Rescuing Short Term Missions
Author and Pastor Tony Myles spoke with us about his latest book Flipping Missions. Tony shared his thoughts on the current state of short term missions and what leaders can do to help make the trips matter.
1) Short term mission trips have historically been seen as a positive way to get young people engaged in overseas missions, but lately have come under fire for, perhaps, facilitating a bad view of missiology in general. Why is this?
People like to air their opinions, plain and simple. I'm just as guilty as anyone about this, so let's all be honest about how that's played into current conversations about missions. We end up trying to say the next clever thing, whether we actually have something original to offer or are just kicking at what's been foundational for years. We become so focused on the finding a "nail in the tire" that we stop driving the "vehicle" forward and actually making progress.
If there is any ongoing problem with mission trips, it's in our lack of foundational preparation, debriefing, and follow-up. That's the focus of Flipping Missions because what will either make the most of a trip or waste it is who we are going into it and coming out of it.
2) Do you still think short term trips are valid?
Absolutely, but they can't just become a calendar event or an annual thing we do. Mission trips are like "date nights" for married couples. They aren't meant to replace the relationship, but provide space and investment to figure out what's even happening in the relationship.
Any time we spend in a cross-cultural community is meant to let God cross into the community and culture of our souls. We sign up for a mission trip thinking it will be a meaningful experience, but God wants to give each of us a meaningful life. It's good to go "somewhere else" to serve, but it's better to use that to then start living as a missionary right where you are.
3) How can pastors and church leaders better prepare their people to do STM's well?
At least two things need to happen to make a mission trip spectacular.
On one hand, someone needs to be driving the logistics of the trip, be it fundraising, packing, safety issues and more. Church leaders tend to excel at this because we are concerned about all these things so our people can feel confident in what they're about to experience.
On the other hand, someone (or something) needs to speak into the spiritual preparation of the trip. As strange as it sounds, pastors can become so focused on the trip itself that they overlook this critical component. Flipping Missions is our attempt to be a pastoral partner by speaking into your team members six weeks before and after your trip, not to mention during your experience.
If you have a way to do both of these well, keep doing it. If you don't, we'd like to help.
4) How can field missionaries better leverage STM's to advance their mission in the field?
Short-term missionaries will at best only experience a slice of the culture they're entering, but many will presume they are getting the full experience. Field missionaries can either feed into this or enlarge everyone's understanding. My co-author and great friend Rob Murphy has spent years as a field missionary, and in the book he speaks to this.
As an analogy, imagine standing on an ocean shoreline and dipping your toe into the water. You can truthfully claim that you were "in the ocean," but there's no denying that the people out in the waves are experiencing something you aren't. Every step a short-term missionary takes into a new culture should be complemented by a field missionary who is meeting them in those waves, equipping that person to "swim" or "float" in discovering what else is out there.
5) As thousands of young people around the country are preparing for short-term trips overseas, what word of advice would you give them?
Spend time with Jesus. Don't do this merely to prepare for your experience, but because spending time with Jesus is the experience. Beyond that, remember that the purpose of your trip isn't to get a new photo for your social media profile. Imagine someone coming into your home and taking selfies in front of you, as if you were merely a prop to their desires or interests. Remember this and do whatever you can to not head into your trip as a tourist but as a humble advocate for God. Put your phone in your pocket and take your headphones off to be fully present and join the Holy Spirit in what he's already doing.
Daniel Darling is vice-president of communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Activist Faith.