The Gospel Coalition

Editors' Note: Today we begin a series of articles on short-term missions. The first deals with the history and opportunities provided by short-term missions. The second will deal with challenges and pitfalls, while the third will seek to provide a helpful way for churches to engage in short-term missions.


I was recently walking in our local grocery store and saw a big sign that read: "Today's Baggers: Youth Missionaries." A number of teens, all wearing neon t-shirts, were bagging food for people in return for donations for their overseas trip. They are far from alone in raising support for short-term missions. Ten years ago, 29 percent of all 13- to 17-year-olds in the United States had traveled at least once on a mission or religious service project. Three years later, 41 percent of 15- to 20-year-olds had done so. And it's not just youth. In 2005 1.6 million adult members went on trips for an average of eight days of service. The cost---a whopping $2.4 billion. That is more money than the GDP of more than 20 countries.

For the sake of clarity, I am defining short-term missions as a vocationally focused period of full-time ministry in a setting away from the participant's home. So a group from Minnesota could build a house in New Orleans and call that a short-term missions trip, but a church in New Orleans doing the same thing in the same location would not.

Are there examples of this kind of ministry in Scripture? Examples could include Jonah's short stint to Nineveh and Jesus sending his disciples (Matthew 10) and the 70 (Luke 10) on short-term trips. You might also cite Priscilla and Aquilla, who shared their faith and planted churches while traveling on business. Paul, the great teacher and church planter, spent a significant portion of his ministry on the road. Certainly committed to mission over the long term, Paul seemed to operate through short-term strategies, with his longest stays in Ephesus and Corinth. Clearly we see several strands of itinerant work in the Bible.

Youthful Turn

For the most part, between the time of the Moravian missions movement until the mid-20th century, missionaries were expected to serve for life. Things changed in 1949 when the Methodist Board of Missions approved a program for recent college graduates to travel in groups of 50 for a three-year appointment. Operation Mobilization (OM) and Youth with a Mission (YWAM) arrived on the scene in the 1950s and 1960s and asked for a commitment of only a few months. OM sent out 2,000 people on short-term teams in 1963. Wheaton College sent out their first short-term missions team in 1958, and InterVarsity followed suit in 1970 with a trip to Costa Rica. Adventures in Missions was formed in 1989 and specializes in trips between one and two weeks long. By 2006 they had 100 staff and had sent out 8,000 people. Short-term missions movement remains predominantly Western due to the amount of money necessary to make these trips happen.

The missionary movement, once filled mostly with trained vocational ministers, has slowly gotten younger and less trained. Now, due to students' flexibility, most trips are geared for those between 15 and 22 years old. It seems that almost anytime I travel overseas I see a pack of students wearing the same colored shirts with a Bible verse on the back that announces their intentions.

Reasons to Rejoice

What has made all of this possible? Western affluence and airplanes. What once took missionaries months of travel time now takes a day. George Whitefield crossed the Atlantic 13 times in his life! I crossed the Atlantic 10 times last year while eating, getting some work done, and watching a movie or two. What took Whitefield months in travel time on a boat takes us eight hours. Because of aeronautical advances and the economic strength of the West, opportunities abound. Let me list four:

(1) It is pretty remarkable that we Westerners can get almost anywhere in the world within a day or two and see what the Lord is doing among different believers. Last year I traveled to Ventrapragada, India. It took 18 hours of flight time and an overnight train ride to arrive literally halfway around the world. I met Christians who had walked into villages with a PA system and a drum and preached to people who had never heard the name of Jesus. In other parts of the world I have met healed paralytics as well as disabled believers who treasure Christ above all things. Although you certainly don't need to be on a short-term trip to see these things, there is something unique about partnering and praying with Christians who are very different from you.

(2) Relief work has expanded its reach. Churches and relief organizations can mobilize within a few days and often commit resources over long periods of time when natural disasters hit. When Katrina struck, churches and relief organizations quickly mobilized teams to go to New Orleans. The same can be said for the earthquake in Haiti. Churches Helping Churches was seemingly formed almost as soon as the earthquake ended.

(3) Churches can visit missionaries they have sent out and partner with them in their work. Instead of communication delayed by months, churches can now contact their long-term missionaries and ask if they have any need for short-term teams. This can be of great encouragement (and sometimes discouragement!) to missionaries, especially if the church sends close friends. Club 4th at Bethlehem Baptist Church in the Twin Cities has a mission to serve the kids of missionaries (and by extension the parents as they give them time away from their children). I know of a few instances where missionaries were struggling and a short-term team was the perfect balm for their wounds.

(4) Churches and organizations can check to see if their money is being used responsibly. Donors can check in on projects halfway around the world. So if you wonder whether the orphans you are sending money to are really being cared for, you can send a team to check in on them. If you are supporting a theological institution, you can visit it and meet the students they are training with your help.

