What Exactly Is Short-Term Mission?

In which I attempt to define objective criteria for distinguishing between short-term and long-term mission.

In the evangelical world, short-term mission trips are incredibly important. They exist as almost a right of passage for many students and other young Christians; joining a short-trip to Africa, or somewhere is one of the things you do before you settle down and get on with life. For many established mission agencies, short-term mission trips comprise one of their main publicity and recruitment tools and then there is a whole load of organisations whose whole purpose is facilitating short-term trips. Whatever the benefits or otherwise of short-term mission, you cannot ignore it.

When I talk about short-term mission, it is not unusual for people to ask what I mean by the term. How long is short-term?

The excellent Global Connections Code of Best Practice in Short-Term Mission (incidentally, if you are considering a short-term mission trip and the agency involved is not signed up to this code of practice, find someone else to go with) says the following:

The Global Connections Code of Best Practice in Short-Term Mission is designed to apply to all gap year, individual placements, electives and team trips of up to two years duration, or- ganised by UK mission agencies, churches and other Christian organisations.

So, short-term mission is anything under two years. I have tended to think along the same lines; mainly because this is the working definition that Wycliffe has used. The problem with this is that the two-year criterion is rather arbitrary. Indeed, for some agencies, anything over six months is considered a long-term commitment. Basically, it is possible to choose a period of time and fit your own definition of short and long-term mission around it. This works well for individual organisations, but it is a bit confusing when working across agencies.

It seems to me that we need criteria for distinguishing between short and long-term mission that are more objective than the ones we are using at the moment. Here is my proposal.

I take it as a given that mission should be carried out in the language and culture of the people being reached. That’s a basic premise of all of my writing and thinking and there is plenty in the archives of Kouyanet to explain why that is. My suggestion is that anything which does not provide time to acquire and work in the local language and culture should be considered as short-term mission. Given that language and culture learning is a significant investment of time, energy and finance, I suggest that people should plan to spend as long working in the area as they have spent learning the language. So, if it takes fifteen months to learn language X, anything less than 30 months should be considered as short-term mission in that part of the world.

The obvious implication of this is that the definition of short-term will change from place to place. It takes Brits less time to learn to function in, say, Spanish than it does in Arabic. However, this is fair enough as the amount of time spent in language learning is a measure of people’s willingness to be involved with and serve local people. Any scheme which does not involve people gaining a degree of fluency in the language is by definition short-term.

I realise that there are some complications in this. People learn languages at different rates and some people are already fluent in the local language before they head off on their mission trip. However, the broad principle can still stand.

I also realise that there are plenty of claims that people can acquire complex languages in a matter of months – It’s not true. There are exceptional individuals who pick up languages easily, but for the rest of us, even learning a language closely related to English will take upwards of a year.

So, in answer to my question at the top of the post: short-term mission involves trips where people do not have adequate time to acquire and minister in the local language and culture.

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In passing, it is true that some long-term missionaries don’t learn the local language and culture. While that is clearly long-term, I would question whether it can really be termed mission!


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1 reply on “What Exactly Is Short-Term Mission?”

“short-term mission involves trips where people do not have adequate time to acquire and minister in the local language and culture.”

Interesting definition. I am not sure how well it applies to Latin Link’s Stepper program. I have been impressed with the strong language and cultural skills acquired by steppers in their year out.

I tend to agree with you, though, not only here but in your post “Is your missions agency in crisis?” that short-term missions have not been well harnassed in the long-term challenge of following Christ into mission (since his mission is multi-generational, it goes way beyond the short-term challenge of a single life and, by this thinking, infinitely beyond a two week mission experience.

Still programs like the stepper program may still shed a light on the challenge we all face about our participation in His mission. Having hung out some with Latin Link people, I have commented to them on the excellence of the steppers themselves — in terms of their commitment, understanding, and of the path they seem to be embarking on. But when I do I bump into LL’s own critique that a good stepper is not likely to sign on for long-term involvement in LL.

This is a dilemma that baby boomers might want to blame millennials for, and one that millennials might find to be a reason to roll their eyes at boomers who think their mission agencies are a good place for former steppers to invest their lives.

I think we need to involve short-termers in shaping a future in which their lifetimes can be part of a work of God that they have glimpsed and may like to figure out how to be involved with.

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