Stop calling it “Short Term Missions.” Here’s what you should call it instead.

by Craig Greenfield on April 26, 2016

Today’s guest post comes from Craig Greenfield, whose new book Subversive Jesus: an adventure in justice, mercy and faithfulness in a broken world is out this month. Subversive Jesus is the story of one family’s experiment in putting the most counter-cultural teachings of Christ into practice. When Jesus says invite the poor for a meal, Craig and his family welcome homeless friends, local crack addicts, and women from the street corner over for dinner. When Jesus proclaims freedom for the captive, they organize Pirates of Justice flash mobs to protest cruise ship exploitation. The adventure takes Craig’s family from the slums of Cambodia to inner city Canada and back again. You’ll find that this book becomes an invitation to say yes to this subversive Jesus and do something courageous with your life – for the sake of justice, mercy, and faithfulness in a broken world.



Imagine if I wrote this letter to my local dentist.

“Dear Sir, I’d like to come and be a dentist for 2 weeks. I’ve been meeting once a month with a small group of others who also want to be short term dentists, and we have our t-shirts printed and we’re ready to come.

PS. Can you drive us around, translate for us, and help take cool photos for our Facebook pages?”

I’d like to be a fly on the wall when the dentist received that letter.

We don’t have short term Social Workers, or short term Bio-Scientists.

We don’t have short term Gastro-enterologists or short term Politicians.

So why, why, why, WHY, do we have short term Missionaries in ever-increasing numbers?

Here’s the problem. We’ve created in our minds a false continuum. At one end of the continuum is “short term missions” and at the other end is something we call “long term missions.” We think of them as pretty much the same thing, but with differing lengths of service.

But they’re not the same. No, not at all. And by naming them both “mission” we’re missin’ the point.

It might help at this point to situate “long-term missions” properly. Let’s just agree right up front that there is no such thing as a part-time Christian. There is no such thing as a follower of Jesus who is not in full-time service to God. If you are a full-time banker, and a part-time Christian, you might be deluded. (So, don’t tell me you are going into “full-time Christian ministry” — I’ll be tempted to ask what you thought you were doing up to this point.)

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.

When we see that each of us has a unique and important vocation, we’ll no longer single out some as more spiritual than others. We’ll support and pray for all equally. And we’ll develop a theology of work, that works!

Now that we understand how “long term missions” has been unhelpfully singled out as different from anyone else’s vocation, we can better understand why “short term missions” is such a misleading term — and find a better place for it in our journey to serving God.

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.

Here are 3 suggestions for renaming short term missions 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. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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?

These trips could potentially spark a new vocation — or even be a partial outworking of our current vocation (for example, serving overseas from time to time).

In short, there is no such thing as a 2 week vocation. And there is no such thing as “short term missions.”

Let’s get our labels right, and hopefully our practice and understanding will follow.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas on short term missions in the comments. What would YOU call them?

originally appeared here


craig1Craig Greenfield is the founder and director of Alongsiders International and the author of Subversive Jesus (to be published by Zondervan in 2016). During more than 15 years living and ministering in slums and inner cities in Cambodia and Canada, Craig has established a number of initiatives to care for vulnerable kids and orphans, as well as formed Christian communities for those marginalized by society. His postgraduate research in International Development led to the publication of his first book, The Urban Halo: a story of hope for orphans of the poor which is currently available for free on Craig’s website. He loves God, the poor, and fish and chips. He’s on Twitter and Facebook too.

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  • Kate

    Thank you for this post! I especially appreciate your perspective on what Christian living should look like — none of us are part-time Christians. Totally agree with you. Thankful for this well-articulated and thought-provoking post!

    • craigasauros

      Thanks Kate 🙂

  • Joel Paul

    I’d rename them Expand trips because it is useful in ministry at home to expand our understanding of how God works in other cultures and contexts.

    • craigasauros

      Great idea!

  • Pierre-Yves

    Thanks Craig, I love your perspective! I was in Africa when I discovered how damaging these “popcorn workers” can be to the long-term efforts. I’m in favor of “Discovery Trips” but the problem is how it is “sold” to the participant.
    Go if you like adventure but have your goals set correctly!
    The question should never be “how good is that trip for me?” but rather “What impact will I have to the visited location/activity?”

