Stop Calling it “Short Term Missions”.

Here’s What You Should Call it Instead.


Imagine if I wrote this letter to my local dentist.

“Dear Sir, I’d like to come and be a dentist for 2 weeks. I’ve been meeting once a month with a small group of others who also want to be short term dentists, and we have our t-shirts printed and we’re ready to come.
PS. Can you drive us around, translate for us, and help take cool photos for our Facebook pages?”

I’d like to be a fly on the wall when the dentist received that letter.

We don’t have short term Social Workers, or short term Bio-Scientists.

We don’t have short term Gastro-enterologists or short term Politicians.

So why, why, why, WHY, do we have short term Missionaries in ever-increasing numbers?

Here’s the problem. We’ve created in our minds a false continuum. At one end of the continuum is “short term missions” and at the other end is something we call “long term missions”. We think of them as pretty much the same thing, but with differing lengths of service.

But they’re not the same. No, not at all. And by naming them both “mission” we’re missin’ the point.

It might help at this point to situate “long-term missions” properly. Let’s just agree right up front that there is no such thing as a part-time Christian. There is no such thing as a follower of Jesus who is not in full-time service to God. If you are a full-time banker, and a part-time Christian — you might be deluded. (So, don’t tell me you are going into “full-time Christian ministry” — I’ll be tempted to ask what you thought you were doing up to this point.)

As followers of Jesus, we are all called to a VOCATION.

That’s the term we need to embrace. It will put everything else in its proper place. Our vocation, whether in butchering, baking or candlestick-making — is the primary means we have been given to serve God.

So, some of us will have a vocation as an architect or a writer, as a parent or a nurse. And some of us will have a vocation in cross-cultural service among the poor. Humanitarian work, Bible translation, social entrepreneurship — these have all been labeled “long term missions” — but they are just different variations on every Christian’s call to pursue a vocation that serves God and his upside-down kingdom.

When we see that each of us has a unique and important vocation, we’ll no longer single out some as more spiritual than others. We’ll support and pray for all equally. And we’ll develop a theology of work, that works!

Now, that we understand how “long term missions” has been unhelpfully singled out as different from anyone else’s vocation, we can better understand why “short term missions” is such a misleading term — and find a better place for it in our journey to serving God.

Truly, these short term missions trips are generally not “mission” — they are not part of a vocation to serve cross-culturally among the poor because a vocation does not take place in 2 weeks or 2 years.

But when correctly framed, they can be important and even life-changing seasons of engagement with the poor.

Here are 3 suggestions for renaming short term missions trips:

1. Vision (or Exposure) Trips — a focussed intentional time where we ask God to open our hearts to the plight of the poor. What the eye has not seen the heart cannot grieve over. So, it’s natural that when people find themselves face to face with poverty for the first time, something significant happens. The rest of our lives are irrevocably shaped by what we have witnessed. We gain Vision.

2. Learning Exchanges — a time when our theology and understanding of the world is rocked to the core and deconstructed. When we travel as learners, eager to have our minds expanded and preconceptions challenged, we will not be disappointed. This category includes those who travel as part of their vocation — as a builder, surgeon or dentist for example — but are open to learning from God while they are passing on expertise to others in another country.

3. Discernment Retreats — where we discern our vocation more deeply on the margins. To pursue a vocation in any field without the perspective of the world’s poor (where God’s heart and good news is centered) is folly. How can we be a banker for God, if we don’t know how the financial services industry affects the poor? How can we be an architect or planner for God, if we don’t know how the design of cities affects the homeless? How can we be a teacher, if we don’t bring the reality of the world’s poorest to our students?

These trips could potentially spark a new vocation — or even be a partial outworking of our current vocation (eg. who serves overseas from time to time).

In short, there is no such thing as a 2 week vocation. And there is no such thing as “short term missions”.

Let’s get our labels right, and hopefully our practice and understanding will follow.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas on short term missions in the comments. What would YOU call it?

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