here's a comment you'll hardly ever hear: "This short-term missions thing isn't all it's cracked up to be. I'm going back to a steady diet of fun retreats." Au contraire, the positive word-of-mouth continues to build as youth leaders discover that here, at last, is something which really does impact their students. Each year, more and more people go on short-term missions. Typical is the youth group at First Presbyterian, Houston. When parents worried about terrorism, their youth leader was called to seminary, and their church went through a time of difficult transition, did plans for a summer missions trip to Costa Rica die? No. In fact, because of past successes, support for the trip is now stronger than ever. The bottom line is that we should ask not whether all this activity will wither away, but how big will it get?

  5. Increased Emphasis on Preparation One knock against short-term missions project is that students often have little appreciation for the complex issues they face when they go overseas. The best way to beat this rap is by enhancing the caliber of the preparation which they go through prior to leaving home. It is unfortunate that many youth pastors are relatively green and may have little in the way of experience or materials on which to fall back. Yet those who do have experience note the high degree of correlation between prefield preparation and successful missions projects. As youth leaders begin to discover good materials and design more thorough preparation processes, the overall effectiveness of student missions will be enhanced. Some years ago Paul Borthwick began touting the idea of "missions preparation as discipleship." It has taken awhile for the idea of emphasizing missions preparation to take hold, but in the years to come, an emphasis on prefield preparation will become the norm, not the exception. Youth groups will go to the field better prepared.

  6. From Summer Experience to Ongoing Ministry to really reap the dividends of a changed lifestyle, youth groups must carry forward the momentum which a summer project can generate. In order for the principles of sharing Christ's love and helping others selflessly to become a foundational part of students' lives, they must be reinforced through a regular program of ministry back home. As Faith Bible's Missel notes, "We're selling our students short if we don't give them continuity. For us this takes the form of evangelism training, evangelism outreach to students, and support of local projects." Ongoing ministry is the antidote to the flash-in-the-pan experience which afflicts many groups returning from a summer experience. The tough lessons learned can't be allowed to lie fallow. Only by seeking out and ministering to the needy in the immediate community can one guard against slipping into familiar, old, and selfish behavior patterns.

  7. Greater Denominational Emphasis A number of the larger denominations already have a well-established program of summer missions projects for their own youth groups. As the number of groups going on missions trips swell, two factors will lead to greater denominational involvement: a) Denominations will begin paying attention to the savings they can offer their churches by sponsoring their own projects; and b) they will also want to exert greater denominational control over the kind of projects which their churches choose. A counterweight to these forces exists: Many denominations tend to respond slowly to outside forces. They are like barges being turned in the water. Those with the foresight to recognize opportunity have the chance to build a new generation of missionaries. The Christian and Missionary Alliance, under the leadership of Dan Bergstrom, is an example of one denomination which has sought to create more opportunities for member churches. Denominations which are able to find strong advocates like Bergstrom will make significant strides in the coming decade.

  8. Increased Networking The numbers make increased networking among churches seem obvious: Youth groups working independently to sponsor their own projects have a certain number of fixed costs which they must cover: setup expenses, staff time, camp and bus rentals, and preparation materials. By linking up with other groups, an individual church can spread out its costs over greater numbers. One way networking is accomplished is through mission agencies. Another means of exchanging mission opportunities is through informal networks. A number of Philadelphia churches combined both of these by sponsoring a cooperative project under the auspices of The Pittsburgh Project. Nearby in Philadelphia, a group of churches are sponsoring an inner city-based project called "Network."

  9. Internationalization of the Movement Sometimes we like to think that America is the center of the universe. We talk about missions in terms of American missionaries. Yet strong indigenous churches have been established in most countries around the world. The church is growing most rapidly in Africa and South America. South Korea is home to a tremendous missionary movement. In the future, missions networks will extend increasingly throughout the world. Already a number of missions agencies have taken steps to capitalize on the phenomenon. Teen Missions has for years sponsored projects which are geared primarily towards local youth. They have offered scholarships to encourage indigenous missions among foreign students. Teen Mania is another organization which intends to greatly expand its outreach to include foreign students.

  10. Junior High Involvement Almost any parent will tell you that students are maturing earlier. In the last three years greater numbers of middle schoolers have been getting involved in missions work. What we've seen is that if an effective program of discipleship exists and youth group members have been thoroughly trained, they have all the maturity they need to be smashing successes on the missions field. The youth of Christ Community Church in Omaha, Nebraska, are a shining example of this truth. Their missions project to Mexico produced more than three converts to Christ for every junior high participant.

SOURCE: January 2000 Mission Frontiers (MF00.01.13-Trends) Article written by Seth Barnes, Executive Director of Adventures In Missions, an organization which is committed to mobilizing and equipping the church for missions. In 1999, five thousand plus short-term missionaries participated in AIM projects. For more information, call 1-800-881-AIM1. or visit:

Short Term Mission Strategy for the Local Church

During the 1980s and '90s in the United States, due to the maturing of the Baby Boomer population, it has been observed that a polarization of sorts has developed, in which more missiologically conservative local churches have tended to take a missions-as-process approach, whereas more methodologically progressive local churches have tended to take a missions-as-project approach.

This apparent polarization may describe reality, but both approaches have obvious inherent strengths and limitations. The missions-as-project approach capitalizes on directing present Boomer energy into vision trips, vacations with a purpose, major designated projects and offerings, short-termers, and ministry teams. But this approach admittedly has no long-term track record or guarantee of success. The missions-as-process approach draws upon over 200 years of Protestant missions history worldwide. But that approach has demonstrated a lack of flexibility, vision, strategic focus, entrepreneurial freedom, and networking capability.

Missions-as-process churches should not look with disdain on missions-as-project churches, which focus on vision trips, major projects, and short-termers. Nor should the missions-as-project churches be frustrated with the missions-as-process churches, which are concerned about church planting, strategies, track records, doctrinal statements, and long-term associations. The fact is, there is a strategy which I have used as a missions pastor in three local churches in over 28 years of ministry which synthesizes the strengths of both approaches. This strategy makes the short-termer (one who serves for one to two years) the cornerstone of its "game plan," satisfying the missions-as-project crowd, while at the same time having as its most obvious long-term feature the placement of career workers (those who serve for two to four terms) in the most strategic overseas assignments, satisfying the missions-as-process crowd. This strategy can work for any kind of evangelical church, whether it is new or old, large or small, experienced or inexperienced, urban, suburban, or rural. Let me explain, step by step, how I have implemented this strategy in my own church. Here are the ten steps you should follow:

First, make the short-term experience the centerpiece of your church's missions program. Switch; don't fight. The short-term movement is here to stay and is an obvious grassroots movement that is still growing every year. Go where God is working. But make the short-term experience work for you, rather than at cross-purposes to your church's program.

Second, establish a clear vision statement and work out a strategic and tactical plan for your church's missions program. This will take some time, but it is the single most important thing you can do. Make it clear enough that any 8th grader can understand it.

Third, infuse your missions budget (whether it is "faith promise" or "unified") with a onetime cash allocation. It could be $25,000 or $250,000. The amount doesn't matter. It only needs to be large enough to fully support at least one missionary unit for one year.

Fourth, set up a candidate training program that begins to sort your potential candidates into your "class of '98," your "class of '99," and so on. This way you are already thinking 2-4 years ahead as to who may get sent. It helps the planning process tremendously.

Fifth, in sending out your first short-termer, (assuming he/she is fully prepared for the assignment), pick up everything that that missionary unit lacks in support to get to the field. The figure could be 30 percent, 60, or even 100 percent of the total support needed. Why do I say this? Most churches and individuals are hesitant to support someone only going as a missionary for one or two years. Also, Boomers hate to ask for money- many would rather not go than ask for funds. So make it easy for everyone involved--just take responsibility yourself and get them to the field as fast as possible. (Not that much money is needed since short-termers usually don't raise money for cars, retirement, and other large-ticket items.) Use the money in the new account to get them to the field quickly since it doesn't make sense to force Boomers to spend 22 months raising support to go on a short-term assignment.

Sixth, send your short-termer to an area that is at least compatible with your long-term strategic plan or even a direct extension of it. Try to send them to the place and with the organization they might go with long-term. That way, whether your short-termers go long-term or not, they still will be forwarding key ministries that you church feels very strongly about. It's a win-win situation for everyone.

Seventh, when your short-termers return home, use their experiences to assess their call to the ministry, their personal vision, ministry skills, theological depth, language-learning aptitudes, organizational compatibility, and cross-cultural adjustments. Only a short-term experience can provide you with that kind of assessment. Vision trips and summer ministries don't allow the participants to experience culture shock--they don't have to set up house, learn a language, shop, renew visas--like short-termers do, since the shock doesn't hit until 6 months to 18 months into the experience. (One of the main reasons for missionary attrition during or at the end of the first term is the unrealistic expectations that the vision trip or summer ministry set up in the new missionary's mind that the short-term experience would have tempered or balanced). Don't underestimate the value of the two-year short-term experience.

Eighth, some short-termers will not go back to the field as long-term missionaries. Put their annual budget allocation back into next year's budget. Others will want to go back, but not immediately. They first may need to get more schooling, pay off debts, get married, or get more ministry experience or training. Put their annual budget allocation back into next year's budget, too. Use those funds for supporting those in your "class of '99."

Ninth, those short-termers who desire to return long-term immediately (within the next six months) now have fire in their belly. They can speak articulately and with passion. They have the war stories and the video footage. They now don't mind so much raising support, and others view them as returning veterans, not untried rookies. They can now go to other churches to raise support and can raise it relatively easily. Your church can now reduce the monthly allotment you were giving them, since other support is coming in - put the unneeded funds back into your "starter fund" for next year's short-termers. I have never seen a situation in over 25 years where a church, following this plan, gave more monthly support to long-termers than was given to them as short-termers.

Tenth, about half of your short-termers will not go back long-term; about a fourth will go back long-term, but not immediately; and about a fourth will go back long-term immediately. You will be able to use most of the funds from last year's short-term account to send out new candidates next year. You may need to add $5,000 or $10,000 more each year, but not much (this could be viewed as your budget's inflation-adjusted 5% annual increase). Every year those same funds are there to keep your church's missions vision expanding and maturing.

In conclusion, in this paradigm synthesis, the short-term missionary, the cornerstone-feature of the missions-as-project approach, becomes the single greatest driving force in mobilizing the local church for world missions. At the same time, the short-termer stream becomes the single greatest conduit for flooding the world with field-tested, strategic thinking, and adequately supported long-term missionaries, the hallmark of the missions-as process approach. Don't allow your church to become artificially polarized by one valid approach alone. Use them both in tandem, minimizing the limitations of both by maximizing the strengths of both. That way your church can stay missiologically conservative and still be methodologically progressive. The future of the role of American churches in the cause of world missions in the 21st century is bright if short-termers are viewed with these bifocal lenses.

SOURCE: Author, Dr. Monroe Brewer, has served as the Global Ministries Pastor at Crystal Evangelical Free Church in New Hope, Minnesota since 1994. He is also adjunct professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and the academic dean for the Center of Biblical Training at Crystal Free Church. He has taught at 11 Bible colleges and seminaries, traveled to over 100 countries and has a doctorate in missiology and adult education.

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