I’ve often wondered how the Apostle Paul would utilize modern technology in missions. Would he eagerly promote the short-term missions (STM) surge to the nations? While I’m confident he’d leverage global travel and communication technology for the gospel’s sake, just as he did in his day, I wonder if he’d encourage the majority of STM work among evangelicals in the West.
According to both data and my own observation, the vast majority of STM is designed toward social ministry and poverty relief, with teams comprised primarily of teenagers and youth. If we believe that Acts provides us a template for Great Commission ministry—that Paul and the apostles teach us how to obey Jesus regarding missions—perhaps it’s time to reevaluate our STM strategies in light of the New Testament.
STM AND THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH
Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19–20). How did Paul and the apostles carry out that mission? In short, they preached the gospel and established churches.1 They evangelized, and as people came to faith, they gathered a church where the Word was rightly preached and the ordinances rightly administered. The local church became the context where God’s people were taught to obey all that he has commanded.
Paul and the apostles planted flags for King Jesus in unreached places by establishing churches to glorify God in what they believed and how they lived. These churches, in turn, continued to advance the gospel around the world.
But let’s not forget: Paul remained committed to the spiritual health and doctrinal fidelity of the churches he established (and even those that he didn’t, e.g. the church at Rome). Each of Paul’s three major missionary journeys included return visits. He worked to strengthen both the churches and the brothers who pastored them (Acts 14:22; 15:41; 16:5; 18:23).
The early church understood the central task of Christian missions, which means they sought to advance the gospel through gospel-preaching, God-glorifying, Great Commission churches.
Tragically, most STM today lead me to believe that we don’t understand our mission in the same way as the apostles. As mentioned above, most STM work today is geared toward social ministry and poverty relief. Why is this? Two reasons immediately come to mind:
1) STM workers face an obvious obstacle for effective cross-cultural ministry: they don’t know the language or the culture. So, churches and missions agencies design trips in which the participants can engage in some lasting work.
2) The world’s poverty and social need is massive. If you’ve traveled to any extent, you’ve no doubt seen this firsthand. Perhaps you’ve walked the slums of urban centers and seen children playing in refuse-filled ponds or digging through the garbage for their next meal. Perhaps you’ve seen under-resourced villages with no access to professional medical care or clean water.
The fact that Christians in the West want to help is a godly instinct. Praise God that we who have abundant resources can mobilize crisis relief literally overnight to aid our suffering brothers and sisters! But our best intentions for this socially oriented STM work has achieved ill-advised results. To use one book’s terminology, our “helping has hurt.”2
We’ve unintentionally created dependence upon our resources and money. We’ve sent church groups to paint churches and mix cement and teach VBS. And yet, in most cases, national believers can do those very things themselves—far more affordably and perhaps even better than we can. We’ve unintentionally locked our brothers and sisters into patterns of dependency and resource-receiving that are hard to break.
With sincere hearts and good intentions, we’ve implicitly taught the church in these countries an unbiblical missiology—that in order to do missions, you have to be able to financially assist those to whom you minister. It doesn’t take long to ponder how wrongheaded that approach is.
While inter-dependence among the global church is a valuable goal, STM efforts have often created relationships of co-dependence. We should aim to come alongside and help, to support and resource. But at the same time, we should learn and benefit from our brothers and sisters around the world. However, we never want to get locked into a situation where they need our resources to accomplish their ministry.
Beyond the practical perils of cross-cultural social ministry looms the massively important question, “What did Jesus commission the church to do?” Did he commission the church to provide for the poor, feed the hungry, and bring justice to the marginalized?
Christians can and should be involved in social action and mercy ministry. We should be zealous to do good to all people. But those things must be the outflow of the local church’s mission, not the mission itself.3
Our King has commissioned us to make disciples by establishing God-glorifying local churches among the peoples of the world. Therefore, our churches’ short-term trip trips should reflect that priority, and the lion’s share of our resources should be directed toward that end. Our churches must affirm that there’s something infinitely worse than human suffering and death, and something infinitely better than human flourishing.
HOW TO USE SHORT-TERM TRIPS
Perhaps the most strategic use of your church’s missions budget is to support a disciple-making, church-establishing missionary for the duration of his or her career. As a rule, and not discounting the work of the Holy Spirit, long-term efforts yield longer-term results than STM. We want to fuel long-term work, never assuming that we can accomplish in a week what a missionary or national pastor hopes to accomplish in a career.
This strategy toward long-term work is radically counter-cultural within much of our Christian sub-culture. What if sacrificing for the sake of the gospel means not going on a STM trip, but instead faithfully supporting long-term work?
But it could also mean that you intentionally structure STM around long-term work. Instead of asking your long-term partners to accommodate your church’s STM desires, you could strategically integrate STM into the long-term objectives of trusted, likeminded partners.
The best STM trips will encourage long-term workers and extend their work. Here are a few examples:
- Use STM simply to bless and strengthen your church’s long-term workers. The ministry of presence from supporting churches is often a balm to missionaries’ souls.
- Perhaps send a team to do evangelism and hand off the contacts you made to long-term workers.
- What if you sent elders and elder-qualified brothers to train national and indigenous pastors who have little to no access to theological training? The global need for church strengthening through theological training is both urgent and massive.
Would the Apostle Paul join your short-term missions trip? If you’ll design it around Jesus’ disciple-making, church-establishing Commission, then my guess is Paul would be glad to.
1See Mark Dever’s helpful chapter, “Preach the Gospel, Gather a Church,” in Understanding the Great Commission (Nashville: B&H, 2016).
2See Steve Corbett’s & Brian Fikkert’s When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor (Chicago: Moody, 2012).
3For a robust discussion of this topic, see Kevin DeYoung & Greg Gilbert’s What Is the Mission of the Church: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011).
(This article first appeared on 9Marks.)