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Avoiding the Pitfalls of Short-term Missions. Counting the Costs & Getting Short-term Missions Right.

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avoiding the pitfalls of short term missions

Avoidingthe Pitfallsof Short-term Missions

Counting the Costs &

Getting Short-term Missions Right


There are few subjects in the mission world as controversial as short-term missions and their impact on field mission work. Few would argue with the powerful impact that short-term missions are having in mobilizing pastors, churches and young people to support missions or to go as missionaries themselves. There are, however, many questions that still swirl around the effectiveness of these short-term mission efforts and their sometimes detrimental effects to ongoing mission work on the field.

Missions Frontiers Magazine

January 2000


Could it be true that a good portion of our short-term missions effort actually hinders God’s work?

Rick Johnson, Director of

International Action Ministries

pitfall 1

Pitfall #1

Thinking That Short-term Activities Equal

Mission Work

defining our terms
Defining Our Terms:

Short-term Missions: one week to two years involved in supportive activities

Career Missions: life time calling to vocational ministry of establishing and strengthening new congregations

examples of common short term activities
Examples of Common Short-term Activities:
  • Youth group trips to conduct VBS type Bible clubs with drama and/or puppets
  • Building construction projects
  • Choir tours
  • Disaster relief projects/feeding programs
  • Sports evangelism
  • Prayer walking
  • Crusade evangelism through translators
  • Christian film showings
understand the difference
Understand the Difference

Each of these activities is valuable in their own right and have their place in supporting mission endeavors.

We affirm the commitments and sacrifices of those who take part in these activities.

But we realize they are not the same, nor do they fulfill the functions of the church planting missionary.

missionary zeal without knowledge a czech pastor writes
“Missionary” zeal without knowledgeA Czech pastor writes:
  • “Will we survive western missionaries?”
  • We were flooded by missionaries, in 1990-91, I had one visit a day on average … some were jewels and came to serve, others came to do their own thing and we had very bad experiences
  • It was very common that some people coming from the West wanted to perform

some drama, hold a meeting. They turned to us to arrange it . We were supposed to organize all the permits, to rent a hall, to arrange and distribute the leaflets -- they generously paid for it, performed their act -- and went back home. Then we received their newsletter about how they “did a mission campaign” in Eastern Europe. They did not bother to consider if their activity was really worthwhile, what its real impact was, if it was really the thing we needed, and if we would not have been able to do the same thing better …”

problem blurring of terms
Problem: Blurring of Terms

We are all witnesses. But we are not all missionaries, in the classical sense.

Example: we use terms like youth or summer “missionaries” but wouldn’t use terms like summer pastor/teachers or summer elders because we understand the difference between a young person doing summer witnessing and a trained and biblically qualified minister of the gospel doing church planting discipleship.


“In other words, the worker from afar is not, in a classical sense, a missionary - he or she is not in such cases going “where Christ is not named.” Such workers from afar are, however, often very valuable to the work as doctors, dentists, or professors from afar.”

