Short term mission programmes are commonly found in almost all mission organisations today, with some only running short term mission placements, but what does short term really mean? It’s an important question to ask because our perspective can have serious ethical implications if we get this wrong.
Short Term mission is popular among many ‘sending nations’ (countries with a relatively large Christian population, strong church and who are financially able to send people overseas) because it both allows people and churches to help where the need is greatest, explore what long term mission looks like but with the knowledge that it is for a definitive time. For many who go on trips such as these it is a life changing experience in which God can significantly work but when embarking on a short term trip we also need to factor in the impact we will have on the local people we are going to serve.
In many areas where mission agencies like WEC operate amongst the unreached we also find poverty, oppression, no religious freedom and persecution. So what would it mean for a local in one of these situations if we went in made a difference for a time and then left shortly after? Each of these things have a serious impact on the lasting effects of our mission.
When I was living in a small West African village, the villagers were lucky enough to had been blessed with a solar powered water distribution system that was powerful enough to supply the entire village with fresh, clean water at the turn of a tap. The system was the perfect solution to a significant problem the villagers had, but even though it met all their needs they still used the wells and water pumps that were there prior to the solar powered systems installation. You see, the team who installed the system never properly educated the village on how to use the system, to maintain it and how to develop it. As a result, the panels got dusty due to the lack of cleaning and the system would only channel water at random times of the day, making it unreliable and wasteful.
What this story shows us is that when exploring short term mission opportunities, we have to consider the ethical implications of our trips. Where poverty is an issue, repeated short term trips can create a dependence among locals on missionaries further enforcing a poverty mentality. Where oppression occurs, short termers can do damage by challenging behaviours which are perceived to be ‘normal’ in the local culture. In situations where there is persecution of Christians, we may see people choose to follow Jesus only to be left with no discipleship, protection or church to support them. If we don’t get the balance with these things right, then the lasting impact of our ministry can do more harm than good.
In WEC we believe that all of our short term mission trips should have a positive lasting impact not only on the short termer, but also on the locals who we reach out to. To ensure we do this, we only place short termers where there are teams of long termers serving in lasting ministries. We also give every short termer a mentor and encourage them to learn as much about local culture and language to help them serve in ways that will best support the ministry and the local peoples. Our church planting teams and practical ministries alike both seek to involve local people as much as possible (e.g. training up local pastors, doctors or teachers) in their activities with a view to empower the local people and where possible, we release these ministries into their care. We do all of this because we believe that where ever we see the Kingdom of God advance it should have a positive impact that lasts long beyond our time there and we want this to be part of our legacy.