An article from Desiring God makes a provocative assertion about short-term ministry: “Missions is the process of reaching unreached peoples with the Gospel, which requires intense language-learning, cultural study, and relationship-building. Short-term missions, therefore, do not exist.” In other words, the phrase “short-term missions” is an oxymoron. I am a big advocate for short-term missions, but I agree that the core of the Great Commission is discipleship, and discipleship is a long process. We can help someone begin or advance in their walk with the Lord in a short time frame, but we can’t teach people all that Jesus commanded us in a few weeks or even months, especially through a translator, no matter how gifted or skillful we are. That means we must connect short-term missions (and all other ministry strategies) to the long-term big picture of God’s global redemption plan.
A core tenet of the New Testament ministry model is life-on-life discipleship. Jesus lived with His disciples for three years, teaching them by word and example as they traveled, rested, ate, and argued. And this was after He had already spent thirty years learning the local language and culture! After Jesus’ ascension, the apostles eventually spread out to other places, most of them dying violent deaths far from home as they sought to obey the Great Commission. There is no more profound communication of God’s love than incarnational ministry alongside people who need the Lord. In most cultures—maybe all cultures—we pick up a lot more in terms of life change and behavior from what people model than from what they say. Some aspects of love and learning can only be communicated by example over time. Similarly, cultures within the body of Christ can best learn from each other through sustained contact.
What about the apostle Paul? After he was sent out from the church at Antioch, the longest we have record of him staying in one place, other than prison, is his two years in Ephesus. Paul was constantly on the move. Was he a serial short-termer? We must keep in mind that Paul was a Roman citizen and fluent in the languages of most of the people he ministered to. He had the benefit of a deep awareness of the gospel recipients’ context that modern short-termers usually lack. Some aspects of Paul’s travels were undoubtedly cross-cultural (in Lystra and Derbe, for example), but it was all within a broad Roman context and Greek language. He wasn’t ministering to the Aztec or the Zulu. This allowed him to have a major impact in a short period of time.
Despite Paul’s often tight ministry time frames, we see evidence of his long-term mindset in the intensity with which he taught and trained. His approach to missions was wholehearted and lifelong. Even Paul’s shorter stays were marked by the incarnational nature of his ministry. In Thessalonica, Paul and his coworkers “worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone” (1 Thess. 2:9). Believers had opportunity to closely observe Paul’s “holy, righteous and blameless” lifestyle, and it strengthened them to withstand persecution (1 Thess. 2:10, 14–15).
Another expression of Paul’s long-term mindset is the deep relationships he built. He developed pastoral relationships that left him heartbroken when he was separated from the churches or when they went astray (Acts 20:17, 36–38; 21:12–13; Gal. 4:19–20). He returned to strengthen the fragile churches he left behind and between visits he wrote letters and sent representatives. Because Paul always functioned within a team, his coworkers were able to do a lot of the long-term discipling (Apollos, Priscilla and Aquilla, Timothy, Titus, etc.). Paul modeled long-term ministry in a vast area of influence, not a pattern of disconnected short-term trips. In a sense he combined the best of both worlds, including both short-term and long-term dynamics.
Today, in places where the church has already taken root but is not yet strong enough to saturate a people group with the gospel, local believers are still asking for long-term missionaries to provide support, encouragement, and teaching. Long-term missionaries are also a blessing to their sending churches. They are a conduit for a local body to participate in the great work of God around the world. There is still much pioneering missions work to be done, and it will require sustained investment from the global body of Christ to see the remaining unreached peoples gather to worship our Lord. Discipleship is a process, not an event.
If the core of missions is the discipling of the nations and discipleship is a long-term process, then missions must always be informed by a long-term mindset. That doesn’t mean, however, that short-term ministry is without value. The two approaches do not have to compete. We can fund summer trips for college students and financially support career cross-cultural missionaries. Better yet, we can send those college students to encourage and learn from the missionaries we admire and support and from their partners. Short-term experiences (whether in person or virtual) are not a substitute for long-term disciple-making, but they can be a valuable part of a long-term missions strategy.
As we consider how and why to incorporate short-term ministry in our personal lives and our churches, we need to give each its proper priority. Some churches have made short-term missions their core strategy, with long-term missionaries sent out only when absolutely necessary. I propose that our core strategy should be long-term incarnational ministry, strengthened and bolstered by an array of complementary approaches such as short-term trips, strategic funding of partners, and virtual participation. We need diversity in our strategies to reach our one, universal goal: making obedient disciples of every people group on earth for the glory of God.
In light of technological and transportation developments, it is important that we incorporate short-term missions as a strategy for carrying out the Great Commission. Even the author who argues that short-term missions doesn’t technically exist confirms that “church resources should be invested in short-term trips as a way of supporting missionaries,” although he does not endorse them “as a separate missions strategy.” As in so many important missions discussions today, there is no need for binary thinking. We do not have to choose between short- and long-term missions. They don’t have to compete with one another. Let’s commit to doing short-term trips well, making sure we have a clear goal that meets needs on the field. Missions, even on a short-term basis, should always be for the glory of God and the good of the unreached, not solely for the benefit of the traveler. Let’s work hard to minimize the strain on the time and resources of the receiving missionaries or ministry. And let’s think long term, even about short-term missions, and make an impact both during our time on the field and in our church community at home when we return. It’s not just a trip. It’s one piece of a lifetime of investment in God’s redemptive plan. The big picture, the Great Commission, requires long-term worldwide discipleship. Missions is a lifelong adventure for every believer, whether or not we ever set foot on foreign soil.
STEVE RICHARDSON has served as president of Pioneers-USA since 1999. Pioneers mobilizes and supports 3,200 missionaries and marketplace professionals who impact 500 unreached people groups in 95 countries. He is the author of Is the Commission Still Great? (Moody Publishers).