With the coming of spring and the anticipation of summer, many churches in the United States are preparing for the Short-Term Mission (STM) “season.” Churches frequently use a domestic or international STM trip as a standard part of regular programming for youth and adults of all ages. STMs have been billed as ways for American churches to spread the good news to those in impoverished and underserved areas of the world. The widespread and growing practice deploys teams that are often comprised of church members with willing hearts, ready hands, and a desire to bring about a change. However, the role of evangelism in Methodist STMs deserves further examination.
STM began and grew as a populist movement with roots in evangelistic motivations. Some of the first short-term transnational mission trips began in the 1950s. Under the guidance of groups like Operation Mobilization (1957) teams of young people from the US headed overseas to minister to those who had not yet heard the gospel. Many of these teams departed with suitcases full of gospel literature and a burden to share the good news of Jesus Christ. They distributed hundreds of millions of evangelistic materials in countries throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
STM, which I define as two weeks or less, has continued to grow. Today, approximately two million Americans, from 100,000 churches and thousands more nonprofit agencies, participate in STMs annually. This multi-billion-dollar venture involves millions more in their targeted countries of service.
Do contemporary STM teams retain the evangelistic fervor with which some of the first teams set out? My own research of United Methodist STM indicates that, often, STM participants can overwhelmingly affirm the value of the trips for them personally, yet often struggle to define their role in the larger mission: Are they missionaries, evangelists, friends, servants, or something else?
One possible reason for the ambiguity of the purpose of the trip may be that frequently STM trips are to places where churches are already established. In general, STM trips are to places that are already new centers of global Christianity. Seven of the top ten destinations for American STM teams are in Latin America or the Caribbean, locations that have a long history of active church ministry and that have seen important growth in recent years. Additionally, because these international service trips, done in the name of mission, often work in established church communities, many STM team members see themselves as now free from the directive to engage in faith-sharing endeavors that historically accompanies missional service. In fact, many American STMers perceived a greater faith in their hosts than they themselves possessed. This leads to an interesting outcome. Team leaders and members often do not feel a need to share their faith. After all, “everyone’s already a Christian, anyway.” Because there is a strong perception of the Christian devotion in the mission hosts, surpassing even that of the STMer, for many there is an expectation that the devotion in others would lead to a deeper devotion in themselves. They expect to grow in their own faith while on the trip in part by what they observe in their mission hosts.
This can occur for a variety of reasons and in a variety of service contexts. John, a pastor colleague, recounted the time he was serving as a long-term missionary in Eastern Europe during the 1980s. When the radical political changes of the late-80s and early-90s opened Eastern Europe to travelers from the West, his ministry was flooded with requests to host STM teams. After just a few teams had come and gone, he quickly realized that people were coming not primarily to serve in ministry, but to “do some good” while touring places that had been closed for generations. John had to train his European staff members to evangelize the American STM team members who were coming to be “missionaries” in their own country. Could the same be true today?
I am not suggesting that people stop traveling, stop serving, stop learning, or stop building meaningful relationships with churches around the world. Quite the opposite. However, anything done in the name of Christian mission should seek to faithfully engage the biblical foundations of mission it claims to embody. Doing so means that two important principles should be embraced: (1) evangelism is mission, but 2) mission is not merely evangelism. In other words, through careful biblical training pastors and other mission leaders should prepare their STM teams to share their faith with both their mouths and their paintbrushes. Under the explicit direction of their mission hosts, STM leaders should provide tools for their team members to engage in culturally appropriate faith-sharing—just as they should do at home.