The opportunity to serve anywhere in the world is now open. Almost anyone in your church can find a trip that matches his or her skill set. We have many reasons for excitement and rejoicing. However, in the next article I will talk about some of the pitfalls and challenges of short-term missions. While most trips have the best intentions, I will argue that the majority of teams being sent from the West do not accomplish what we hope and in fact hurt the global church.


Random Linkage - The Outcast Chronicles

June 29, 2012 at 12:58 PM

[...] is a compelling (and maybe controversial) series on short term mission trips. Here is Part 1 and Part 2 and Part [...]

Jim Cottrill

June 29, 2012 at 07:56 AM

One note regarding the history of short term missions. You've focused on organizations that were short term mission oriented. But early on some "long term" mission organizations began to branch out and do short term missions as well. I believe it was in the 50s, for example, that Camino Global (then CAM International) began sending people short term as well as long term.

The way that short termers have interacted with long term projects (including how they are integrated into church life, how they connect with long term missionaries on the field, and how they're connected to long term multigeneration projects with mission agencies) does add another aspect to what we usually think of as "short term missions".

Thanks for the articles!

[...] the first article I laid out the history of short-term missions and some of the opportunities it has provided. [...]

Brian Howell

June 22, 2012 at 12:28 PM

I appreciated this article, but I sure wish we had some citations for these numbers and history. It's mostly correct (I know the 1.6 million comes from Robert Wuthnow and has been cited by Robert Priest; other figures are from Christian Smith). And the history is good, as far as a short article can go. I argue that its anachronistic to call any biblical example "short-term missions" just as OM and YWAM were not, in the beginning, "short-term missions." That phrase has a history of its own that really took off in the 1980s because of youth groups. It also strikes me as fundamentally different to go for a year or more - packing up your house, taking leave from a job, or postponing school - than it is to go for the time used for vacation (summer for a college student or two weeks for a working adult). These dynamic change the cultural significance of the encounter. I have several chapters on this in my forthcoming book (IVP Academic). Very much looking forward to the rest of this excellent series!

Brian Howell

June 22, 2012 at 12:21 PM

Actually, Piper is making a spurious correlation here. Simply because most full time missionaries did STM does not mean they wouldn't have gone without STM. The number of full time missionaries has remained constant since the 1980s, while the number of STMers has increased more than 600%. If STM service created long term missionaries, why haven't we seen a commensurate increase in the number of LT missionaries?

[...] Short-term mission trips debated It’s summertime, and for many of our churches, summer is synonymous with short-term mission [...]

[...] article is part of a series of 3. The first one was titled Celebrating the Short-Tem Missions Boom, so clearly they are wanted to present a balanced view of short-term mission [...]

[...] Note: We're continuing a series on short-term missions. The first by Darren Carlson dealt with the history and opportunities provided by short-term [...]

Tim Lubinus

June 17, 2012 at 05:58 AM

More often than not short-term missionary teams accomplish very little for much expense. We need to consider whether we are spending our time and treasure well.

Just finished a thirteen article series on preparing short-term mission trips. Check out post number 6 on strategy preparation: or go to the beginning of the series here:


June 13, 2012 at 08:25 AM

Thank you for this article. While after having been on six mission trips (four of them to the same place)which have caused many concerns to arise in my mind about youth short term missions, I am very glade to see someone take a far and balanced view of them. Many sarcastic, condescending and ridiculing comments have been aimed at me and my brothers and sisters in Christ because of short term mission trips have left me very discouraged. The Great Commission says that we are to be witness in both Jerusalem(hometown), Judea (our state), Samara (our country and the different people in it), and the ends of the Earth. We can't pick and choose Jerusalem over Judea or the ends of the Earth over Samara; God has equally commanded us to take the Gospel to all. Airplanes and the prosperity of the West are a great advantage in helping us fulfill our Lord's command. Also, check out John Piper's article "Are Short-Term Missions Trips Worth Doing", in which he makes the point that most of the missionaries on the field today are there because they went on a short-term missions trip.


June 12, 2012 at 12:46 AM

Andrew - I agree with all you have said. But I wonder if the upcoming posts on short term missions will deal with some of your concerns?

Paul Cummings

June 12, 2012 at 06:41 AM

I knew this would go negative before the week got older. Please don't forget that short term missions are quite often about transforming your own people as much as serving a foreign community.


June 12, 2012 at 02:10 PM

Glad to see that Corinth has many opportunities for transforming your people.
Sometimes we need to challenge our assumptions in order to grow, don't you think?


June 12, 2012 at 01:31 PM

Actually Easy, it took me six and a half years of preparation to get here.
Does it sound like I didn't read the article? Sorry if I've offended you personally in some way, but I don't think any of my comments are cynical - more grieved.
Let me respond more seriously.
The historical journeys of many of our missionary forebears were an essential part of their preparations and struggles toward engaging with the receiving cultures in a humbly disarmed manner. These days we miss out on much of that preparation time and the struggles that were faced in the journey. To some extent we can benefit from the time taken to prepare ourselves in ministry and in spiritual maturity as well as in deep language learning and cultural engagement in order to arrive in an other culture somewhat bereft of our cultural trappings that sin twists into superiority, arrogance and, frankly, a 'saviour' mentality.
The best of short-term missions occur in the posture of learner, not do-er. As Darren states, you don't need to travel around the world to pray and partner with Christians who are very different from you. It is, however, a deep privilege wherever the unity of the body of Christ is expressed in this way.
I could go on all day like this. Hope you see my point a little more clearly.


