Journal of Applied Missiology, Volume 3, Number 2


Short-Term Efforts and Long-Term Effects

Ed Mathews
Abilene Christian University
Abilene, Texas

Short-term missionaries include a variety of people who serve for differing amounts of time in various ministries. Those who opt for a short-term assignment overseas may be early retirees, middle aged professionals, or students in college and high school. The short-termer may do disaster relief, build a church building, participate in an evangelistic campaign, teach Bible classes, or run errands. Those on a short-term mission will stay on the field from two weeks to two years. Therefore, it is appropriate to say that short-term missionaries come from all walks of life to do a variety of projects that require a commitment as little as two weeks to as much as two years of their lives. According to some of the promotional literature, short-term missions are "a vacation with a purpose" (Maust 1991:18). The benefit of term commitments accrue to the ones who go and the ones to whom they go. For example, the short-termers are encouraged to "discover their ministry gifts" (Pocock 1987:154), to "stretch their personal and spiritual horizons" as they "help the church in another part of the world" (Maust 1991:18).

Growth in short-term missions

The growth of short-term missions has been nothing less than explosive. From 1979 to 1989, their number increased six-fold, i.e., "roughly 20,000 to 120,000" (Maust 1991:18). The number of organizations doing short-term missions increased ten-fold, i.e., "from a few dozen to over 450" (Maust 1991:18). Such organizations are not only in the United States but also in Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, South Africa, Guatemala, and Brazil. Miami '91, "a leadership conference to equip and mobilize adults for short-term mission teams," drew almost 200 participants- -double the number that turned out for the first conference which was held a year ago (Maust 1991:18). It is reported that over half of all overseas personnel are short-termers. Such growth is truly staggering. It seems reasonable to say that in the foreseeable future short-term missions is not likely to disappear (Day 1986:4).

Signicance of short-term involvement

The list of accomplishments of short-termers is both long and impressive: vocational skills are shared, children of long-term missionaries are taught, tracts and Bibles are distributed, Christian charity is demonstrated, people are converted, local church leaders trained, and the body of Christ encouraged. These are genuinely worthwhile ministries. The name of God is glorified by them.

The significance of short-term missions is equally profound on those who participate. For instance, it is often the only way some professionals-- doctors, nurses, dentists, and veterinarians--can serve (Reapsome 1991:2). It is considered by many to be the best way to find out if one is suited for a career in missions.

Perhaps, the most often mentioned benefit of short-term service is that "it leads to long-term commitment" (Maust 1991:18). This long-term involvement comes in two forms (Hicks 1986:8):

  1. Most short-termers become informed senders, i.e., those who return home and actively serve in the mission program of a local congregation.

  2. Some short-termers become career missionaries who take part in a wide variety of ministries throughout the world.

Our experience at Abilene Christian University with an apprentice program suggests that 40% of the short-term workers become long-term missionaries. A similar statement is made in the Short-Term Mission Handbook (Bridgeman, Johnson, and McAlpine 1986:9) and is born out by the experiences of The Evangelical Alliance Mission (TEAM) (Pocock 1987:155,157). Assuredly, many who aspire to long-term service have gotten their first exposure in short-term involvement (Martin 1986:7).

Limitations os short-term work

In spite of all the good that is accomplished, short-term arrangements cannot do everything that must be done overseas. One should expect certain limitations as part and parcel of short-term service.

For instance, cross-cultural mission work is not for everyone. For, if someone has emotional or spiritual problems at home, usually these difficulties will be amplified in a foreign setting (Maust 1991:15).

Moreover, for some short-termers, the experience is disappointing. They expect--whether appropriately or inappropriately--to serve in the front lines of evangelism. Since they do not know the language or the culture, it is impossible for them to do what a long-term missionary does (Pencille 1975:227). The problem is not so much short-term missions per se, but the understanding of what short-term missionaries can rightfully be expected to accomplish.

The lack of church planting skills is the most serious limitation involving short-term workers. The reaching of the unreached for Jesus Christ, the planting of responsible, reproducing churches requires men and women who have learned the language, immersed themselves in the culture and have "come to stay" until the task is done (Works 1991:8).

Missionary personnel have been compared to military personnel. The army trains thousands of short-term recruits. Though they come and go, they are essential to battlefield success. However, the army depends on career people to develop the strategy and to lead the attack. The military knows it cannot replace long-term personnel with short-term recruits without courting disaster. The same is true for missions. Apart from the immediate service values of short-termers, which are considerable, there are also serious drawbacks to be considered. Seasoned leadership must not be sacrificed at the altar of expedience (Reapsome 1982:112,113).

