As various committees and boards meet to evaluate, plan and budget for 2014, it appears that invariably a large portion of the mission budget now includes a significant portion set aside for short-term mission trips.
With budget air travel, and the attendant connectivity of the World Wide Web, there are now fewer constraints in the promotion of various options for short-term mission trips.
Interestingly, short-term mission trips are a relatively new innovation in mission strategy. Between the advent of Protestant mission among the Moravians to the mid 20th century, most missionaries responded to God’s call as a lifelong commitment.
Short-term missions were introduced in the 1950s and 1960s by organisations such as Operation Mobilization (OM) and Youth with a Mission (YWAM). With more churches and mission agencies now adopting a similar strategy, mission short-termers now out-strip traditional full-time missionaries.
Yes, churches are now providing a wider option of itineraries to promote a missional character among members in response to the Acts 1:8 mandate. But are we also looking at a short-term mission trip as yet another project, or product to be consumed for our education, edification, encouragement, entertainment and enjoyment?
While it may be heartening to see more being involved in mission, as witnesses “unto the uttermost parts of the world”, I am concerned that we may have developed spiritual hyperopia (or hypermetropia), more commonly referred to as long-sightedness.
Have we become more enamoured with going to the rest of the world, but have omitted to see or cannot see the needs of “Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria”, the mission field which is around us?
It is somewhat disconcerting when we ignore the plight of the migrant workers in our midst, or when we are oblivious to the needs of the poor and disenfranchised in our society, or when we seem indifferent to the pleas of those caught in the web of addiction and are imprisoned physically and spiritually.
In a recent article in Christianity Today, the Rev Doug Banister, a pastor in Tennessee, USA, incisively commented that “some well- meaning Christians have a theology of mission that seeks to alleviate the spiritual and physical suffering of people far away, but pays little attention to needs here at home.”1 Some regard his article as another criticism against short-term mission trips. While the importance of short-term mission trips has been researched and there are different camps in the ongoing discussion, the Rev Banister’s article does raise some pertinent questions for us to rethink our uncritical promotion of short-term mission trips in our mission policy and strategy.
I am not suggesting that we do away with all short-term mission trips. I believe that God can use both the short-term mission trippers as well as the long-term missionary to establish His church. But I do humbly challenge us to be more intentional in our organisation and follow-through of such trips. I would also urge that there be more long-term strategic planning and partnerships with the locals in the organising of these short-term mission trips.
In an article written for Trinity Theological College’s Trumpet, I emphasised that the church today must review, recapitulate and recover a truly biblical perspective of mission, which involves a disassociation and ultimately a divorce of those mission praxes that are wedded with imperialism, consumerism, hedonism and all other possible syncretistic distractions.
Our understanding of mission must be grounded in the Word of the Lord and modelled after Jesus Christ. We do well to remember that it is not the church that has a mission, but rather that it is the mission of God that has a Church. Or as Jurgen Moltmann put it: “It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfil in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church.”2 This is primary in our understanding of Missio Dei.
I hold that the mission work in Siem Reap is significant, but so too is the mission to the migrant workers in Serangoon. I contend that the work in Guangzhou is vital to the spread of the Gospel in China, but likewise is the various social outreach work in Geylang in preventing the spread of HIV among the sex workers. I believe that providing humanitarian aid to those afflicted by natural calamities in Indonesia or Bangladesh is crucial, but so too is the crying need to provide for the poor and disenfranchised in Little India or Bukit Batok.
Before we embark on another mission trip overseas, why not consider the possibility of mission work in our local context? Indeed, the mission field is all around us and the challenge for us Methodists is perhaps best represented in the centrifugal spread of scriptural holiness throughout all the lands.
Picture by David Teo Boon Hwee
1 Please see http://www.christianitytoday.com/thisisourcity/7thcity/ rethinking-3000-missions-trip.html, accessed 30 July 2013.
2 Jurgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology. (London: SCM Press, 1977), 64.
The Rev Dr Andrew Peh is the Dean of Students at Trinity Theological College and his training is in the area of mission and mission history. He is a diaconal minister in the Chinese Annual Conference and is appointed to Charis Methodist Church.