Using Short Term Mission Teams Strategically: A Conversation with George Robinson
Are short-term mission trips effective in the long run?
Is the explosion of short-term mission teams a helpful development in the missiological strategy of taking the gospel to the nations?
How should we respond to people who desire to take part in assisting long-term missionaries?
These are important questions. That’s why I’m excited to introduce Kingdom People readers to George Robinson, assistant professor of missions and evangelism at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. George has extensive international missions experience and has written Striking the Match: How God is Using Ordinary People to Change the World through Short-Term Missions (e3 Resources, 2008). Today, we talk about short-term mission teams and how they can be used effectively in fulfilling the Great Commission.
Trevin Wax: George, it’s an exciting time to seek to fulfill the Great Commission and take the gospel to the nations. The availability of travel and the accessibility of communication has changed the way we think of missions and mission trips. There has been a decline of long-term missionaries and a steady rise of short-term mission teams. Not everyone sees this development as helpful. What are some of the reservations people have about short-term missions?
George Robinson: Fifteen years ago, famous missiologist Ralph Winter wrote an essay called “The Re-Amatuerization of Missions.” The essay explored the potential negative impact of short-term missions. Other missiologists responded in a similar fashion. Winter’s point was that some tasks are best accomplished by those professionals with proper training.
I respond to that idea in Striking the Match by pointing out the definition of the word “amateur.” It simply means “someone who does something for the love of it.” What’s wrong people doing missions short-term for the love of it? The reality is – we have a lot of people doing short-term missions. Some estimates are that one million people in North America and Europe will go on a short-term trip this year. Most of them are ‘amateurs’ who may make mistakes – even crucial ones – often because they have not been prepared by those with more cross-cultural experience. Missiologists and long-term missionaries must be willing to think deeply about how to utilize this massive army of amateurs, and in so doing they will be advancing the very cause that they have dedicated their lives to.
Trevin Wax: Why do you think that’s the case? Why not think about ways to utilize the army?
George Robinson: Look at it this way. You’ve got a general out on the battlefield. He’s got an elite force out there. And all of a sudden, you’ve got a large number of infantrymen who show up and haven’t been through the general’s training. If you’re in the shoes of that general, you’re bothered by the influx of infantrymen. You don’t know how to lead those people well. You may have to get off the front lines in order to figure out how to use the newcomers.
Yes, Westerners make cultural blunders. We’re loud and obnoxious. We throw money at things, thinking money is the answer to everything. All the complaints are viable.
But my response is that you don’t send the infantry home. You pull back for a moment and take time to train them. Show them where they fit in the scope of the battle. Let them know what to do and they will play the role well. You’ll still have mistakes, but you’ll make a much greater impact on lostness. So, I want to see missionaries harnessing the power of the small group rather than complaining about their presence.
Trevin Wax: What do you say to the person who points out the financial cost? Let’s say you’ve got a team of 12 who go on an overseas trip. It’s going to cost them about $25,000. Sometimes the missionary thinks, We could do so much ministry with that money!
George Robinson: Behind that objection lies a hidden assumption: God has limited resources, and if these resources are used on short-term mission teams, they won’t be available for long-term missionaries. I don’t accept that assumption as valid. God’s resources are limitless. The question is about how we prioritize these resources. At the heart of it all, this debate is a faith issue.
Could you do more training of nationals if the short-term team stayed home and sent you $25,000? Absolutely. That kind of money would go a long way on the front end. But when short-term mission teams are on the field and the missionaries figure out a way to plug them into the ongoing strategy, then you’re not only making a financial investment, but also a broader investment. The short-term visitors may end up joining your team long-term. Or they may end up being long-term partners, financial and in other ways. The $25,000 looks like a bad investment on the front end, but that sum represents twelve people who – if over the course of their lifetime give just $100 – could wind up supplying the long-term missionary with hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Instead of seeing the big picture, too often we’re looking at things through a very narrow perspective. We think of resources as the limited piece of a pie instead of thinking how to use short-term teams to our advantage. And what happens when we fail to utilize short-term teams? We inoculate them to our mission. They go away thinking they’re not needed. They think their finances aren’t needed either.
Trevin Wax: Have you seen this scenario happen often?
George Robinson: Sadly, yes. Just yesterday, I was talking to a guy who had done some work in Latin American countries. His team was viewed as a burden rather than a blessing. Very little thought was given to how the team would be used on the field. They were dumped in a place where they couldn’t do any damage. At the end of the trip, the team hadn’t done any damage. But neither had they felt connected to the mission. None of the team members will be going back there. None of them have a heart for what’s going on.
Missionaries need to make a point of utilizing a team effectively. We need to ask strategic questions. How do we minimize the limitations and maximize the strategic nature of how to use short-term mission teams as a small part of a much bigger vision? Teams need to hear missionaries say, “We wouldn’t be taking this step in church planting if it weren’t for your team.” That’s what energizes them for the long haul.
Trevin Wax: Doesn’t success depend, in some measure, on how success is defined? What is the purpose of a short-term mission team? What are the objectives and goals?
George Robinson: Absolutely. It’s crucial to define what the mission is. Most of the complaints I hear about short-term teams relate to short-term work trips. They’re not mission. I define mission more narrowly. There has to be verbal proclamation of the gospel for a team to be considered “mission.” If gospel proclamation isn’t central to the purpose of the trip, then call it a work trip, not a mission trip. I’m fine with work trips taking place, but for a work trip to be truly a mission trip, it must be connected to a proclamation of the gospel. Otherwise, the church is doing something any non-governmental organization could do.
Trevin Wax: So work trips can create problems.
George Robinson: Yes, if they are evaluated as mission projects. For example, after Hurricane Mitch hit Central America, many short-term mission teams headed for Honduras. Their purpose was to rebuild the houses of believers and unbelievers. They did not go to connect with the nationals there; they went down there to lay brick and mortar. But afterwards, they were evaluated based on mission standards and were critiqued for making cultural blunders. That was the wrong way to evaluate the work teams. The Hondurans should have been asked, “How do you like your house?” and not “Did the team make cultural blunders?”
Trevin Wax: So the purpose of the trip needs to be crystal clear.
George Robinson: Yes. The problem is that a large percent of people going on short-term trips every year are involved in work trips, not evangelism. What happens is that the highly trained, mission-oriented teams get lumped in with the stereotype of those who make cultural mistakes, create dependency, etc.
If you take time on the front end to orient the team on cross-cultural communication, and if the long-term missionary will create missiological interdependency (which comes about by recognizing that everyone has something to give and receive in mission), then you prepare the groundwork for success. We need to operate according to the Great Commandment: Love God and love your neighbor. Everyone involved has something to give and gain.
- The nationals have something to give and something to gain.
- The missionary has something to give and something to gain.
- The short-term team has something to give and something to gain.
- The local church has something to give and something to gain.
Trevin Wax: What happens when we operate with this mindset?
George Robinson: For one thing, the nationals don’t come to you with their hands out, saying, “You’re just here to support me.” Instead, you’re helping the nationals think deeply about how they can bless this team. Likewise, the sending church stops looking at a mission trip as “a way to disciple our people,” as if discipleship of the team member is the main focus of a team. Instead, the sending church thinks about how they can, through their mission team, bless the work of others in another place. They begin looking to how they can sacrifice for, rather than benefit from, a short-term team.
Trevin Wax: Very helpful advice, George. Thank you for your book, your ministry, and for joining me for this conversation. May short-term mission teams be challenged to greater effectiveness because of your work!