Short-term Missions That Last
Nine principles to effective short-term missions trips
By E. Scott Martin
The Book of Acts is replete with powerful, short-term missions experiences that had lasting results. Acts 8:26–40 records an important and effective short-term ministry encounter — Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Peter’s mission at Cornelius’ house lasted only a few days but had a fruitful outcome (Acts 10:48). Short-term missions are effective.
Over the past 10 years more than 90 percent of appointed Assemblies of God World Missions Chi Alpha missionaries have previously served on a short-term mission to their chosen field. Ron Maddux, Northern Asia regional director, states that more than 80 percent of missionaries in Northern Asia first served there as missionary associates. Short-term missions exposes people to the needs on the field and helps them open their hearts to God’s call.
My wife, Crystal, and I spent a year in Central Eurasia pioneering the first university student ministry in the area. A team of 13 missionary associates and MAPS workers assisted us. These college graduates had little or no training in the indigenous language. Although they had limited experience in campus ministry and missions, they wanted to learn and they had a willingness to serve. Hosting a team that size took a great deal of time, but the investment produced multiplied returns.
One of our team members, Rochelle Denton, is a graduate of North Central University in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She had never participated in Chi Alpha or campus ministry, but she possessed every attribute for a fruitful short-term experience. During her year on the field she never complained. She learned how to navigate the city and did not depend on us for transportation. She studied the language diligently and learned it well. She was open to new ministry paradigms and never challenged authority. Her excellent work ethic served as a model for the other students. Her life and faith were contagious. We never found her without a smile.
Some might say these are her giftings, but I believe she chose her attitude and actions. As a result, Rochelle greatly enhanced our ministry in Central Eurasia. We had 12 others like her on the team. With them we accomplished in 1 year what might have taken Crystal and me 3 years or more to complete.
In many closed or restricted areas, well-trained, short-term missions teams are a tremendous resource. Teams contact people who are interested in the gospel but have no access to Bibles or Christian literature. Resident missionaries receive information from these contacts and then follow up. Many teams bring the gospel into homes and villages for the first time.
A short-term team from Chi Alpha serving in a restricted access nation met a university student named Aziz. He invited them to be guests in his home. No AG missionary had ever been to his village. During the team’s 3-day stay the host family overheard the students’ devotions and worship.
On the final evening of their visit the family invited relatives and special guests to a birthday party (really a meet-our-American-guests party). About 40 people — aunts, uncles, cousins, and Grandpa — attended. At a specific moment a family member said, “We have heard you sing in our home. Will you sing a song now?”
The team of six university students stood and sang Be Magnified, O Lord.As they did the Holy Spirit fell on everyone in the room. With tears Grandpa rose from his seat and Aziz escorted him to the team. He wanted to know the words they had sung — even though he did not speak English. “Because we all felt them,” he said.
This short-term team had opportunity to share the gospel, leave Bibles, bless the family in Jesus’ name, and secure names for the resident missionary. They brought the kingdom of God into Aziz’s home — a place no other believer had ever been. They described it as a Cornelius experience. We can tell many such stories.
What Makes an Effective Short-Term Mission Team?
Go where the need is. Many factors — a minimal understanding of the language, interest in a particular area, knowing a missionary in a certain country, or favorable costs and accessibility — often become the litmus test regarding where a team decides to go. Although none of these factors are necessarily negative, they should not be the primary determination of where a team serves. Effective short-term missions teams go where they are both wanted and needed.
The team must match the missionary’s ministry goals in that field. People often ask missionaries to adapt their ministry to a team’s giftings and talents rather than matching a team to the needs on the field. At times missionaries may not need a team or the timing is not convenient, but for the sake of relationship with a church or pastor, they agree to host a group. In these situations teams can consume 2 weeks of a missionary’s calendar and have little to show for it. A team will accomplish more if its members are willing to go where the need is.
Go to serve. A missions team must go with a servant’s attitude. To serve means to be willing to do anything the host missionary asks, and to do it with a good attitude. Teams should not go with a preconceived agenda. Ask the missionary what his goals are and learn about his missionary assignment. Ask him how the team can advance his ministry and vision. Do not tell him what the team can do until his needs are made clear. Plan the team’s training around the missionary’s responses. The team’s primary goal is to serve the missionary and the indigenous church.
Be flexible. A friend who served in Southeast Asia told me, “In missions nothing ever goes the way you plan.” In my experience I have found that statement to be true. Missionaries invest time and effort in planning an outreach only to have their efforts hampered by rain, power outages, or denial of a needed permit. Glitches occur in the most carefully crafted plans.
