The past thirty years have seen an increase in the phenomenon known as short-term missions. In the last three decades, American church members have enjoyed a growing ease of access to multi-week foreign mission trips in which they provide assistance to the ministry of overseas missionaries and Christian workers. Many churches have joined in what has been called the Short-Term Missions Movement by sending their members across the world on these single or multi-week ventures.
Certainly there is value in this kind of ministry. Although writers like Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert offer poignant criticism of how many churches are conducting their short-term mission trips in their book When Helping Hurts, they also conclude that these overseas trips should not be eradicated from church budgets. Reformation, not removal, is the aim of their critique. (see also Robert Lupton’s Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help for a trenchant critique of and recommendations for our short-term mission projects). Nevertheless, there is a hidden danger in these noble attempts at getting Christians to be more globally-minded.
The Danger of Short-Term Missions
Apart from encouraging narcissistic teenagers and young adults to think of overseas orphan care and short-term mission work as little more than a Facebook photo-op or a way to score notches on their world-travel belts, the primary danger from these trips is in nursing the idea within the local church body that a special brand of faithfulness to Christ is expressed through extraordinary overseas endeavors.
When such thinking begins to pervade a church culture, people are prone to develop an addiction to the spiritual jolt they receive from ministry in foreign lands. They will also begin to view their daily work–at home, at church, on the job, in their community–with disdain and boredom. A secular-sacred divide slowly emerges, and everyone knows what real spirituality looks like: three weeks in South America.
How many times, for example, have we heard testimony from seemingly earnest folks who say that their recent trip overseas renewed their relationship with the Lord, inspired a fresh commitment to evangelism, and endowed in them a strong sense of purpose? I’ve heard reports like these more times than I can count. Is this kind of testimony altogether wrong? No, not altogether. But there is something amiss when we find that this spiritual zeal often fizzles after only a couple weeks–or days!–stateside. Was their excitement spiritual at all? I fear that these kinds of spikes in our spiritual lives may actually do more promote superficial growth that withers in the face of trial than it will to create healthy trees that bear fruit with patience (Luke 8:15). As Horton reminds us: “We grow by ordinary, daily, habitual practices” (181).
Diligence at Home
The answer to these dangers is not to do away with short-term trips, but to pursue a life of loving those around us, or, as one of Horton’s chapter titles aptly admonishes, to “stop dreaming and love your neighbor” (190). But even here we can run from the ordinary. Rather than pursuing faithfulness at home with our families or among our immediate neighbors, we look elsewhere, even to the local soup kitchen. Why?
It’s easier to pour myself into a service project for the needy than it is to give a little more to my wife and kids. That’s ordinary. I can’t see the impact of the dozen or so little conversations, corrections, laughs, and tasks that happen in a day–or even a week, month, perhaps even a year. I can’t measure the ordinary stuff. But I can measure (supposedly) how many souls were saved or how many people were fed or how much money came in for a special project (194).
One reason why we may get so excited about our short-term trips to other countries or to the downtown soup kitchen is that it is often, ironically, less messy and less demanding to serve someone we will never see again than it is to daily speak to our family or neighbors about Christ and love them in practical ways. But in order for us to conduct these extraordinary trips overseas or downtown with authenticity, we must first be serving diligently at home.
Back to the Gospel
But this point brings as back to the first observation: it is the gospel that frees us to give ourselves to serving others. When we are rooted in the good news of an external act saving righteousness on our behalf (see Rom 3:19-26; 5:12-21), we will be released from preoccupation with our inward spiritual lives; a compulsion that often misdirects our spiritual energy away from the ordinary.
[The gospel] frees us for an extroverted piety that is no longer obsessed with either self-condemnation or self-justification. It enables us to concentrate not on the inward process of infused habits and our or our own moral progress, but to turn our attention outward to the fellow strangers all around us. The gospel makes us extrospective, turning our gaze upward in faith and outward to our neighbor in love (199).
When we are able to rest in the reality that we are accepted, forgiven, and justified by the living God on the basis of Christ’s work alone, we will be satisfied with the daily calling to love our neighbor in the mundane of life, and we will be grateful for the stability we find in long-term faithfulness to a local body of believers. This may sound ordinary and out of step with the contemporary world. It is. But it’s the path to a faith that lasts.