Finding Our Place in Short-Term Missions

Guest post by Sharon R. Hoover, author of Mapping Church Missions: A Compass for Ministry Strategy

Over the past decade, opportunities for missional engagement have multiplied. In the 1980’s when I first joined a church staff, our contact with missionaries serving internationally was limited to paper newsletters and occasional furlough visits. Those times have passed. Ease of travel and global awareness have re-invented the local church’s relationship with the mission field. We now have the ability to fly most anywhere in the world. Furthermore, at any moment of the day, we can find social media posts and blog articles about the joys and concerns of people thousands of miles away. 

This increasingly globalized outlook offers unique potential for the church. We have become more aware of the plethora of physical and spiritual needs. Our congregants feel the urge to respond, offering resources of finances and time. Amidst the generosity, however, we also encounter risks. As we meet new peoples, our lack of cultural understanding can become problematic for missionaries in the field. Unprepared short-term teams have left behind fractured relationships and increased work by offending the very people they had hoped to serve. This resulting complexity requires special attention to enable best decisions for our churches’ global involvement and partnerships. 

My experiences with missionaries and mission agencies have taught me the importance of prayerful and care-filled connections. Listening and learning are critical components of serving well, both on short-term teams and in full-time tenure. By understanding the needs, ministry can move forward. Sometimes the need in the field is medical missions. Other times it is a children’s camp or a home rehab that assists a missionary to advance their gospel work in a new community. Our responsibility remains to be attentive to the requests and to prepare accordingly.

Sharon with her son after a long day of building hydroponic gardens in rural Costa Rica.

I am grateful for mission agencies such as Forward Edge. Their commitment to developing and maintaining relationships allows meaningful work to move forward. My church has served on several Forward Edge short-term teams. Their training materials equipped our team members with necessary background information, giving an understanding of the mission location. Upon arriving at the sites, we were blessed by partnerships the Forward Edge staff had established with local churches and organizations over their years of working together. 

In my recent book, Mapping Church Missions, I highlighted Forward Edge’s work as an example of excellence in missional engagement. As globalization continues to expand, the pulls to connect across the miles will only accelerate. Herein lies the tremendous gift of ministries such as Forward Edge. Their work exploring and learning the needs helps the rest of us to also serve God’s kingdom well. 

Short-term teams are one of the ways we can be intentional and be part of the global church’s work. Below is an excerpt about short-term missions from my book. As we partner with effective mission agencies, such as Forward Edge, our connection and responsiveness will dramatically improve. 

Excerpt from Mapping Church Missions

Short-term mission teams can avoid harm through humble listening and selfless action. “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment” (Romans 12:3). Teams sacrificially give time and resources; missionaries open their lives and ministries. Selflessly we serve one another.

Nearly every short-term mission training curriculum includes the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18‑20) in its lesson plan. Yes, the team is indeed part of God’s sending. Our presence on the mission field, however, is as a nanosecond to the career missionaries’ decades. A change in mindset is needed.

The foundational Scripture passage for the first mission team I led was Micah 6:8. Our work and devotionals focused on the Old Testament prophet’s description of what God requires of us: to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly. In his book Short-Term Mission, Brian Howell proposed this verse as the basis for every church’s theology of short-term mission. I couldn’t agree more! Howell explained that “our guiding narrative should be one of humility and fellowship even more than service and sacrifice” (Howell, p. 214).

Reflection from a Paraguayan pastor brings the theory into practice. “On the basis of relationship, we, as Latin American Christians, would like short-term mission groups to keep coming. Not to teach us how to evangelize, or how to work correctly or efficiently in the church, but to live with us, get to know us, have fellowship together and thus, living together, to learn from one another and teach each other.”

The best short-term mission leaders work closely with mission partners in the field to balance opportunity for spiritual growth with the ministry tasks. Short-term missions do indeed create a unique environment for transformation. Team members combine their gifts and talents to serve as one body. Shared experiences of sleeping on air mattresses separated by mere inches and cooking together for twenty quickly create lasting bonds.

In this petri dish of instant community, God does extraordinary work. The new daily routines and expectant hearts stir souls into a teachable posture. Trust forms among team members. Personal facades melt away. In morning devotions and evening debriefs, an effective short-term mission leader draws attention relentlessly back to the Lord and his work. We begin to see one another in spirit and in truth. Our increased appreciation of each person on the team and in the mission’s community enables us to embrace God’s command to love one another. It is a significant step on the path toward spiritual maturity.

Improving post-project efforts would also extend the benefit of short-term mission teams. As difficult as they are to schedule, follow-up meetings with team members allow critical processing of experiences. The discussions help integrate faith lessons into lives back home. Because periods of frustration often follow the spiritual mountain-top experiences of short-term missions, walking together helps everyone pass through the valley. In the field, missionaries need to follow up with those served by the team. Opportunities for conversation abound after a team leaves! New friendships testify to God’s global family but can also lead to a sense of abandonment. The local churches who send and those who host both bear the responsibility of short-term mission aftercare. As we commit to the paradigm of community along with doing due diligence in preparation, short-term mission projects can be an effective tool for missional engagement.

Excerpt taken from Mapping Church Missions by Sharon R. Hoover. Copyright (c) 2018 by Sharon R. Hoover. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com


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Sharon R. Hoover is the Director of Missions at Centreville Presbyterian Church in Centreville, Virginia, where she has served for over twenty years. She is passionate about equipping the local church to serve and to connect with ministry partners worldwide. Sharon writes and speaks on missions, discipleship, and living a faith-filled life in the world God loves. She is author of Mapping Church Missions: A Compass for Ministry Strategy.


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