Why we're no longer talking about short-term mission

(Photo: Operation Mobilisation)

As a missional movement, we have recently decided to rename our short-term mission trips. Every year hundreds of Jesus followers join our teams across the world in reaching out with the love of Jesus. Rather than referring to these trips as 'short-term missions' (STMs), we now talk about 'short-term outreaches' (STOs) whenever possible. This may sound like an inconsequential change but the reality is that this simple name change is a small step in beginning to address the fact that many of us may be guilty of misunderstanding what mission really is.

Perhaps too often, our idea of mission can be limited to a specific time or person. You 'do' mission for a short stint and then get on with the rest of your life, or someone is 'called to the mission-field'. Whilst it is true that some have a specific calling to full-time ministry or overseas mission, the danger many of us can fall into is viewing mission as an exclusive and elevated activity for a very committed few.

But mission isn't a unique calling for the few, but rather a command given to every Christian. Scripture clearly teaches that all disciples are called to make disciples. Speaking to his followers in Acts 1:8 Jesus tells them, "...you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." We are witnesses to the saving grace of God, we are all commissioned to a life of mission, mission should never be seen as short term for a follower of Jesus.

So, if mission is about witnessing with our whole lives, why bother with short-term outreaches?

It is true that STOs can be run badly. They can become Christian holidays to get great photos. Indeed, a strong argument can be made that outreach by locals may be more effective, as they will not have to face the obstacles, such as language and cultural barriers, which overseas volunteers do.

However, when overseas outreaches are co-ordinated well, they can, and do, impact local communities — and those that go on them — in a positive way. So here are my 7 musts for an effective short-term outreach:

1. Always be facilitated by, and work in partnership with, the local church.

2. Humility is key. Teams are going to serve, not be served, and to learn, not to teach.

3. Host churches and teams should be prepared and understand who is coming. This includes making it clear that the visitors don't come with any 'elevated' authority but are there to join the work the local church is already doing.

4. Short-term outreach must support long-term strategy and vision.

5. Local believers should be welcomed completely as team members. Locals are not just translators or interpreters, but part of one big team using their gifts in different ways.

6. Preparation is key. Educate yourself on the cultural sensitivities and language.

7. Embed yourselves with the local believers. Remember we are brothers and sisters in Christ. We need to avoid judgementalism and embrace our cultural differences.

When we are aware of these things, the potential impact of short-term outreach is huge. The first time I came to understand this was when I experienced it myself.

I registered to join an evangelistic outreach in Estonia back in my student days. We arrived in Parnu in the south of the country. Small groups of believers had started to meet together in villages, and we were sent to encourage them in their faith and help them reach out to others.

After the initial culture shock, I was beginning to get into my stride a few weeks in. Then I was asked one day to deliver the Gospel message. After much protestation on my part and insistence on the part of my local team leader, I found myself, legs shaking, mouth dry, standing up the front. I managed to say a few words about John 3:16 and how God loves us all and hastily invited the team back to the front. But I had spoken in public about my faith. There was an increasing urgency in my heart. Many of these people had never heard this Good News and would perhaps never have the opportunity to again. God was not only working through our team, but He was also working in my heart.

God used a STO trip to take me and many others like me out of our comfort zones, shake us up and open our eyes to a missional life.

STOs continue to be an important part of what we do at OM. For the hosts, they can bring renewed energy to a local team and provide valuable resource in their mission. And for those that go, often we return with a renewed joy in what it means to know Jesus as our Saviour and a new urgency and confidence in reaching out with the love of Jesus.

Matthew Skirton is from the UK but has spent more than half of his life serving in Eastern Europe. Together with his wife, Helen, he pioneered OM's work in Moldova in the mid-1990s, handing over field leadership in March 2015. He also served as Regional Leader for OM in Eastern Europe for seven years. Matthew took on the role of UK Chief Executive of OM in 2016 and hopes to inspire Christ-followers to reach out this festive season with the help of their Ordinary to Extraordinary Christmas online resource for churches.