Do Short-Term Missions Automatically Lead to Long-Term Missions?

Dr. John Morgan argues that the church has encouraged chronic short-term missions trips with the hope that they automatically lead to career missions.

Short-term missions (STM) is a phenomenon that began in the latter part of the 20th century and has grown exponentially.

There are varying numbers that have been given to record the amount of STMers that travel internationally each year from North America. These numbers range from 2-4 million. There is a voluminous literature on the topic of STM which examines STM from multiple perspectives. Yet, in spite of these available resources, there is a myth about STM that continues to be propagated. It is the idea that STM is a path to career missions . The following serves as an example of how this legend is propagated.

A group of mission leaders met in Chicago to discuss several pressing issues as they were planning for the future of their mission organization. The topic of missionary recruitment came up in a preliminary discussion. They asked, “How can we recruit more short-term missionaries?” A lively discussion ensued with many opinions and suggestions expressed. Several minutes into the session, a participant asked, “Why do we want to recruit more short-term missionaries?” The room fell silent and several stared at the questioner in disbelief. The event organizer responded, “Because short-term missions is the path to career.” The reply came, “Short-term doesn’t lead primarily to career, but to more short-term.”

The argument that STM promotes career missions is based on anecdotal evidence that is usually gained by a casual survey. I’m part of a team that trains new career missionaries that are preparing to leave for their respective countries of service. Whenever I ask this group how many have served on a STM, the response is 100%. When I ask how many have served on multiple STMs, the number is in the 80 to 90 percentile. This would seem to establish a correlation that STM is a path to career. But, if we ask the same group how many attended Sunday School, Bible camp, or Awana, we gain the same response. The correlation is not so easily determined.

We should see STM and career missions tracking along the same trajectory if STM fuels career, but we see the opposite occurring. STM has grown exponentially, whereas career has plateaued or declined in North America. There are exceptions to this, but the trends aren’t parallel overall. A positive correlation between the two can’t be established. Short-term doesn’t fuel long-term; it fuels more short-term. We have a phenomenon of career short-term missionaries who serve on serial STMs.

My wife and I served as medical missionaries at a hospital in West Africa during the 1990s. The hospital had 40 African employees and 11 career missionaries. I returned to this hospital in 2012 to conduct field research for a PhD that I was pursuing. The hospital had tripled in size over an 18-year span. It now had 130 employees and triple the number of beds, but there were still 11 career missionaries. How did this hospital manage to expand its services with the same number of career missionaries? Obviously, the addition of 90 African employees made a significant difference, but there were no physicians or other specialty medical personnel among these new employees. The hospital was dependent upon STM medical personnel. During my four months at the hospital, 40 STMers from the US were serving from 2 weeks to as long as 1 year. A group of nursing instructors from Cedarville University were present with nursing students. The instructors were at the hospital for their 14th consecutive year. Two physicians were also present for a month with medical residents. This was their 20th consecutive year. The same was true for numerous other medical personnel.

This is not a negative evaluation of STM. It is the phenomenon of STM that has enabled this hospital to expand its services in an area of the world that is desperately in need of health care. STM has made significant contributions to the mission enterprise. One example of the positive impact of STM is that it has resulted in changed perceptions about missions. International missions was an abstract concept in the local church prior to STMs. Short-term participants have become familiar with ministry in foreign contexts. The myth of the missionary hero has dissipated. The idea of international missions has shifted from an exotic ideal to a familiar reality that has enhanced the church’s understanding of the world and mission.

The point is that we can’t draw conclusions about the value of STM that can’t be substantiated. This will ultimately prove to be counter-productive. The example above of the group of mission leaders serves to illustrate this. Resources and strategy will be channeled down the wrong path if mission leadership is convinced that STM leads to career mission. This isn’t just an issue for mission leadership. A correct understanding of the relationship between STM and career missions will impact the direction of field team strategy and practice as well. STM is a robust phenomenon that the Lord is using to expand his church. We must be cautious that our enthusiasm for STM doesn’t over-reach the reality of its contributions.

John Morgan

John Morgan serves at ABWE’s headquarters in the areas of strategic planning and statistical research. He holds a Ph.D. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Support John’s ministry.