I remember participating in a short-term missions trip to Latin America. Our team prepared for 6 months. We learned a detailed, 30-minute drama, as well as Scripture verses and songs in Spanish. On our final day of ministry, the 70-member team gathered at the train station to perform its final presentation. We intended this to be the crescendo of the trip.
As we performed, a leprous woman and a young teenager from off the streets approached us and began to mock and make obscene gestures. The drama presentation was ruined. We ended the presentation and boarded the bus. We were not flexible when things did not go as planned; therefore, little ministry occurred that day. Be willing to adapt. A strong team will flow with changes without complaints or trepidation.
Be a blessing, not a burden. Every team wants to bless the missionary and the national church; however, not all teams do. A quality team will strive to bless its hosts, not burden them. Team members must be low maintenance and do things for themselves. A team often loses its ability to function if the missionary is not constantly with it to provide direction. A quality team quickly learns how to maneuver in a given locale and to access how to minister effectively. Teams with high demands for food, accommodations, and sightseeing are more of a burden than a blessing. Allow the missionary to establish the agenda. Be mindful of the culture and the missionary’s schedule.
While Crystal and I were in Central Eurasia, we hosted six short-term teams. Each team brought unique giftings that accelerated the overall purpose of our mission.
One team came specifically to do Christmas concerts on university campuses. The members’ energy and servant attitudes — and the fruit from their ministry — blessed us and opened doors for long-term outreach on those campuses. Since then, universities have invited us back to do more concerts.
We also hosted two Chi Alpha teams. One focused on campus prayer walks, teaching English, and assisting missionary associates with Bible studies. The other team assisted a church in another village. Each team brought life, hope, vision, and anointing.
Evangel University sent a football coach to lead an outreach to university student athletes in conjunction with a football training camp. A construction team assisted us by building baseball diamonds and batting cages for the Little League outreach we were establishing. They diligently worked 12 hours a day. They passed up a day of sightseeing to complete the project. A team of 23 Chi Alpha students then came for 2 months to implement the first-ever Little League in the country. Each team brought something special and greatly needed. We could not have accomplished the mission without the assistance and presence of these short-term teams. They were a blessing.
Leave a gift with the host missionaries. A team may develop a strong emotional attachment to specific churches or national pastors, but it needs to resist the temptation to give funds directly to them. The host missionaries will know the details of each situation. Share your intentions with the host missionaries and give the financial gift through them.
Bless the missionary kids. The impact a short-term team can have on MKs is profound. The team brings a piece of home to a faraway place. Invite MKs to join the team and its work. Use them as interpreters. Bring them a gift from the United States. They will appreciate it.
Live by this motto: “Not a complaining word among us.” Hosting a team is extremely hard work. Host missionaries are usually the first people up and the last to go to bed. Hosting a team creates extra work and puts pressure on the missionaries. Hosting takes time away from their families and sometimes even their primary assignment. Missionary hosts will do their best to serve the team; however, nothing is more disheartening to them than to hear complaints.
When I lead a team I do not tolerate complaining. Usually, I excuse a person once, and then I present him with a return ticket home. Missionaries do not need nationals to become disillusioned because they overhear Americans making complaints about their living conditions.
One day a team member came barreling down the stairs declaring that the bathroom setup “just will not work.” Her attitude wounded the missionaries and the national believers who had worked hard to prepare for her arrival. I offered her a flight back to the United States the next morning. She declined and corrected her attitude. An uncomplaining team is a great team.
Think small. Most missionaries cannot handle large teams. Ask what size team would best fit their needs rather than making their needs fit the team. Teams of four to six members work well for housing, transportation, and food. Large teams can leave members on the fringes of ministry, but a small team ensures everyone’s participation.
Think long term. When sending a team, make a long-term commitment to the area and the missionaries serving there. Sending short-term teams or missionary associates to the same missionaries or area each year enhances the long-term effectiveness of their overall investment and ministry. Provide prayer, finances, and personnel for the long haul. Do not simply take trips. Instead, be strategic in investing teams and missionary associates.
As a receiver and mobilizer of short-term missionaries and teams, I believe in their potential to accelerate the gospel around the globe. Spirit-led, short-term missions — if done strategically — bring positive results. The duration of the mission is not as important as its effectiveness.
Jesus sent out short-term teams (Mark 3:13–15). Short-term missions with long-term vision is biblical, fruitful, and can greatly impact the church for God’s kingdom. Reap a blessing and ensure that your church is actively involved in short-term missions.