Why do Short-term Mission? A Pathway to Local Church Transformation

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 ‘We acknowledge you may feel frustrated by patronising ‘help’ that actually hurts, or by work that makes us feel better but makes them feel worse, or by global work that continues cycles of poverty, or by missions trips that cannibalise employment.’ 1

Theology, terminology, strategy, finance, cultural and environmental impact – these and other issues have fuelled long-running debates about whether short-term mission is a viable or legitimate expression of Christian mission.2

In his book Toxic Charity, Robert Lupton says, ‘Contrary to popular belief, most missions trips and service projects do not: empower those being served, engender healthy cross-cultural relationships, improve quality of life, relieve poverty, change the lives of participants [or] increase support for long-term missions work.’3

So why do mission agencies continue to run short-term mission programmes? And if they do think they’re a good idea, how can they be run so that they avoid the pitfalls encapsulated in this comment by Pastor Oscar Muriu of Nairobi Chapel: ‘Americans always want to paint walls, but we often repaint them after they leave!’?4

Clarity: being clear about the purpose of short-term mission placements

OMF’s short-term mission programme – Serve Asia – is a mission discipleship programme, the goal of which is ‘not just about sending short-term volunteers but walking alongside them as they discover ‘where God wants them to be involved in the Great Commission’. 5 When it comes to what is communicated to churches about the purpose of a placement, Andy Crouch suggests the following pitch:

Dear members of Bethel Community Church: This summer eight of us will be travelling to spend time with our fellow Christians in …….. , and to serve their neighbours who are not Christians through the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel. Our purpose in going is to learn and to bring what we have learned back to the church. Frankly, we will benefit from this trip in more ways than will our gracious and generous hosts. Please support us in this endeavour to become the church God wants
us to be.’6

Connection: shaping short-term ministry to fit with long-term strategy

In OMF we aim to ensure that Serve Asia placements are contributing to the ongoing and longer-term work of proclaiming the gospel in that area. As Crouch observes, avoiding the pitfalls of short-term mission ‘comes down to seeing these trips as one piece of a larger story.’7

Church: ensuring the local church is at the heart of short-term mission – both in sending and receiving

Short-term mission is often pursued in ways disconnected from the local church. Instead, participants should be sent out from their local church, with placements viewed as ministry, not tourism. Agencies will also want to be facilitating church engagement at the receiving end too. For instance, by ensuring that the short-term team’s ministry is shaped by the missional needs of the church where they’ll be serving. Mission should never be unidirectional. Short-term mission has the potential to be a channel for transformation back to the sending church, and opens up possibilities for authentic partnership. One of the drivers for churches today to engage in short-term mission is the desire for empathy and mutual learning. Crouch writes, ‘the more we learn to make short-term missions two-way experiences, the more we all will learn about God’s work in the world – and in us.’8 So perhaps in OMF we should be doing more to facilitate placements in UK churches for church teams and pastors from East Asia.

Culture: going beyond cross-cultural to intercultural mission

Mission, whether short-term or long-term, is often described as cross-cultural. Mission is very much about the crossing of boundaries to share the gospel and make disciples of all nations. But the kind of mutual exchange necessary for authentic short-term mission requires not only cross-cultural skills but the kind of intercultural dynamics that facilitate deep relationships, the exchange of ideas, the transformation of both guest and host, messenger and receiver.

As John Corrie says: ‘It begins from a presumption of cultural and relational equality and mutuality… emptying ourselves kinetically of all power intentions, more willing to receive than to give, open to where the Spirit is leading, and as open to our own spiritual and cultural transformation as to that of others.’ 9

Done well and if pursued in a spirit of learning from one another, short-term mission can be fruitful and transformative for both senders and receivers: full of ‘unexpected global lessons’ for us all.10

Dr. Peter Rowan OMF (UK) National Director


  1. www.goservelove.net/infographic-7-standards-excellence-global-work/
  2. For instance see the following: Eddie Arthur, “What Exactly Is Short-Term Mission?” Global Connections Blog Post January 2019 https://www.kouya.net/?p=9436 (accessed 14 June 2019); Three articles by Darren Carlson in June 2012 of The Gospel Coalition https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/celebrating-the-short-term-missions-boom/ (accessed 14 June 2019); Neil Brighton, “Short-Term Missions: Good and Bad Consequences” https://ethicsdaily.com/short-term-missions-good-and-bad-consequences-cms-23619/ (accessed 14 June 2019); Andy Crouch, “Unexpected Global Lessons” in Christianity Today December 2007.
  3. Robert Lupton, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) HarperOne: 2012
  4. Kate Gorie, ‘Andy Crouch Discusses Road Trip Short-Term Missions Documentary on Interfaith Voices National Radio’ July 10, 2009.
    go.omf.org/crouchradio I’m sure the same could be said of UK Christians.
  5. Andrea Roldan, ‘Mentorship and Discipleship of OMF Short-Term Mission Volunteers as With-ness and Consociation’, Transformation Vol. 35(3) 2018: 157.
  6. Andy Crouch, ‘Unexpected Global Lessons’ Christianity Today December 2007: 32-33.
  7. Gorie, ‘Andy Crouch Discusses’
  8. Crouch, ‘Unexpected Global Lessons’ 33
  9. John Corrie, ‘The Promise of Intercultural Mission’, Transformation Vol. 31(4), 2014: 293.
  10. The title of Crouch’s article for Christianity Today, December 2007: 30