Short-term missionaries are as popular as ever these days. Like Abraham’s descendants, they are too many to count. Short-term missions (STMs) has its advantages. I’ve counted myself among their rank many times and I may not even be a full-time missionary today had it not been for those early short-term trips.
But there is a dangerous side that churches would do well to spend more time thinking about.
Let us address just one: STMs, by their very nature, appeal to fallen humanity’s infatuation with the new. If familiarity breeds contempt, the new and avant-garde breeds respect and esteem.
Consider Jesus’s words in John 4:44. “For Jesus himself had testified that a prophet has no honor in his own hometown.” His patris here refers not only to his boyhood stomping grounds of Nazareth—where his old neighbors had tried to kill him (Lk. 4:29)—but to Galilee in general. People rarely value what they are familiar with.
This passage provides some valuable lessons to the newbies assailing the foreign fields.
(1) Don’t assume every salvation testimony is legitimate.
“But,” you say, “verse 45 says the Galileans welcomed Jesus.” Yes, the same way an atheist welcomes a Christian doctor. The same way Simon “believed” in Christ (Ac. 8:13). The same way the Jews believed in Jesus just two chapters earlier:
Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. 24 But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people. (Jn. 2:23-24)
Notice, Jesus gives no qualifying adjective to define their belief in v. 23. They believed. And yet Jesus in his wisdom knew that the true nature of the belief for many of them was not sincere. If Jesus in his wisdom could read between the lines, so should we. For every verse the Christian is told to believe all things (1Co. 13:7), there are others warning him of naivety (Pr. 4:15; 9:13; Jn. 6:64; 13:11).
(2) Don’t be quick to publish stats.
The great missionary St. Paul never published statistics. Luke did at times, but mostly in round numbers. Contrast this with traveling evangelists who publish pronto the number of conversions they saw just last week in their travels. This is wrongheaded for a number of reasons. First, even when John published numbers like the feeding of the 5,000 (Jn. 6:1-15), he is quick to balance this at the end of the chapter: “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (v. 66). Just think if John had published conversion statistics right after the meal. No doubt everyone was a believer then.
Moreover, do not forget that of the tens of thousands to whom Jesus ministered, only 120 were gathered in the Upper Room and about 500 were gathered at the end of his ministry (1Co. 15:6). God can and will save many, but be wary of publishing “conversions” prematurely.
(3) Don’t be hasty in supplementing God’s Word with “extras.”
Contra today’s Prosperity ethos, calling for miracles is often not a sign of belief but unbelief, not of strong faith but weak faith. The Jews always clamored for a sign (Jn. 2:18), but rarely believed. The thief on the cross (Mt. 27:42) and the rich man in hell (Lk. 16) also yearned for a miracle, but it never led to saving faith. Jesus in his grace did perform many miracles to support weak faith, as he did in healing the nobleman’s son. But this was meant to take a frail faith in miracles to a strong faith in Jesus’ words. The Samaritans were especially praiseworthy because they did not need miracles to lead them to faith.
In the same way, while STMs may not parade miracles to draw a crowd, they are tempted to dazzle the audience with their own set of extras. When the inevitable smiles and throngs arrive, the Westerners often confuse this joy over gifts with joy in the Giver. Be sure that all the benefits you are bringing over do not cloud the people’s vision as to what is most important.
(4) Don’t leave the missionary in a worse position than before.
The goal is the good of the mission, not the glamor of your trip. Suppose a short-term mission team decided to give a watered-down, translated, gimmick driven gospel presentation. This would actually make those in the village twice as much a child of hell as they were before the team came. Why? Before, the missionary was ministering to those who were lost and knew it. Now he ministers to those who are lost but don’t know it. Raising their hand to the guest’s invitation has changed their mind.
Remember when Jacob saw from Laban’s face that his attitude toward him had changed (Gn. 31:2)? Many missionaries, after having been on the field for some time, can remember the moment when the natives’ demeanor toward them was altered. Things were different. New things had passed away; behold, all things had become old.
John Paton spoke of the change in the cannibals’ demeanor toward him after he had been on the islands for a little while. “The novelty of our being among them soon passed away, and they began to show their avarice and deceitfulness in every possible way.” What brought about the change? Only that he wasn’t new anymore. He stopped being honored on Tanna when Tanna became his own country. He had become one of them and there was nothing special about that.
Mr. Short-termer, we thank you for your cross-cultural interest. Do not stop praying and providing. But temper your strut. Tame the hand pounds and chest bumps. And purpose never to use your novelty to undermine the missionary whose honor has most likely faded long ago.