Potential in short-term appointments

Nevertheless, short-term service has some attractive features. For example, it is comparatively easier to recruit and support short-term missionaries. And, for this reason, many have elected to raise up and send out short-termers. Others voice some serious questions: Are we limiting ourselves to mission approaches that short-termers can handle? Are we bypassing the tougher assignments? Certainly the danger exists. Yet, the truth remains, short-term service will attract some that would otherwise be turned off by long-term commitments.

The most significant potential of short-term approaches lies in two areas: administrative concern and societal outlook.

  1. Administrative concern. A short-term missionary serves for a limited period of time. Hence, a review--expected and anticipated--can precede an appointment renewal (Mellis 1970:43). Such a review can be a positive thing--including redirection to a more suitable situation. The bottom line is better management in terms of concern for people and the results of their work.

  2. Societal Outlook. The "baby-boomer" generation is characterized by a frequent disenchantment with their jobs. Long- term commitments are foreboding to them. They will switch careers in mid-stream several times during their work life. Such career- switching can be a boon to missions if experienced men and women are recruited to spend short-term service on the field (Pencille 1975:228). Short-term missions--far from getting in the way of long-term commitment--may actually prove to be the gateway to an extended involvement overseas.

What, then, should be done to make short-term missions contribute more effectively to world evangelization?

  1. Recognize the need for both short-term and long-term personnel. This is not an either-or issue. The business world thrives on both part-time and full-time employees. The academic world utilizes both part-time and full-time faculty. Likewise, the missionary enterprise will be greatly enhanced when short-term and long-term personnel are creatively incorporated into the processes of finding and folding the lost.

    In carefully selected assignments, short-term missionaries can be extremely effective. This requires the examination of the overall mission strategy in order to decide what type of people are able to accomplish what kind of task. The critical ingredient here is matching appropriate personnel with the specific aspects of a mission program that will achieve the goal intended by our Father in heaven.

  2. Train short-term workers before they are sent to the field. Unprepared people on the mission field can cause enough harm to neutralize the efforts of several trained missionaries. A minimal amount of pre-field orientation can eliminate a significant amount of heartache for those who send, for those who are sent, and for those to whom they are sent. If we are serious about our stewardship of money and manpower, it behooves us to train the troops before they are sent into the battle.

  3. Encourage short-term recruits to become long-term missionaries. Our experience with an apprenticeship program at Abilene Christian University over the past fifteen years indicates that certain factors will assist short-term workers to consider long-term commitments. These factors are: (a) Choose candidates that could later qualify for long-term service; (b) Select competent field supervisors; (c) Inform both the short-term worker and the field supervisor of their respective responsibilities; (d) Assign the short-termer meaningful tasks that he or she is able to perform; (e) Require the short-termer to bond with the local people and make a genuine effort to begin learning the local language; (f) Do post-field debriefing with each short-termer to deal with negative feelings and experiences; and (g) Stay in touch with short-termers after they have completed their mission experience.

Missionary work should be weighed on two scales: quantity of service and quality of service. He serves best who serves well over a sufficient length of time to accomplish what God has called him to do.



BRIDGEMAN, Nancy, JOHNSON, Brett, and McALPINE, Bob 1986 Short-Term Mission Handbook. Hamilton, Ontario, Canada: Student Mission Advance.

Day, Warren 1986 "The Phenomenon That Is Not Going Away," Wherever. vol. 10, no. 2, Winter, p. 4.

Hicks, David 1986 "Integrating Short-Term Efforts with Long-Term Initiatives," Wherever. vol. 10, no. 2, Winter, p. 8.

Martin, Ruth 1986 "Ad In Ad Out," Wherever. vol. 10, no. 2, Winter, p. 7.

Maust, John 1991a "Summer Vocation," Latin American Evangelist, January- March, p. 15.

1991b "Short-Term Missions Boom," Latin American Evangelist. April-June, pp. 18,19.

Mellis, Charles 1970 "Is Term Service a Viable Option?" Evangelical Missions Quarterly. vol. 7, no. 1, Fall, pp. 40-46.

Pencille, William 1975 "Summer Missionaries--Are They Worth It?" Evangelical Missions Quarterly. vol. 11, no. 4, October, pp. 227- 231.

Pocock, Michael 1987 "Gaining Long-Term Mileage from Short-Term Programs," Evangelical Missions Quarterly. vol. 23, no. 2, April, pp. 154-160.

Reapsome, James 1982 "Does Short-Term Expedience Spell Long-Term Disaster?" Evangelical Missions Quarterly. vol. 18, no. 2, April, pp. 112,113.

1991 "Short-Term Explosion, Career Dud?" Pulse, January 25, 1991, p. 2.

Taber, Charles 1970 "What About a Lifetime Commitment?" Evangelical Missions Quarterly. vol. 7, no. 1, Fall, pp. 34-40.

Works, Herb 1991 "Finding and Fielding," The Harvest Field. Summer, 1991, p. 8.

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