Short-term vs. Long-term Missions

“Short-term missions is as old as the early Church, and even predates it,” says Robert Priest, author of Effective Engagement in Short-terms Missions: Doing It Right! [1]

Joseph was an example of God’s favor in the Egyptian courts, far from the land of his birth. Jonah was sent to Nineveh—to a people and culture very foreign to his own—short term—to declare to them a message from God. During the exile, many Israelite captives were faithful to the Lord and became witnesses in foreign lands. Daniel showed that a person can be faithful, steadfast, and consistent in idolatrous Babylon. And let’s not forget the Jewish slave girl in Naaman’s house, marginalized and regarded as an outsider, yet who also knew the unique power invested in the man of God and was able to communicate hope to those without hope.

All these became a voice for truth in the midst of paganism and idolatry. Each of these, in various forms, served as short-term missionaries—“sent” into nations, cultures, and homes very foreign to themselves, where they were able to transmit God’s grace and favor to those in need.

Ultimately, God himself modeled missions when he robed himself in flesh and dwelt among us. He was “in the world, and the world was made by him.” He came and “dwelt among us” (cf. John 1:1, 10, 14). Jesus, who being “in the form of God … was made in the likeness of men.” (Phil 2:5-8).

For “God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory (1 Tim 3:16). The man Christ Jesus was the manifest expression of the mission of God, sent into this world (fallen and therefore “foreign” to a holy God).

Why? Because the incarnation was and still is the best method for missions. To dwell inside the culture (whether temporarily or permanently) is the only means to win the people of that culture. Paul, the missionary, understood this. He said, “I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel’s sake…” (1 Cor 9:22-23).

There is a very human element in missions that compels us to “dwell among them,” as Christ “dwelt among us.”

In the New Testament we notice Jesus’ earthly ministry lasted approximately 3 ½ years, comparative to some short-term missionary commitments of just a few years of service. In the early apostolic church, many persecuted believers were scattered throughout Israel, spreading the gospel wherever they went. Some, like Peter going to the Gentiles in Caesarea, were sent “short-term” for very specific meetings. Peter and John went to Samaria because of the specific, local need, for a short “season” of time.

Regardless of the cultural factors surrounding each circumstance, the end result was a witness for God going forth for a “short” period of time. In each case the mission left longterm, indelible results. A close look at Paul’s missionary journeys reveals he rarely spent long, extended years in one location. His missionary program involved laser-focused evangelism and discipleship, after which he would leave the work in the hands of local leaders.

What are the differences between short-term and long-term missions programs?

Robert Priest explains, “Good intentions are insufficient when entering another culture. We must also be equipped with the knowledge and competencies to function skillfully.” [2] These last two words best describe the underlying difference between short-term missionaries (STMs) and long-term missionaries (LTMs). LTMs can “function skillfully” within a foreign context and truly connect with people in that culture in ways that STMs cannot.

This does NOT mean the STM cannot learn to function skillfully and become very effective in the field—but it will require a distinct approach to missions compared to the consistent, longterm involvement of the LTM.

From 1996-2005 the number of short-term missionaries increased by 43%, while long-term missionaries (5+ years) have decreased. While there are still traditional missionaries uprooting from their familiar surroundings and going to live permanently in the mission field, there are also millions of Americans going for one week, one month, one or two or even three years at a time to do missions.

Is one model better than the other, or are they entirely different categories accomplishing the same goal by different means? What are the strengths and weaknesses of a short-term versus a long-term model for missions?

The first handicap for STMs is the lack of a holistic knowledge and insight gained from time and experience in a host culture. Duane Elmer, author of Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility, rightfully states, “The reality is that many of us want to serve from our own cultural context.” [3] That is, we come with all the cultural baggage of a foreign frame of reference, and often fail to assimilate and learn the host culture.

STMs lack three essentials for missions: local language, church ministry experience, and cultural understanding. There is also the danger of having the wrong motives. Short-term missions can easily become a glorified vacation, a sight seeing tour, or adventure expedition, with the gospel as a secondary factor. Even when the mission is to promote the gospel and reach lost souls, STMs have a disadvantage because there is so little time to prepare and assimilate, learn the language, and connect on deeper levels with people. The weakness of STMs is their inability to accomplish what can only be done through long-term immersion in a given culture.

STMs efforts are limited, but surely not in vain!

