This is the first summer in twenty years that I have not gone, or helped people to go, on short-term mission projects. Twenty years means that I’ve had multiple decades of evaluating, educating people on, and executing best practices in this arena. Twenty years means 7,300 days full of opportunities to both make many mistakes and play a small role in God’s big story. Many leaders in the nonprofit sector debated the effectiveness and efficiency of short-term projects during this time. Regardless of your convictions and conclusions on the matter of whether “to send or not to send,” the Coronavirus pandemic introduced us to new challenges, opportunities and conversations surrounding short-term missions. I am the Executive Director of a nonprofit organization that endorses sending short-term volunteers with excellence. As an organization, we have used this season and its new rhythms to assess and refine our short-term missions philosophy and strategy.
As you meet with your church staff or missions committee (I sure hope there is a white board involved), I pray these reminders and suggestions will serve and bless your efforts as you evaluate the short-term missions philosophy and strategy of your church.
1. Short-term volunteers are not essential workers. At 127 Worldwide, we diligently try to communicate that we are not the heroes of the story. For too long, the western narrative of evangelical missions has centered on western Christians providing solutions to the world’s problems. We’ve reduced complex issues to quick-fixes and downplayed the contributions of locals in ways that made us feel big. We know, though, that God created all people in his image capable of contributing to human flourishing and that he’s always at work restoring hope through the gospel. Therefore, American intervention cannot be the crux of his solution to the world’s brokenness. 127’s aim is for short-term volunteers to spend most of their time overseas listening, learning, and observing how God is at work through local believers around the world. Exposure to the work of our indigenous partners creates educated advocates who can pray for, speak about, and engage with the work of 127 and the local leaders we partner with in more meaningful ways. Relationships are essential to our work, but our inability to be physically present these past few months has not slowed down the work of our partner ministries in the least.
2. Partnership is key. One of our ministry’s key distinctives is that we are committed to mutually edifying relationships with effective local ministry leaders. Currently we have partnerships in Kenya, Uganda and Guatemala. We have been so impressed by and proud of our partners as they have navigated COVID-19 in their communities, but these relationships began long before the worldwide pandemic. We have shed (literal) blood, sweat, and tears to build trust and communication that flow both ways. This kind of union doesn’t happen overnight. Take some time to evaluate your church’s partnerships. You may find it to be beneficial to partner with parachurch organizations who are working with trusted and effective national leaders serving their communities long-term.
As you are making decisions about future partnerships, consider choosing at least one indigenous partner. Local leaders know the language, cultural norms, and most pressing needs of their community. Cross-cultural partnerships are a great way to engage in mutually edifying relationships with other believers. Also consider how you can improve trust and communication with partners whom you have already committed to stand beside. Do your church members know personal details of your partners and their families? Can you improve on sending packages, prayers, or words of encouragement? Do they feel like a vital part of your church family? Short-term missions’ success depends on having credible long-term ministry happening the other 51 weeks out of the year. These relationships are vital.
3. Take some time to reevaluate your missions strategy. Once the partner relationships are secured, it is important to evaluate (or create in some cases) your strategic plan. International short-term projects will hopefully be a part of this plan, but they shouldn’t be the whole plan. At 127 Worldwide, we quickly realized that our ability to send international teams was going to be interrupted for a considerable amount of time due to the pandemic. One result of our strategic planning was that we didn’t have to create an entire new strategy when we ran into a bump in the road. We redirected our time and energy toward what was available for us to do. Similar to Jesus asking the disciples, “What do you have?” in the story of feeding the 5,000, it is important to evaluate your resources.
What is available to you? Should you focus on local ministry needs during this time? Are you working to strengthen partnerships? Are there places you have been investing finances but you have limited “skin in the game” otherwise? Can you improve on communication or feedback? What do the current restraints free you up to do that you wouldn’t have had time to do previously? For us, the answer was easy– and that leads me to number four.
4. Focus on education and discipleship. Are there holes in your current plan to disciple your people? Have you wanted to switch some things up in the past, but been too busy doing the work to educate and disciple with excellence? Educating and discipling your people IS the work. This was a big one for us. Equipping 127 advocates with a foundation of gospel intentionality, the skills for healthy engagement, and a strong commitment to preserving human dignity creates transformed donors, engaged alumni, and people ready to care for the vulnerable with excellence. Could we use the shelter-in-place time to clarify our message and train people on it?
We aren’t reinventing the wheel but, the last six months have given us an opportunity to create content, clarify our message, find existing resources, and have critical conversations with our advocates. There are so many great resources, but here are just a few that we used.
Why You Should Consider Cancelling Your Short Term Mission Trips, The Gospel Coalition
Becoming Whole, Brian Fikkert & Kelly M. Kapic
Simply 127, Episode 12: Peter and Sara Beth discuss the pros and cons of working together
Obviously, this list isn’t exhaustive. Hopefully it will be a great place to begin the conversation though. When the skies are open, countries are welcoming Americans, and mandatory quarantines are a thing of the past, you will be thankful that you took the time to invest in relationships and plans to make short-term projects a successful piece of your church’s story in God’s big story.**A version of this article was originally published at factsandtrends.net.