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Why Christians Should Reject the Vocabulary of ‘Short-Term Missions’

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missions-globeChristians have routinely accepted a range of false dichotomies when it comes to so-called “full-time ministry,” confining such work to the vocation of pastor or evangelist or missionary.

The implications are clear: Those who enter or leave such vocations are thought to be “entering the work world” or “leaving the ministry,” whether it be for business or education or government. To the contrary, God has called all of us to minister to the lost across all vocations, and to do so “full-time.”

With the rise of the faith-work movement, the problems with this type of vocabulary have been helpfully exposed, and the underlying attitudes and imaginations are beginning to shift. What’s less discussed is how such a view can trickle into the world Christian missions and global aid.

This is most evident in the realm of “short-term missions,” which have become a core focus of ministry for many churches and school. I recently highlighted some helpful tips on avoiding a “messiah complex” in such scenarios, a temptation that the broader culture continues to peddle and promote at every turn. As we enter and experience new cultures and socio-economic realities, particularly in short-term and limited timeframes, we should remember to be learners and disciples, even as we preach and bear witness to the Gospel.

Now, in a helpful post from Craig Greenfield, we’re challenged less on the substance of such trips than on the ways in which we talk and think about them in the first place.

“We don’t have short term Social Workers, or short term Bio-Scientists,” Greenfield writes, “We don’t have short term Gastro-enterologists or short term Politicians. So why…do we have short term Missionaries in ever-increasing numbers?”

As Greenfield explains, the same false dichotomies about “full-time ministry” apply to missions work as well. By continuing to refer to these trips as “short-term missions,” our attitudes and imaginations will continue to assign and confine the wrong things in the wrong places when it comes to work, ministry, and whole-life discipleship.

Instead, Greenfield argues, we’d do better to focus our conversations around vocation and how such trips or projects may or may not intersect with certain callings or modes of ministry:

As followers of Jesus, we are all called to a VOCATION. That’s the term we need to embrace. It will put everything else in its proper place. Our vocation, whether in butchering, baking or candlestick-making – is the primary means we have been given to serve God.

So, some of us will have a vocation as an architect or a writer, as a parent or a nurse. And some of us will have a vocation in cross-cultural service among the poor. Humanitarian work, Bible translation, social entrepreneurship — these have all been labeled “long term missions” — but they are just different variations on every Christian’s call to pursue a vocation that serves God and his upside-down kingdom.

….Truly, these short term missions trips are generally not “mission” — they are not part of a vocation to serve cross-culturally among the poor because a vocation does not take place in 2 weeks or 2 years. But when correctly framed, they can be important and even life-changing seasons of engagement with the poor.

As for what the right vocabulary might look like, Greenfield offers the following suggestions for different times of trips:

  1. Vision (or Exposure) Trips — a focused intentional time where we ask God to open our hearts to the plight of the poor. What the eye has not seen the heart cannot grieve over. So, it’s natural that when people find themselves face to face with poverty for the first time, something significant happens. The rest of our lives are irrevocably shaped by what we have witnessed. We gain Vision.
  1. Learning Exchanges — a time when our theology and understanding of the world is rocked to the core and deconstructed. When we travel as learners, eager to have our minds expanded and preconceptions challenged, we will not be disappointed. This category includes those who travel as part of their vocation — as a builder, surgeon or dentist for example — but are open to learning from God while they are passing on expertise to others in another country.
  1. Discernment Retreats — where we discern our vocation more deeply on the margins. To pursue a vocation in any field without the perspective of the world’s poor (where God’s heart and good news is centered) is folly. How can we be a banker for God, if we don’t know how the financial services industry affects the poor? How can we be an architect or planner for God, if we don’t know how the design of cities affects the homeless? How can we be a teacher, if we don’t bring the reality of the world’s poorest to our students?

It may seem like a small adjustment, and obviously there’s plenty of room for other suggestions and other types of trips (e.g. overt evangelism trips to unreached people groups). In the big picture, we’re not likely to rid such labels from our vocabulary (and the baggage that comes with them) any time soon.

But on the whole, and particularly in the world of “missions” and Big Philanthropy, it’s a good reminder that throughout our efforts to spread the Gospel, alleviate poverty, and bring justice to our neighbors, we should retain a proper perspective of the “bigger picture” of God’s story for work, vocation, ministry, and the world.

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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