Dr. Ralph D. Winter

U.S. Center for World Mission

pitfall 2

Pitfall #2

Thinking Short-term Activities Can Take the Place of

The Long-term Presence of Career Missionaries in Fulfilling Our

Great Commission Responsibilities

common limitations
Common Limitations:
  • short-termers often have little appreciation for the complex issues they will face such as poverty, crime, and the effects of spiritual darkness and occult practices
  • some short-termers are overcome by stresses of the mission field and can’t contribute, but must be cared for by others
common limitations14
Common Limitations
  • short-termers can not function effectively without long-term missionaries; this can consume vast amounts of the missionaries already limited time and energy
  • short-termers without language cannot relate deeply with most of the people
common limitations15
Common Limitations:
  • short-termers are often not culturally sensitive and damage relationships that have taken years to establish by being critical or projecting the image that they feel superior
  • short-termers sometimes feel called to disregard local customs as a matter of principle if they feel they are wrong (example: women’s issues)
common limitations16
Common Limitations:
  • short-termers don’t have realistic understandings of what they can accomplish in a given time frame and leave unfinished projects behind that stand incomplete for years or divert the missionary's funds from other projects, or
  • short-termers have a tendency to put the project completion before the people and damage relationships
common limitations17
Common Limitations
  • Some short-termers have a tendency to promise to do things and/or provide gifts for the nationals for which they can’t or don’t follow through
  • Some short-termers don’t consider the warnings about security issues and lose tools and resources that are hard to replace
common limitations18
Common Limitations
  • Some short-termers get the impression that missions is something anyone can do with limited training and little experience
  • Sometimes short-termers who have a bad experience are not on the field long enough to put in perspective the negatives and subsequently don’t seriously consider career missions
a startling fact
A Startling Fact!

We are not replacing the career missionaries that are now retiring with other career missionaries that can take their place.

As good as many short-term activities are, they cannot begin to replace the ministries established by the career missionaries.

pitfall 3

Pitfall #3

Using up Resources Doing Short-term Activities

Which Should Be Reserved for Establishing and Strengthening New Mission Congregations

do the math
The cost of an average short term missions crusade for two weeks

Average round trip air and expenses: $3200

(for 30 individuals)


Two weeks -- 1year, 8 weeks

The cost of an average career missionary presence for

two families for 1 year

Annual Support per family: $35,000Building, maintenance for bases, churches, etc.: $1000/month

(for two families)


Two Families -- Two years

Do the Math!
consider these examples
20 teams of 43 people to assist 290 churches

cost/person: $2,595

total costs: $2,231,700.00 for 860 volunteers for 14 days

could have provided 47 missionary families with $35,000 support and $12,000 project funds for 1 year

A short-term Youth agency will send 7000 teens to 32 countries for two months each summer at the range of cost/youth of $1500 to $3500

total cost $17.5 million

could have provided for 372 missionary families

Consider these examples:
a changed life
A Changed Life?!

Sometimes short-termers change but not always in the best direction. Instead of increasing their support of missionaries involved in establishing and strengthening churches, they begin saving for their next short term cross-cultural experience or worse become disillusioned and never go back.

appropriate short term
Appropriate Short-term
  • sending church families to get to know and encourage the missionary family they support on field
  • sending proven young people, who are considering career missions, during their college years to evaluate the kind of additional training they will need
appropriate short term missions
Appropriate Short-term Missions
  • Coordinates with the missionary on the field, heeds his advice and strives to avoid the negative limitations of short-term.
  • Understands that getting to know and encouraging the missionary and his wife and family is as valid as “doing something.”
  • Coordinates projects and only starts what can be done properly and be finished in the allotted time.
appropriate short term missions with youth
Appropriate Short-term Missions With Youth:
  • Takes advantage of local opportunities in home community and country that take less financial resources and have fewer cultural and language barriers.
  • Helps proven young people visit the mission field before their ministry training to know how to prepare themselves.
what a contrast
pioneer missionaries, who founded the modern missionary movement, who packed their belongings in their coffins because they were aware of the likelihood that they would die on the field serving others

short-term ministry opportunities which promise rich benefits to the volunteer who is only asked to ‘commit’ to what sounds a whole lot less than a year and which can usually be financed by others

What a contrast!
drastic times call for drastic measures
Drastic times call for drastic measures

Develop discernment in evaluating short-term opportunities

Help shape your church’s mission policy to avoid the pitfalls

Promote and participate in proper short-term and pay for it yourself

Consider the joy of lifelong service and ask God to let you have the privilege of going yourself


Short-term service is no substitute for the bedrock of long-term missionary commitment.

Luis Bush

International Director of the AD 2000 and Beyond Movement

let us commit ourselves to
Let us commit ourselves to:
  • Doing the kind of short-term experiences that result in more actual support for classical missions
  • Putting more church starting missionaries on the fields
to discuss missions further
To discuss missions further

Contact me by e-mail at


or call 828-735-0013

more information is available at our web site: