Rethinking the Language of Short-Term Missions
For much of Christian history, a call to international missions had been considered lifelong; some early missionaries shipped their necessities in a coffin, assuming they wouldn’t come home except to be buried. But as travel technologies improved, home furloughs became possible, then standard. Shorter terms of service became realistic options. And then very short trips—even ten to fourteen days—became common for laypeople and youth.
Short-term mission trips as we know them today began in the 1960s. The success of projects like the Peace Corps, paired with the growth of mass commercial air travel, inspired Christian organizations to experiment. Recruiting primarily college students and single twenty-somethings, organizations like YWAM (Youth With A Mission) and OM (Operation Mobilization) created cross-cultural experiences that lasted from a month to a year or two. A narrative grew up about these trips: they were ways for American young people to gain spiritual insight and grow personally while serving “the least of these.” Individual churches adopted the trend and set up their own trips, too.
Some early missionaries shipped their necessities in a coffin, assuming they wouldn’t come home except to be buried.
But established missionary boards and agencies were slower to adopt short-term missions, and when they did, the narrative was different: it was less about spiritual formation for the young people and more about helping established missionaries—even recruiting new, long-term missionaries. The boards didn’t view short-termers as missionaries, but as potential missionaries. The Southern Baptist “Journeyman” program, founded in 1965, for example, featured a two-year term with the goal of exposing young people “to missionary life while serving career goals of established missionaries.” In the late sixties, Africa Inland Mission had short-term options of one to two years available, but promotional materials encouraged missionaries to always have long-term service as their goal.
It was not until the 1970s that high school students began to take part in short-term mission experiences. Summer youth trips gained widespread acceptance in the 1980s, and by the 1990s, they had exploded in popularity. The established missionary community, faced with the ubiquity of short-term trips, was forced to concede: finally, they too began calling them “missions trips,” and referring to people who made one- or two-year commitments overseas as “missionaries.”
So you might say that in the brief history of short-term mission trips, there have been two competing narratives to justify their existence: the established missionary community wanted the story to be about recruiting potential missionaries and aiding established missionaries, but local churches and new organizations wanted the story to be about the spiritual growth of those who went, along with serving the poor (not traditionally a goal of missionary work, which had primarily been about evangelism, scripture translation, and church-planting). This second narrative, for the most part, won out in the American evangelical community.
In the brief history of short-term mission trips, there have been two competing narratives to justify their existence.
And this is why when people come back from a short-term trip, you’ll hear them say things like, “They [the poor] taught me so much more than I taught them,” or “They gave me so much more than I gave them.” This is the narrative their preparation has primed them to use. They had been told that they were going to serve the poor and experience spiritual growth; they’re simply saying that their spiritual growth seems more valuable than their service was.
And undoubtedly, in a lot of cases, that’s true! Especially if the service they’ve gone to provide was a project their church dreamed up, rather than something the people they served had asked for.
For example, suppose a church knows of a school in a Latin American country that needs a new building. They send a team of high schoolers to do the work, a common enough type of summer trip experience. But suppose that while these students—inexperienced in the art of building, but happy to serve—are working on the construction, a man from the community walks by. He’s bigger and stronger than the kids are. He’s unemployed. When he looks at them, he sees teenagers who have enough extra money to fly to his country, doing a job for free that he would have loved to have been paid even a small wage to do. Those wages would have gone to feed his family, or to enable him to buy the uniforms his children must have to attend that very school.
This building team has helped the community, yes, but probably not in the best way. They’ve flown in like little gods, fixed a problem, and flown out again, leaving community members feeling even more helpless than before. Those teens wore their matching T-shirts emblazoned with “Bringing God to [insert country name here]!” as if God hasn’t been there all along. Maybe they have—unwittingly—used the poor for their own spiritual growth.
Admittedly, this is just one example from a multitude of kinds of short-term trips. There are ways we’ve done them well, and ways we’ve done them not so well. But for now, let’s just talk about the language: Should we really call a trip like this, one we’ve just admitted does more for us than it does for the people we serve, a missions trip?
Maybe they have—unwittingly—used the poor for their own spiritual growth.
What if, instead, we called them “vision trips” or “learning trips”? A simple renaming might change the whole way we plan, prepare for, and experience such trips.
Imagine someone asking for financial support for a “vision trip.” Instead of saying, “Please give me money so that I can take the gospel to a dark place / build a house for the homeless / run a summer camp program for kids in Haiti / assist in a temporary medical clinic in Tegucigalpa,” a short-termer might say, “If you would like to invest in me, would you help me travel to a different culture so that I can expand my view of who God is and how he works by learning about him in a foreign land?”
A simple renaming might change the whole way we plan, prepare for, and experience such trips.
In preparing short-termers for their trips, we’d treat them like children about to visit an art museum. With training and education, children can progress from seeing everything but understanding almost nothing to really grasping what they do see. We can prepare them to learn from the museum guide. We can give them historical, social, and artistic language to use in describing their experience. Likewise, it would make sense for people preparing for a “vision trip” to learn about the history, language, economic structures, and ethnic groups of the community they’re about to visit so that when they arrive, they’ll be better able to understand what they see.
We can give short-termers historical, social, and artistic language to use in describing their experience.
When they went, short-termers would be ready to listen to locals, to learn from them. And they’d be able to integrate all the parts of their trip. Instead of dividing them into “ministry” and “tourism,” every aspect of the experience—even visits to famous sites, shopping in the markets, and attending a local church—would be a part of a cohesive learning experience.
Dr. David Zac Niringiye was assistant bishop of the Kampala diocese of the Anglican Church in Uganda. When asked if short-term mission trips could serve African Christians well, he suggested that short-term trips ought to be oriented around listening. What if, he said, instead of going with a “mission” in mind, Americans just brought greetings from one church to another, and opened up a conversation, a relationship?
What if instead of going with a “mission” in mind, Americans just brought greetings from one church to another, and opened up a conversation, a relationship?
“Short-term mission” has been part of our lexicon for less than fifty years, and it’s the wrong name. Let’s change the term, and let that simple change lead us to a more reciprocal, authentic, relational model, one oriented around listening. Let’s be sure we in the West are aware of our cultural power, we use our social capital to help, and we learn about structural injustices instead of just witnessing poverty. Let’s make our trips about cross-cultural communication and relationship, and let’s line them up with the mission of God, which is long-term by definition: the restoration of relationships, the reconciliation of all things to himself.
This essay is excerpted from Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World by Amy Peterson.
For further reading, check out Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience by Brian Howell, and Playing God by Andy Crouch.
Amy Peterson is a writer and teacher whose work has appeared in Christianity Today, River Teeth, The Millions, The Other Journal, The Cresset, Christian Century, and elsewhere. She is the author of Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World. Find her @amylpeterson.