Magazines 2017 Mar - Apr Short-term missions are good for whose soul?

Short-term missions are good for whose soul?

03 March 2017 By Alex Newman

Major Canadian study on attitudes to mission releases first of five reports.

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At just 20, university student Michael Norris has packed a lot of missions experience into life. With his youth group at Little Trinity, an evangelical Anglican church in downtown Toronto, he’s traveled to Central Africa, two American states, and participated in two hometown SERVE trips.

Despite the cultural differences in each location, one thing stood out as consistent for Norris. "There was a big impact on spiritual and personal growth – although a place like Africa hits you harder that way than, say, Ohio."

Norris’ experience echoes what was found in a recent study on short-term missions trips (STMTs) conducted by The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and a group of mission agencies called the Canadian Missions Research Forum (

From thousands of interviews carried out over three phases, the study shows 75 per cent of pastors found STMTs to be a "valuable form of discipleship" with two-thirds of pastors and half of lay people saying the primary reason for going themselves was spiritual growth.

Many also saw non-Christian participation on the trips to be a valuable form of outreach, and felt spots should always be made available to non-Christians.

To the 17 or so mission CEOs who prompted the study, the results were not surprising so much as confirming what most suspected.

Jon Fuller, director of OMF Canada, has taken several missions trips and was involved in developing questions for the study’s questionnaire. He says, "It was good to see that short-term missions is still a significant practice and if anything is growing more common with the younger generation."

But the research also raises questions. "Any trip that focuses on giving young people a crisis so they get serious about God," says Fuller, "risks making missions about us, rather than about God’s glory and our service to others."

If a congregation is serious about missions, he adds, "Then don’t forget the great unreached areas like northeast Thailand, where the gospel is virtually unknown. If the short-term trip is primarily about spiritual formation, it makes more sense economically at least to go closer to home."

There does seem to be a trend of going closer to home. The study found nearly one-third of trips are to the U.S., Mexico or the Caribbean, with younger Evangelicals more likely to make such closer-to-home trips than older ones.

While that’s probably tied to the higher cost of international travel, plus longer prep time because of language barriers, vaccines and visa applications, many churches are also wrestling with the meaning of missional.

Hillside Wesleyan Church in Dartmouth, N.S., for example, is looking at ways to better align the focus of future church missions trips, says pastor Mike Zottarelli, who oversees the congregation’s mission teams and outreach.

"We’ve found STMTs were a lot of doing projects on behalf of people in various communities, painting and building, sometimes running a VBS program, visiting an orphanage, which are good experience and affected me," Zottarelli says, "but I was never convinced how effective it was for the missionaries already there long-term or the people we were trying to serve."

Moreover, he felt STMTs might be hindering the local economy by doing these projects for the people, rather than paying local people to fix buildings in their own communities.

The major value, Zottarelli finds, is being laser focused on one destination, because there’s no reinventing the wheel every time you go, and because you get a better chance to develop relationships with the people there. In turn, that positively affects engagement of your congregation, which benefits fundraising and the potential for really making change.

The EFC’s Rick Hiemstra agrees we should be concerned to structure trips "to develop relationships. Serial short-term mission trips, where they go back year after year, are much better for the opportunities to form long-term relationships." (Hiemstra is the EFC’s director of research, based in Ottawa, and one of the lead investigators of this study.)

Engaging the congregation is something of a challenge in missions, whether it’s short- or long-term. The ideal situation is where the whole congregation feels engaged in the mission effort, engaged to the point of really feeling a part of it, says James Kim, executive director of Pioneers Canada, one of the study’s partner organizations.

"God is calling a community to do this together" says Kim. "You have to understand that this trip is not about sending me to the mission field but that the congregation is being engaged as well. That means I have to give them more than a support-me letter, but show what God has done, this is what we’re hoping God will do. That means debriefing the person who went to enable them to connect their experience back to the congregation and how the congregation’s efforts have made a difference in the Kingdom. Otherwise the congregation doesn’t really understand what God has done."

The questions around the definition of short-term missions often reveal a broader set of questions about how social service fits with evangelizing. Evangelical support communities naturally prioritize sharing the gospel, sometimes ahead of helping communities build schools and hospitals, fix their homes and set up businesses. Of course Christian witness is not an either/or choice between service and evangelism, and trip participants often experience that profoundly when they visit less developed countries and find them more Christianized than Canada but in need of basic infrastructure our relative wealth can easily address.

That more holistic understanding of living out faith is evident in Michael Norris, who says those mission trips as a teenager definitely affected his educational and vocational choices – he’s taking international economics now, and recently wrote a journal article on Chinese loans to Angola.

"I think what I always come back to is how strong people’s faith was there, given how little they had," Norris recalls. "There was a family living under a makeshift shelter made out of four logs and some old rags. Yet they were some of the happiest, spiritually uplifting people I’d ever met. That was very inspiring for me. I don’t think that can be replicated closer to home. It definitely wasn’t [as evident in mission trips] in Ohio or West Virginia."

The significance of little seeds is almost never realized until later. But the questions arising from the study speak to the heart of what it means to be Evangelical. As Hiemstra points out, "It’s becoming blended with the idea of being missional, all of these ideas are swirling together, and changing our geography and what we do.

"There’s a lot more focus on missional movements in [Canadian] neighbourhoods. A church can only concentrate its focus on one area. If you do more [locally], you [often] take attention off another area. That’s really starting to change what we’re doing."

Canadian attitudes toward a variety of aspects of missions beyond short-term are also under examination in the study, which plans to release four other reports in the coming year or so.

"The discussion about mission, missions and missional is really a discussion about ecclesiology," says Hiemstra, "which is why I think this study is important for the whole church, not just missions committees."

Spiritual growth and discipleship are very good things, but they aren’t the same as missions, Hiemstra says. And it would probably be more effective to make some distinctions between the two.

He says the data didn’t reveal whether people would respond differently to fundraising if they understood it to be a discipleship trip, but "some clarity around what the trip is exactly would help."

Hiemstra and other organizers intend to hold a variety of think tank-like events to help Canadian churches address questions raised by this and the upcoming reports.

Alex Newman of Toronto is a senior writer at Faith Today.