June 12, 2012 at 01:12 PM

Hey Kim,
I'm pretty sure that upcoming posts will answer at least some of these concerns. I'm really wanting to draw some more attention to this article. Hopefully it doesn't come across as though I'm ignorant of who Darren Carlson is or what he is trying to achieve in the articles.

Just checked your blog. I have the feeling that we've met in Aus. Maybe your family are still on the South Coast?

Every blessing in your university service.


June 11, 2012 at 12:00 PM

Just curious as to why you're going to Brazil? Brazil has the second largest protestant population in the world, and is the second largest sender of missionaries (second to USA). Would be interested to hear your reply.

Hope your time there is blessed anyway.


June 11, 2012 at 11:37 PM

"When Helping Hurts", this book is brilliant. I wouldn't let anyone overseas on any "mission trip" without reading it first. It fleshes out many of the concerns that will most likely be drawn out in the next one of this series.

Finally, small, good things can happen on a "short term mission" in other words a group of people from one church go and meet another church they financially and spiritually partner with.

[...] Celebrating the Short-Term Missions Boom – The Gospel Coalition Blog. [...]


June 11, 2012 at 10:52 AM

Perfect timing! I am headed to Brazil for a 2-week mission trip on Thursday. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of this series.

[...] Celebrating the Short-Term Missions Boom — Darren Carlson, director of Training Leaders International (and a former CAMP-of-the-WOODS music staffer; we served together there in 2001) writes the first in a series of posts on short-term missions for The Gospel Coalition blog. This one praises the Lord for the work He’s doing around the world, and the unprecedented opportunities Christians have to participate in that work today. [...]


June 11, 2012 at 09:31 AM

I did enjoy the article and short term missions is why I currently live overseas. My hope is that more and more will be inspired to go for at least a year


June 11, 2012 at 09:30 AM

I don't know if you can include Paul with short term mission workers. Yea he stayed in places for short times, but he also went to frontiers areas primarily. You'll probably talk about this in the next article but I would say that most short term missions go to places that are highly populated by other believers.


June 11, 2012 at 07:16 PM

I cannot explain how relieved I was to read that last sentence. I literally started to breathe again - had to read quickly ;)

Working full-time in a developing nation that is a prominent target for short-term trips from your home country I'm all too aware of the pitfalls of this trend in missions. I don't say this lightly, but I am often physically sickened by the trend for a number of reasons.

I should say that my initial foray into long-term service started as a 'one-year stint' - for which I praise the Lord that I didn't do nearly as much damage to the cause of Christ as I could have.

There are too many assumptions in this article that need to be drawn out regarding the relationships between mission and aid work; between gospel and social work; between tourism and service; between building and tearing down local believers; between cultures and, between you and me, between the lines regarding spiritual maturity.

Ok, breathing again. Back to the article. Just a few questions:
1. Did you just say that building houses in New Orleans is the kind of ministry we see Jonah doing in Nineveh? Let alone Priscilla and Aquilla, Paul or the disciples and the 70 under Jesus...
2. Did you just describe a group of 15 to 22 year olds, untrained (probably in both scripture and cross-cultural engagement) in coloured t-shirts with a bible-verse as overseas missionaries? (thankfully they'll only be there two weeks)
3. Did you really say that an 18hr plane trip to see and meet evangelists is a reason to rejoice in not having to take the time and effort normally necessary to reach another culture and language with the gospel?
4. Do you really need to send someone to check whether the money is being used responsibly when the average missionary lives on a fraction of .001% per year of the amount of money being spent to send your kids to tour someone else's ministry?

Come to think of it, your first article has achieved the goal of the second one. Unless of course crass consumerism has so hardened the hearts of our churches that they see these things as positives. Maybe I just haven't realised that clicking 'friend' is all that is necessary.

[...] Celebrating the Short-Term Missions Boom [...]

The Life of Amy

July 30, 2013 at 10:26 PM

[...] following article is written by Darren Carlson and can be found on The Gospel Coalition [...]

[...] the first article I laid out the history of short-term missions and some of the opportunities it has provided. [...]

[...] links to a recent three-part series by Darren Carlson of Training Leaders International on the pros and cons of the short-term mission trip phenomenon, as well as some hints at a better way forward. [...]

[...] Missions check out this recent series of articles by Darren Carlson on The Gospel Coalition: 1. Celebrating The Short Term Missions Boom 2. Why You Should Consider Canceling Your Short-Term Missions Trip 3. Toward Better Short-Term [...]