  • STMs bless local churches in the mission field simply by coming, and letting them know they are important enough to visit, and they are not alone in the work of God.
  • STMs encourage long-term missionaries by being with them, socializing with them, and breathing “fresh air” into their circumstance (may include bringing good reports and care packages from churches back home).
  • STMs transport necessary funds, provide material resources, offer training, and facilitate revivals, seminars, and conferences in the mission field.
  • STMs foster greater missional awareness among sending churches, inspiring and encouraging more ministry involvement by the “laity” both at home and abroad.
  • STMs expenses and funding are often less than LTMs, and therefore is an option for more individuals, especially professional working adults.
  • STMs forms a bridge between sending and receiving churches, building long-term relationships for greater impact.
  • The STMs phenomenon is also a pool for recruiting and training LTMs.

Long-term missionaries become a permanent liaison of the sending church—literally, an ambassador of Christ living in a foreign land.

  • LTMs have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the culture of the people, learn the language, gain trust, and contribute to the long-term growth of the works.
  • LTMs offer a steady supply of [spiritual] fuel for evangelism efforts among national churches (consistent visits among the churches, with fresh preaching, adds fire).
  • LTMs offer vision, inspiration, and leadership where indigenous churches may lag, to help grow the mission work both spiritually and numerically.

The attitude and experience of LTMs is a catalyst for national pastors and ministers in the field. There ought to be a ‘transfer of the spirit’ from the LTM to national leaders, casting vision, providing structure, utilization of local assets, and development of the strengths and abilities latent in the indigenous church. These occur when there is an overall commitment to “see the job through” for long-term success.

The weaknesses of LTMs depends entirely on the individual missionary. Some lack the positive qualities mentioned above. Some lack leadership skills. Some lack educational and/or in-field training. Besides these potential weaknesses, there is the reality of raising funds for the mission. Going on deputation and furlough among the sending churches will inevitably take the LTMs away from their field of labor. LTMs are also usually fewer in number, often one individual or a family in one mission field, whereas STMs are better equipped to send teams of personnel with various strengths and contributions to the field.


Conclusion & Application

A long-term missionary working jointly with STMs could prove the most ideal and effective. Paul regularly relied upon fellow-workers and teams of leaders who supported his mission. Paul’s missions paradigm was one of teamwork. It was never a one-man show. Even when others fled, shirked back in fear, or traded the mission for the world, Paul appealed to Timothy to come to him in the mission field. He never attempted it alone.

The mission field will benefit from the ongoing leadership of the LTM, who can inform and direct STMs in the best methods for that particular field of labor and together accomplish lasting results. The best practices in STMs attempt to match individuals with the field of labor based on needs in the field and the qualifications and interests of the short-term missionary.

Relational Missions

The greatest impact of STMs is seen in continued returns to the same field each year, thus building trust and relationships with nationals. This produces long-term results. Missionary work that is centered around relationships leads to healthy and fruitful partnerships in missions. Relational missions should be a major focus for both STMs and LTMs. In fact, local congregations can get involved in this arena to benefit churches in the mission field.

A local church in North America can partner (through a missionary) with a national church in the mission field. The relationship will breath life into both congregations, reciprocity in kingdom business breeds love for the work; missions becomes rewarding joy. The partnership gives the mission church an opportunity to give back—it is more blessed to give than to receive. This is much needed in world missions. Because the North American churches are the major source of funds, many national churches (feeling like the perpetual recipient) do not know how to give back. Relationship provides a way to give back.

Pastors and church members can take up a specific burden for a specific group in a specific mission field. The continued communications by the sending church is the result of the relationship the church has with the people in the mission field, as opposed to short-term, sporadic bursts of temporary aid, which hardly, if ever, require a sincere commitment.

Missions from this frame of reference becomes much more personal. Those sending, going, and receiving begin to work on a first-name basis. The work becomes a story, a saga. This saga becomes what Christ prayed in John 17, “That they may be one…” A church in Indianapolis can be united with a church family in the country side of Cuba. They can send leaders to communicate needs, learn the vision and plans of the church, pray together, share testimonies, and work together for the success of both churches.

Important to remember are the words of Paul, our missionary par excellence: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.” (1 Cor 15:58).

Whether doing short-term or long-term missions, we can rest assured, our labor is not in vain in the Lord.


Cited Sources

[1] Robert Priest, Effective Engagement in Short-term Missions: Doing it Right (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2008), 38.

[2] Duane H. Elmer, Cross-cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 19.

[3] Ibid., 16.


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