We Need to Talk about Short Term Missions
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We all enjoyed munching on churros and swaying to the mariachi band in the DC a few weeks ago. And a few weeks from today, many Westmont students will be chomping on authentic Mexican tacos and dancing with niños and niñas in VBS as part of Potter’s Clay (PC). Besides Ensenada, Westmont students will also serve in San Francisco, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles during spring break.
About a month ago the organization, Youthworks, was on campus to recruit summer staff. Youthworks facilitates week-long mission trips for 12–17 year olds throughout the country. Up for a paid ministry opportunity and the adventure of living anywhere from Boston to Podunk, Appalachia, I applied for a position. Before the interview though, I changed my mind — I couldn’t decide if short-term missions were as beneficial as they are advertised to be.
One of the central cynicisms surrounding short-term missions is that they do not cultivate lasting change in the lives of the participants. Some say there is not enough context or follow-up to effect either those being served or those serving. To respond to this criticism, we must distinguish between short-term missions embedded in long-term partnerships, such as Potter’s Clay, which is in its thirty-seventh year, and the one-hit-wonders of Youthworks.
In 2007 the student leaders of PC were presented with a key to the city. This gesture indicates Ensenada’s trust, thankfulness and reliance on PC for support and enrichment. Long-lasting partnerships allow for honest communication of needs. Instead of assuming and guessing what those served would benefit most from — however well-intentioned — long-standing, consistent commitments encourage and invigorate pertinent assistance.
PC’s emphasis on fulfilling the needs of those in Ensenada can be contrasted with the motivation of founding Youthworks. Its founder, pastor Paul Bertelson, desired to give “every teenager the opportunity to go on a mission trip and have their life changed by God.” The focus seems to be on transforming those serving, rather than those being served. But how engrained can the habit of selflessly serving become in a week? Some of the teenagers participating in Youthworks programs will inevitably have epiphany moments, or be convicted to live to serve Christ and others. This is only effective as long as there is sufficient follow-up with leaders in their home church to flesh out what that looks like at home, back in the humdrum routine of everyday life.
Some ways of doing short-term missions are better than others. Leaders must be receptive to the needs of the community being served and in turn instill the long-term vision in those serving. Follow-up is essential. But even if these vitals are absent in some organizations, short term missions can still be beneficial.