    • craigasauros

      Popcorn workers – that is funny 🙂

  • Zoran

    Agree with everything in the article. I’d add that people should be dissuaded from going on “Awareness” type trips unless they are clearly going to follow it up with consequential action. Taking a gang of youngsters for 2 weeks in the hope that one or two might “get the vision” but with the realisation that most won’t is not only a burden on the hosts but a substantial waste of money.10 participants X $1500 minimum would give 30 christian workers in Cambodia a reasonable income for a year (really!!). It might also fund the employment of local manual workers and spare hosts the indignity of having foreigners build toilets for them.

    • craigasauros

      Yes financial considerations are often overlooked. However, if a $1500 up front investment to go and have your heart broken, results in a life that is committed to ongoing financial commitment to the poor, then in the long term it could be worthwhile. It’s all about how we frame the trip.

      • Kirsten Freeman Conover

        This comment I agree with!

  • Cheryl

    What would be a more appropriate term for someone like me who has done this for 14 years? That is how I use my vacation time from work – to do dentistry and partner with missionaries who live there. They arrange these medical, dental, vision clinics in remote regions and I go every year. Sometimes when I read the comments from these articles, I feel like I’m not welcome. PTL I never feel like that when I partner with the missionaries and bible college they run and my church has supported for many years. I feel like part of their family.

    • amy medina

      Cheryl, as someone who has been an overseas missionary for 12 years, I really don’t think this piece was aimed at people like you. You are bringing a genuine skill to meet a genuine need on the field. That’s a lot different than a group going on a trip to do a two-week job for which they have no skills at all. What you are offering is a valuable service.

    • craigasauros

      It sounds like the appropriate term for you would be someone who has a vocation to serve others through dentistry. Sometimes you do that overseas. Keep up the good work!

    • Kirsten Freeman Conover

      I agree with you Cheryl. I too am extremely turned off by these articles. Somehow they come across extremely prideful. God can use people in amazing ways on a short term missions trip! And, yes, I would still call it that after having read this article and a few others. I just got back from Cambodia where I spent thousands of dollars (of my own money I might add, didn’t fund raise) to take my family on a short term missions trip and we were quite blessed and blessed those we visited..which they confirmed many times. We are all missionaries first in this world…our paid vocation is always second in my mind.

  • Jeff J. Johnston

    Enjoyed this. As my family prepares to move to Thailand this resonated with me. My vocation has been many things over my 50 years so when we told people we were moving to Thailand to work with kids and spread the Gospel they would almost always say “oh you’re a missionary”. In reality we are relocating to another part of the world to continue doing what we have tried to do in the states, love people-share Christ.

    • craigasauros

      Amen brother. And welcome to South-East Asia 🙂

  • Christoph Koebel

    he has a hang-up because are bad experiences. My friend George Verwer actually has a list “Short Termers we do Not want.” I can say ALL of these come from the USA

    • craigasauros

      I love George Verwer!

  • Leigh

    This is really good Craig. I appreciate your write up and time to address this.
    As someone who’s vocation is “Coordinating Short Term Mission” it’s language that brings with it so much bad and unbiblical implications. I am constantly trying to re-orientate (renew) my perceptions and others that He calls us children of God. He is forming us into the image of his Son, so that we can be Him in every situation and to everyone around us, regardless of what location. A dentist is a child caring for another of God’s reconciled child by helping them with their teeth, etc. We aren’t called a missionary in the bible we are called a child that goes places and does activities (vocation) that is sumarised in a title as missional work. If we get it the other way around and our identity is in what I am doing, then I am never doing enough or its not good enough. I am never free from condemnation. The question is Why then are we doing a shorter term trip?
    I like your suggestions of language changes for short term mission and I want to keep engaging with this as it’s such a big tension in missional circles. Even the term missions implies I am doing God’s work when I am over there as a missionary, (and people being condemned that they aren’t over there quick enough, or they aren’t in what God called them to) not we are all on a mission right now, wherever we are, some to Jerusalem (here), Judea and Samaria (next towns) and some to the ends of the earth.
    I have heard them called edge trips, or venture trips

    • craigasauros

      Thanks for your comment Leigh, and for your commitment to seeing change in this area. I’m definitely advocating for throwing this term (STM) out, once and for all. It is so problematic, and sets all kinds of unhelpful expectations for people. With new terminology we can start afresh with framing people’s understanding of what they are doing. All the best!

