By Seth Barnes, Founder of Adventures in Missions
Given the recent surge of interest and involvement in short-term missions, you’d think that it was a new phenomenon. Actually, it is a tradition as old as Christendom.
In the sixth chapter of Mark we see that Jesus sent not a select few, but all of his disciples out as missionaries for a short period. This gave the disciples a taste of what life would be like once they eventually became full-time missionaries. The experience was a foundational one in their growth as they traveled from village to village with only God’s power to guide them.
Wouldn’t it be great if the process were as simple in the present day? Advances in transportation and other technologies have brought the world to our doorstep. God calls us all to the mission field, many as short-termers; but where?
Not all short-term missions experiences are created alike; the choices can be bewildering. For starters they may differ in location, cost, duration, type of ministry, skills required, and date of departure. Finding the perfect short-term missions opportunity takes work, but a little effort up front can pay off in an experience that God can use to change your life forever.
Tom’s experience is typical of what can go wrong when the important research process is short-circuited. Tom had never been on a short-term mission, but was interested in taking his church youth group on one.
He heard from a friend about a project in Mexico scheduled for the following summer. The youth group members were as inexperienced in missions as Tom, but many were captivated by the idea of seeing a new country.
Unfortunately the group was ill-prepared for the rigors it had to endure in Mexico. Many got sick. Almost all grew weary of the project’s spartan living conditions. While more spiritually mature groups on the same trip experienced a real growth in their faith, the main emotion Tom’s group felt was relief upon returning home.
Why mismatch occurs
Other horror stories abound; clearly missions mismatch is a frequent phenomenon. It occurs when any combination of the following factors are operative:
- The experience is too intense. Are you new to missions? Do yourself a favor and spend a week working in your own inner city before spending three weeks in the slums of Calcutta.
- The experience is too easy. Were you hoping to set the world on fire for Christ and instead found yourself placed on mortar detail? Your trip doesn’t have to be an anticlimax.
- The preparation is inadequate. Good pre-field training is an essential part of any short-term missions project. Training becomes more critical if you have no prior experience with the situation and people you will be working through.
- There’s a skills mismatch. Imagine the disappointment of the nurse who goes to heal and finds herself swinging a pickaxe instead, or imagine the frustration of the team leader asked to build a church when she has never looked at blueprints before.
If even seasoned veterans of short-term missions trips make mistakes resulting in missions mismatch, what precautions can the beginner take to help ensure the best experience possible?
The following three-step process offers those considering short-term missions the best hope for making a good match.
1. Assess Yourself. Just as you wouldn’t sell your car through the classifieds without understanding its features, so you should have a clear picture of your own strengths and weaknesses. Try to assess yourself in a dispassionate, objective way. Answer the following questions before going any further:
- Understand why you want to go on a short-term mission. Are you motivated by a desire to serve, to share the Gospel, or perhaps simply to see the world?
- What is your experience with missions? If you are the leader of a group, has your group ever been on a missions trip?
- What are your skills?
- What is your level of spiritual maturity? Be realistic; if you’re interested in an evangelism team, you should be comfortable sharing your faith.
- What financial support base do you have available?
- What are your or your group’s needs? As a group leader, you should understand the type of missions experience that will help group members grow spiritually.
- How much are you willing to put into preparation? Some sponsoring organizations require far more than others.
2. Research the Opportunities. Don’t jump at the first opportunity to come along. Thousands of missions opportunities exist. They are located all over the world. You may want to spend a month inoculating children against disease in Tanzania or an entire summer witnessing in Spanish to the street people of Mexico City or Chicago.
Perhaps God is calling you to spend a year of your life teaching English to Chinese children or Japanese adults. Maybe if you’ve never been overseas, you’ll want to begin with a week-long construction project in a Mexican shantytown along the border.
A good place to start is to find a resource that can help identify an array of options from that to choose. You may want to contact a missionary or talk to a guidance counselor to get specific suggestions. There are numerous websites that could assist you in this search as well, including ShortTermMissions.com, ChristianVolunteering.org, and The Right Now Campaign. Even my blog may be a resource for your to use in finding the right short-term missions experience.
3. Make the Match. Look at your self-assessment. Compare it to the list of opportunities you’ve uncovered. If you have a clear picture of the kind of ministry in that you’re interested, it may help to describe it to a missions agency.
Often, they can tailor a given assignment to your particular situation. Make sure to compare costs while you’re comparing opportunities. If you notice that an agency’s costs are significantly higher than others, it may be passing along to you a large percentage of its overhead costs.
Missionary fundraising can be hard work, and much of the cost of a missions project may come out of your own pocket, so after comparing, decide if any of the prices seem out of line. If you are a group leader, one way of saving money is to set up your own mission trip. If you do, realize that it will take great attention to detail and much research.
Throughout this process, understand that there can be no substitute for prayer. It’s possible to gather so much information that you either become paralyzed by it, or else you don’t give the Spirit room to guide you. Just as the decisions you make hastily based on gut-feel may invite disaster, so too you can unwittingly neglect the role of faith in the entire process. Ultimately, to be successful, you must be guided in your decision-
making by the Holy Spirit.
Seth is the executive director of Adventures In Missions — an organization that sends people on short-term mission trips. He lives in Gainesville, GA with his wife Karen. You can visit his blog “Radical Living in a Comfortable World” at sethbarnes.com.