Defining The Short-Term Mission Team

In recent years there has been much written decrying the short-term mission trip. Thankfully, there has been much written promoting healthy ways to engage in short-term mission trips too. But for a number of year now there have been a plethora of articles on the issue of short-term teams and whether they are actually beneficial to anyone.

And in many ways much of what they say is right.

Defining The Short-Term Mission Team

For over 60 years the short-term mission trip–where a gaggle of young people raise money, buy new clothes, luggage, and gifts, and spend time in a culture that is not their own, all for the sake of believing they are helping people-–has been one of the sexiest things the church has been doing.

And of course there are plenty of caveats that should be said here.

  • No doubt many people have been helped because of these trips.
  • Many who have gone on these trips have grown themselves. 
  • And, some have even turned their short-term experience into a long-term missionary career.

And that’s great.

Truly, it is. 

But knowing that over $2 billion dollars is spent on short-term teams per year, and many who go leave the experience behind them, then serious questions are worth asking.

Having been on these types of teams, helped numerous churches facilitate them, and continue to lead these teams, I still believe they are worthwhile.

I believe that with a good framework these teams can become a terrific investment for individuals, the local church, and the church-at-large.

Over the coming weeks I will be publishing a series outlining a healthy approach to short-term teams, giving adequate thought to preparation, delivery, and debrief.

But first, it is helpful to start with some definitions.

Defining The Short-Term Mission Team

Before outlining a framework it is worth defining what a short-term team is.

First, short-term teams can be defined by length.

Some organisations have teams that only last a week. Other organisations classify short-term up to two years. That’s a big difference. For the purposes of defining short-term teams in this series I think of them lasting up to three weeks in duration.

Second, short-term teams can be defined by what participants actually do.

(1) Some teams spend time linking up with another church in another city, in their home country, and do mission-type activities together.

(2) Some teams involve going to a majority world country and helping an organisation in that country by painting their building, or their church, or a local school. This is the project-type team, which spends the majority of time doing a practical project in a particular place.

(3) Some teams spend a few weeks exploring the life and culture of a different country, visiting the work that is already going on in that place. This then involves lots of observation, cultural activities, and asking key questions to workers and missionaries already there. In this team there is a recognition that 2-3 weeks in a particular country won’t make much of a difference, except for the participants themselves.

(4) And finally, some teams are ‘longer’ short-term teams whereby the participants learn the language and culture of where they are going and spend significant time in one city, connected with one or two particular ministries going on in that place.

Third, short-term teams can be defined by their destination.

If the team is going to a developing country then it is more likely to be seen as a ‘proper’ short-term team. A team visiting their own country, or at least a place with a similar culture and language, may consider themselves more a partnership team, or just a few people from a church serving in another place for a short period.

There may be other ways to define what a short-term team is, but I believe this covers most of what would be expected and understood by churches, mission groups, and other voluntourism organisations. And this leads me to define these short-term teams as:

“A group of up to a dozen Christians, spending up to three weeks, specifically exploring the idea of mission in a context that is culturally and linguistically different to their home culture.”

What about you? How would you define these short-term teams?

Having this definition will help us think through some of the benefits of these short-term teams before helping us unpack some foundational thoughts about a healthy framework for short-term missions. This is where we will turn to next in our series. I hope you will join me.

4 Replies to “Defining The Short-Term Mission Team”

  1. The short-term mission trips I have participated in involved a combination of observing culture and mission and quite a bit of serving in training and outreach events alongside local churches and missions.

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