  • LovelyChiapas

    Maybe someone could help me with what title I should use for myself. For 3 years I was a missionary in Chiapas, Mexico with a “sending church”. For personal and professional reasons I decided to part ways with them after my contract finished, but continued doing mission work in Chiapas with other local religious organizations. My home pastor (in the US) refuses to acknowledge me as a missionary now, that I am not called or sent to do this, and that he will not allow the congregation to support even though I am making great strides in my new projects. He says I decided to do this, that I’m on my own adventure. This put me in a depression. It sometimes makes my work feel like nothing to those “back home”. I plan on being in Chiapas indefinitely continuing my work. I tell him the only thing that matters is the people I’m working with call me a missionary and value what I’m doing. So, am I a missionary?

    • craigasauros

      I don’t know the full details of your situation, but you might be encouraged by reading the life story of Hudson Taylor, a missionary to China, who faced many similar challenges.

  • Jeff Gage

    I was a technical writer in the software industry for nine years and now I’m using those skills overseas. Now I’m making apps to help evangelists in creative ways. God can use any and every profession to expand His Kingdom!

    Question for you, though. God has sent me and my family to Western Europe where povery is rare. Your article makes it sound like the only valid missions is outreach and service to the poor. Am I not a missionary because I’m trying to share Jesus with the middle class of Germany?

    • craigasauros

      Jeff – sounds like you are using your gifts and passions in a beautiful way for missions. This post originally appeared on my blog which is about poverty and injustice. So my personal focus is on the poor. Some of us are definitely called to minister to the middle class or the rich. However, since Jesus’ Kingdom was explicitly described as good news for the poor – that will have an impact on what we are inviting the rich to enter into (eg. increased generosity and justice towards the poor).

  • The name doesn’t matter to me. STM exactly describes the group’s purpose. Seems like this is an attempt at political correctness though I doubt it is the intent.

  • peachgeek

    Have been saying this for 6 years but it comes down to SEO (search engine optimization). When people search trips online they enter the phrase “short term missions” into google, so mission sites have to use that phrase in order to be found by google. It’s not going away soon. Though I’m with Bob Goff — “We don’t need to call it ‘ministry’; just call it Tuesday. Love already has a name.”

  • davmich1

    I like your term “Exposure Trips”. I have had many teams take part in our work in the Philippines, and it’s usually more about what God does to the group of Americans than what He does through them. But I believe it’s still a really solid thing to get a group of Westerners away from their office cubicles for a week to be slammed with the majority world’s realities. A lot of “missiologists” (stupid name) are throwing out the baby with the bath water when they reject the sending of teams to the field.

    • craigasauros

      I agree that it can be transformative – especially for the team. Labelling it correctly, will help them be even more open to what God wants to do in their lives.

  • John Overholt

    I have been involved with missions since I came to the Lord in 1979. As a follower of Jesus, He called me to join with Him on His mission and that has taken place in short term bursts, as well as, a longer nine year term serving in Central America. As Christians this is an integral part of who we are: the sent ones. A dentist doesn’t have this bent to go and make dentists. He or she waits for people to come to them, unless they are sent on a mission, usually short term, to serve in a place where people cannot afford dental care.

    I have this apostolic leaning in me to explore and start things and probably because of this, God sent my wife and I to minister in Central America and so, as sent ones (apostolos) or, using our modern day terminology, missionaries, we looked forward, most of the time, to teams coming to help us in the work of the ministry or assignment that God had called us to. I would have a hard time in calling them exposure teams or learning exchange teams or discernment retreats, although all of those elements come into play.

    After working with over 80 teams I have recognized that each one of them has had a different flavor and focus depending upon the gift mix of each person involved and how that worked its way out within the group. Each team had an assignment or mission to accomplish and these assignments took place over a short term. I worked very closely with each team that I was involved with to instill within them a right attitude and purpose for what they were venturing into. Jesus sent His disciples on short term mission trips and He made it pretty clear what they were to do and how they were to go about it. I’m sure a lot of it was towards their own personal training as followers of Christ.

    I believe that mission teams work best when done in conjunction with working alongside someone who has boots on the ground, namely a full time missionary opposed to someone coming in on a short term basis. Not sure what else to call it.
    John Overholt
    I also like God, the poor and fish and chips.

  • Ryan Kuja

    Good on ya for this piece, Craig. I read it a bit ago when it came out on your blog and it resonated for sure. Ive been doing some thinking/writing lately on how, in general, short term “mission” is often much more about the ones going to “help” than those we serve. I think of the white savior complex, fulfilling our own desire for meaning, using the poor as objects of our compassion, etc etc etc. Even more so, at its core, authentic mission is about participating in the missio Dei, God’s work of redemption, human flourishing and the restoration of all things. I think we need to be asking when we travel overseas: Does what I’m doing carry the scent of the missio Dei or the missio Ego (the mission of our ego, of serving our own false self rather than those living in entrenched poverty)?

