short-term missions & the science of zebras (STM series pt.1)

i’m gonna be doing a multiple-part series on short-term missions and different aspects of it.  i realize there have been plenty of articles written about STMs, most probably written a million times better, but hey, i have the freedom to weigh in as well, so here it is.  and yes, you’re probably wondering what short-term missions and zebras have to do with one another.  well, other than this post, probably nothing.  and yet here i go with trying to use this black & white animal to talk about short-term missions.  you can blame my incessant need to relate things together. 

are zebras white with black stripes?  or black with white stripes?  have you thought about it?  i learned the answer to this question last year while reading a science magazine for kids (in my dentist’s office, of all places).  in order to find the answer, we have to go back to the source.  zebras are born all black and then develop white stripes as they grow.

so make sure you color the black lines first.

so make sure you color the black lines first.

short-term missions is the same way in my eyes.  in order to figure it out, we need to go back the source and background of these trips: our churches.  how a church portrays missions to its congregation is so crucial.

having been in church my whole life, i can tell you that i grew up thinking my church was so missions-minded.  we supported 15 plus missionaries (most of whom were not actually from our own church), we had a missions month each year where we’d have guest speakers and a hall filled with booths that nobody stopped at, and most of all, we sent short-term mission teams out every year in masses (as we still do).  when the trips are over, we come back and report to the church that 5,219,976 people accepted Christ.  okay, i exaggerate.  but hopefully you get the idea, especially if that sounds familiar…perhaps you came from a church like that, too?  we seemed like we were “doing” everything right.

don’t get me wrong, i went on short-term mission trips almost every year of my life starting from age 15 and i’m fairly certain that God, in all His grace, used each of those trips to eventually lead me to full-time missions today.  but did i go each year because i had a heart for mission, for sharing the Gospel with the lost, or even just to understand the lost of another culture?  certainly not.  i went on those trips because it was the “christian” thing to do, i had a lot of fun, i was being “international,” and let’s face it – what other chance would i get to go to other countries totally out of normal reaching distance?

seals need good news, too.

antarctica needs Good News, too.                                      (a big ice cube might make a fun souvenir as well).

you see, growing up, church always told us we needed to go on short-term mission trips to convert people, or “share the love of christ.”  we had our own agenda, so we’d just buy our tickets, spend a couple sundays preparing lessons we wanted to teach, and then we took off.  we barely spent any time doing preparation/orientation (in terms of spiritual/emotional preparation), and our post-trip debrief times consisted of  “seeing them living like that makes me so thankful that…”, “i had the most fun…”, and…i’m sure you can fill in your own.  but the point is that after our 1 hour debriefs, we never talked about this trip again, except when reminiscing about the fun times we had.  had it changed our lives?  yeah, for maybe 3 months.  but other than giving money and physically going again (neither of which were emphasized as options at each of those points in life), there wasn’t much else i could do as a teenager/uni student/young adult to be involved in missions.  because the source of all my practical missions education, my church, never taught me (in practical terms) any other way to be, and yet still had me convinced that we were “mission minded”, when really, we were just “mission february & summer-minded.” (february b/c that’s when our missions months usually were…during which we’d promote all our STM trips!)

what i now wish church had taught me about missions was this: it should permeate our lives in every way, especially if we’ve had a chance to go on a short-term trip and learn, understand and witness first-hand from the missionaries & locals about what God’s doing in whichever country.  i wish we’d talked about global missions more.  i wish we’d learned to pray for our missionaries each week.  or how about just praying each week for missions in general.  i wish we were encouraged to think about full-time missions as a viable post-grad option.  i wish i was rooted in all these things before i started going out on short-term trips.

mostly, i just wish short-term missions existed in the church for people who were ready and willing to learn how to incorporate global missions into their lives in a variety of ways…for the long run.  of course, the church needs to have their own long-term direction & vision for mission in place before they can start thinking of more practical ways for it to play out.  otherwise they’re totally jumping the gun and just sending random people out on a feel good trip.  just like zebras, they’ve got to have the black background in place first, and then as they grow, the white stripes develop.

otherwise you'd just be this.

otherwise, you’d just be this sad little guy.

add your cliche-prince-charming-come-to-save riding on top, and you’ve got your typical church’s view towards missions.  but i’m hopeful, and i trust in the continued grace of God to develop and lead churches into ones that understand the purpose & importance of discipleship in missions, not products, results and numbers.

(forward march to pt. 2: short-term missions & the nutrition of lucky charms)

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2 thoughts on “short-term missions & the science of zebras (STM series pt.1)

  1. Josh Gray says:

    Good post. Well written, humorous, and thought provoking. I’ve been working with an STM organization full time for a few years now. I’ve debriefed with many teams, and I’ve also had the opportunity to discuss STM with many community members on the receiving end. I like your comment about how missions should permeate every area of our lives. I’m convinced more and more that this idea that an STM is some transcendent, spiritual act is damaging. I think that most of the principles that apply to ministry and even general life at home apply on an STM, and conversely I think that most of the things learned on an STM can be applied at home. However, as you mention the latter often doesn’t happen.

  2. Great post. I’ve had lots of good STM experiences (both going and receiving teams on the field as a long-term missionary) but many STM are not done well, and do not do that much in either the lives of those who go… or those who they are supposedly serving on the field. There needs to be a revolution in how short-term missions are done.

    You may be interested in reading a post I just did called “Short Term Missions, Short-Term Impact?” A guy at Calvin College did study on the long-term impact of STM and guess what he found? Well, I’ll let you read the post 🙂

    http://dahlfred.com/en/blogs/gleanings-from-the-field/516-short-term-missions-short-term-impact-

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