I cannot escape the clutches of the question.
Be it Islamabad or Jakarta or Delhi - or Sydney, Wellington, Bluffton (Ohio!) or Auckland. The same issue has been filling my ears and my lips. As I've watched experienced missionaries in action - Robin and Jenny, John and Rosemary, Steve and Ruth - the question has come to mind. Then as I've listened to mission society personnel and attended mission conferences and engaged with mission committees, still the question has come to mind.
What is the place of short term mission trips in the overall mission of God in the world today?
I confess to feelings of increasing skepticism. They are over-rated in terms of their long-term effectiveness. They soak up too much time and energy both for people over here and over there. They drain many a missionary budget in local churches. For those with the courage to name the inconvenient truth at the heart of it, the return on the investment is notoriously poor.
"Aren't you being a little harsh, Paul?"
Yes, most definitely I am. That is the point...
I don't doubt that short term mission trips are transformational for some people. They most certainly are - but for how many people? And what percentage of people are still transformed a decade later? I have my doubts. And while on the subject of percentages, what is the percentage of a local church's mission budget that is going on short term mission, as opposed to longer term commitments. I bet it is creeping up.
Big-time sociologist, Robert Wuthnow, estimates that 1.6 million Americans go on “mission trips” each year, with churches spending at least $2.4 billion per year on such trips. Many of these trips conclude with time in a resort - in fact, one resort in the Bahamas reported that they had 1 “short-term missionary” for every 15 residents...
Here is how I would set the (financial) priorities of a local church, or family, wanting to be committed to the mission of God in the world.
Identify people, partnering with long-standing mission organisations, who are willing to learn the language of those to whom God is sending them. That is what opens up the highway into peoples' hearts. That is what proves that 'your people will become my people'. Learn their language. That is what sets the platform for something strategic.
Those people mentioned above - Robin and Jenny, John and Rosemary, Steve and Ruth - all fit into this category. I wish I could take the time to tell you what I've seen in their lives in recent weeks. In Jakarta I eavesdropped on a kinda reunion evening for all the 'alumni' touched by a missionary couple who gave their lives to the people and the country. People flooded into the huge room. Dozens of them. From all sorts of senior positions in the life of the nation. Oh yes, this is always Priority #1. Every single one of God's people need to be involved in supporting people like this - and it should be uppermost in the minds of mission committee priorities.
The church in the majority world is growing in numbers and maturity. Leaders are emerging. It is no longer cost-effective to wrap up all our money in our own people and send them over there. You can get a better missional bang for your buck by diversifying your investment. Today it is hugely strategic - if nowhere near as 'sexy' as short term mission trips (!) - to be supporting established and proven initiatives in these countries.
For example, accredited theological colleges and credible indigenous mission agencies head the list. The seed for this post was borne when I attended the foundational meeting of the Indian Evangelical Mission (NZ) Trust earlier this month. I don't tend to be on Boards anymore, but when invited to join this one, I jumped at it. IEM is the most respected missionary-sending agency within India, sending hundreds of missionaries cross-culturally - and probably able to send 10 people for what it costs us to send 1 person. As Obama expressed it the other day, "do the math".
Then there is that mission mentality of us going 'over there' to give them what they need and long for. Here mission flows one way in what is a hangover from the colonial era. It is no longer good enough! An investment in two-way partnership is needed somewhere in the mission budget. There is a lot that we need and do not long for enough which our friends in the majority world can prod and provoke in us. We need them. Start with attitudes to wealth and resources, sacrifice and suffering.
The work of Tony in a SE Asian country comes to mind. Plenty of resources have flowed from here to there over the years. It has made a massive difference. But a whole lot of prodding and provoking, among other things, has flowed from there to here as well as leaders have visited and ministered in our churches. It is a partnership.
Again, this is a little different than the norm. With the growth in expertise in many parts of the majority world, there is a contribution to be made at a 'consultant' level. The servant-hearted facilitator. The person with a specialised skill or expertise who can visit for a short period to upskill national leaders. This is short-term and non-residential, but when appropriately organised it can be effective.
I have a brother who is a high-powered surgeon and he does a bit of this. I work with a guy called Paul who is an Old Testament specialist. He is based in a college in Asia for six months of the year and then the balance of the year he is on the loose, free-lancing in all kinds of places around Asia. A staggering potential for influence without taking over the work from national leaders. In the shrinking global village it makes so much sense - and it ain't very costly!
With these four priorities established in the life of a local church - and a family - then I think we can turn our minds and hearts and wallets towards short term mission trips in an effort to redeem them.
But some changes need to be made as we do so. The trips need to be fewer in frequency. The trips need to have less people on them. The trips need to be for longer periods of time. The trips need to be less mobile, more willing to remain in one place. And the objective is simple - it must lead on to lifelong transformation in the way life and family and career and church is viewed.
Participants need to be 'scarred for life'. I confess that my kids have showed the way for me here. One went and remained in Kolkata for seven months. Another did something similar in Kampala, but for fifteen months. Another spent nine months in Liberia...
It is about staying long enough to learn people's names, have people become your friends, and then remain in your heart for forever - as well as sitting on your shoulder, as it were, bothering you with every single decision which you make. Surely, if a short term mission trip does not lead to this outcome then it remains unredeemed and questions need to be asked.