    • craigasauros

      Missio Ego – great term! As you point out, a little bit of self awareness can go a long way.

  • An Albanian pastor’s wife once told me after the third year of hosting a short term team from the UK that the team “never helped really” but that they were privileged to have them because “how else can our poor, little church way up here in the mountains have influence in discipling British young people?” I loved that. She had turned the mission on its head. This was done, by the way, in the context of a long-term relationship between the two churches in which there was genuine expertise, training, etc coming with other, more experienced visitors and some “mid-term” missionaries.

    Also, the context varies, but in some pioneering situations, it is important to consider the encouragement factor for a struggling, isolated national pastor or church planter. “You came” is a phrase I’ve heard a lot in honest conversation when evaluating visits of groups/teams (or my own visit). That brings encouragement if done well, and in hard-ground, and sometimes isolated pioneering situations, that encouragement is not to be under-estimated.

    Of course, all of the above assumes that there is a long-term relational context for any short-term work.

  • Mari Kay Colace

    Great article. I lead “sistering trips” to Ukraine for our church. The dynamics to missions is quite broad. I love reading and learning more as I grow. Going to grab your book!

  • Mark Crocker

    I always appreciate the discussion – I just wish that the discussion didn’t generally tend to slant to the negative about STM. I understand why though – I have done the same myself on too many occasions. Here is my latest response to the Q of whether or not STM is a waste of time:

    if that link is too self-serving/spammy feel free to delete!

  • NIZ

    The comments below are discouraging. It seems almost a sense of insecurity in the fact one feels the need to so strongly protect their God given “title”. I’m only sad to think, that some people who may have thought it would be a blessing and honor to serve Christ by trying to go abroad and gain a small glimpse of what it is to commune with those we are called to serve might be deterred for fear of being dubbed a “popcorn worker” in the eyes of those whom they may be seeking to emulate. Because we are not omniscient as God, I can’t imagine that anyone person on this blog could possibly predict the purpose and reason things happen in the life of each individual, such as the motivation that someone finds themselves on a 2 week long mission trip. If someone is inspired to go on a mission trip, how can we say that a person wasn’t touched or benefited either during or after the service, in ways that weren’t immediately visible to us as humans. Every missionary has a first trip, so to discourage others by prompting a conversation that seeks to merely label an individual by how much time they spend doing a specific activity or service to God is incredibly reductive to Christ’s ability to work through anyone he so pleases, for nothing is impossible with him, and in fact those who are called to serve short term, could very well choose to make that their life, and encourage others to do the same, or support those are currently ministering abroad as God works in his own way to his own delight. Frighteningly people are now questioning what they are in your eyes as if you had the authority to determine who someone is merely by a label. Tempting them to worrying about whether or not they’re something valuable in God’s eyes defined by something that is merely a word or term to describe what is strong in action.

    This article also has drawn out negativity towards our own, which makes me questions the intent. If we’re divided, then how can we stand? Generalizing everyone that wants to have the experience of sharing Jesus with a culture not of their own popcorn workers, or saying that anyone who attempts these 2 week trips is unskilled, is so nearsighted, when we know that God works for the sake of his own pleasure and in ways we can’t imagine or understand. Someone may show up that has the ability to connect with one individual that another person, in a way no one else could. It’s callus to assume that someone who has never been a “missionary” can’t offer anything to anyone while abroad. After all, they’re not there to serve the already present missionaries. I’m sorry I wrote so much I just felt hurt by what I saw people writing in the comments, when so few people are already ministering to the 10/40. Billions of people are still needing to hear of the Hope that Christ has to offer, and a two week mission trip could be the begging of a new life for someone to accomplish just that. I guess it doesn’t matter, because anyone that is called to be a missionary will be despite labels, or this blog post, God will make sure of it, because it’s his will. The sad thing is assuming that some people that are out on the field right now, think they have the authority and judgement over something we were all called to do which is spread the word of God, whatever way shape or form that is, i don’t think it’s something that can be confined to a label. We’re all Christians, I think that’s the label that matters the most. I think it’s important to place yourselves in the shoes of someone reading this, that has never done missionary work before but is desiring to. Thanks so much if you took the time to read this and I hope I didn’t offend, I was honestly needing to say I thought some of the comments were becoming rather cold, and we should watch out that the enemy doesn’t seek to put division between us, or place doubt in the minds of those who are interested in doing God’s work.

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