Five reasons to avoid sending short-term mission teams

I’ll be honest, if you want to get a short-term missions team into your church to do a mission week or whatever, I’m not going to stop you. If you think your area, or church, would benefit from that then have at it. But I don’t plan to leap at any opportunity to bring one to Oldham for the following reasons.

The work is unsustainable

It may feel like a real boost and encouragement to get a team of young, trendy twenty-somethings into your church for a week or two of mission. I’m quite sure more doors will be knocked or people spoken to during that time than you might be able on your own. But when the team have packed up and gone back to their homes, what are you left with?

Short-term mission teams do not leave behind sustainable ministry for the long-term. Typically, they come in a blaze of glory, do a bunch of evangelistic stuff and then get off as quickly as they came. It’s all a bit ‘smash-n-grab.’ Extra work picked up for the length of the mission cannot be sustained because the church left behind simply don’t have the people to maintain it.

Regular work must be set aside

It’s not just that some folks come for a week, buzz around in a frenzy of busy evangelistic activity and then leave. If that’s all that happened – particularly if one or two became believers and settled in the local church as a result – praise God for that. But the preparation that goes into such weeks takes the local church away from its usual, regular work of ministry.

Hardly a minister I know who has received such teams tells me anything other than they set aside vast amounts of time planning for this one week of mission. They spend so long working out what they will do for this short-term mission week that they inevitably neglect the regular, routine weekly ministries that, over the long term, serve the church far more effectively. For the sake of the one week when a shiny team come along, we neglect weeks upon weeks of ministry to plan for it.

It lulls the church into less, not more, evangelism

Some would argue that inviting a team along gives fresh impetus to the church. The church becomes a hive of activity for this week and the infectiousness of that mission galvanises the church to press on in evangelistic endeavour. At least, that’s the theory.

Unfortunately, the more common experience is that the church focuses so much time and energy on the week that the team are coming that their evangelistic endeavours get limited to that particular week. Just as the work can’t be sustained when the team leave, the church’s enthusiasm struggles to be maintained when they leave too. What is more, many are happy to conclude that their week of activities with the mission team is their way of fulfilling the Great Commission in its entirety. Evangelism quickly gets linked to the mission week itself and limits, rather than extends, evangelism.

It’s rarely as productive as is made out

I’m not against cold-contact evangelism. I think it is one mode of evangelism that should be pursued as part of a wider strategy engaging in a variety of different means so that we might reach as wide a group of people as possible. So, don’t hear me as against cold-contact stuff here.

But I am conscious that if all we ever do is only cold-contact stuff, whilst I’ve no doubt some people will drop to their knees in the street and convert on the spot, a lot of people won’t. I’ll be honest, I’ve never so much as bought pegs or tea towels off a door-to-door salesman so the chances that I will convert as a result of a one-off conversation on my doorstep about Christ seems painfully slim. That’s not to say door-to-door is valueless necessarily, just if I were doing it I’d expect it to be part of a wider strategy whereby the visit was an invite to something else, or just the beginning of a conversation I’d expect to be picked up in another time and place, rather than an expectation that it is the means of starting a revival.

Short-term mission trips, by their very nature, end up doing this kind of stuff exclusively. Which is all very well if the folks meeting people can continue their conversations at some other place. But, of course, a short-term mission team will go home and be in no position to do that. So the value of the contact is lost.

But even if we insist that there is, indeed, real value in short-term mission teams coming and blitzing our area this way (and I concede, that’s possible), the fact is that is generally not what happens. A week of activities is certainly planned, but it often involves day trips out and team building times and the rest of it. Even if we are convinced one week of non-stop, cold-contact evangelism would definitely be valuable for our area (and, for me, the jury is out on that) I struggle to see how the day trip to the local sights and the poverty safari round the rough bits of town necessarily leads to the productive kind of evangelism taking place that we assume it will. I strongly suspect most of these trips are less productive than they’re billed.

It is a waste of resources

I think this is probably the biggest issue of all. The fact is, short-term missions cost. People have to fly, train or drive to wherever they’re going. They have to be put up in accommodation somewhere. It costs money to get them there and to keep them whilst they’re there. It also costs time on the part of the church organising what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it for the week or two that the team is around. People go on fundraising drives to ask for support for their mission trip to whatever place they’re going and their wealthy churches duly oblige in return for some selfies with the local povvos they’re undoubtedly going to rescue.

Now, if these things didn’t cost what they do in terms of time and money, there may be a case for giving them a bash. But they do. If they don’t leave behind sustainable ministry, and the short-termist approach means that follow up can’t be done effectively, there is an awful lot of money we are pouring into this approach that doesn’t seem to produce much fruit for the kingdom.

Here is the kicker. The very church you are going to help on these trips would almost certainly be helped more if you took all the money you were going to spend on each person coming and gave it directly to the church to use in the sustainable work of weekly gospel ministry that they are trying to maintain. The church would benefit far more if you took all the money you were spending on getting a team of people out to serve for one week and gave it all to fund one worker who would be there for a matter of years.

The big problem is that in accepting the short-term mission trip, we are guaranteeing that money won’t be used in the local church. We are locking ourselves into a system where churches will happily fund their young member on a week’s jolly without too much trouble but who won’t give that same money to a seasoned minister in the context to which they are being sent because they don’t trust him to use the money rightly.

So, for those five reasons, I won’t be leaping at the chance to get a short-term mission team. I think we need to think a lot more carefully before we decide this is the best way to support churches engaged in meaningful mission.