An Answer to the “Black Hole” of Short-Term Missions
By Brian Heerwagen
Executive Director of DELTA Ministries International
Fill out applications, work their tails off to raise support, pack their suitcases and they’re off! Away from home – on their own! Travel. Raw adventure. Faith, prayer, Bible study. No showers for 10-days. Friendship, weird food, long days and short nights, blisters, sun burns, long van rides. Then…“short-term mission accomplished.” It’s over!
Or is it? What if God has a longer view of the short experience? What if He sees the mission as part of a long-term discipleship PROCESS? Then He would care about all that one goes through in preparing for the mission and all that comes after, right? He would see the short-term mission as only a dot on the timeline of ones life. It would be just one more event on the spiritual pilgrimage – seamlessly blended into all the other events in life.
While this makes sense, we are nonetheless a product of American culture. We can think up just about anything and make it happen. We’re great at having vision, but somehow very poor at finishing what we’ve started. And so, in the evolutionary process of short-term missions, we’re improving short-term ministry by getting our trips better organized and by being intentional in how we prepare short-termers for ministry. The largest percentage of any resource available for short-term ministry is geared to the American short-termer and revolves around how to prepare and how to do the ministry. When it comes to keeping the flame alive in people’s lives post-ministry, there are only paragraphs or chapters here and there.
I call this the “black hole” of STM. While some attempts are made at “debriefing,” and organizations are giving a stab at “follow-up,” there is little done after the ministry. Life just picks up where it left off: “I did that, now it’s back to real life.”
But, what about the next mile in the life of a short-termer? Not just the next step (a debriefing meeting) but the weeks, months and years ahead? More than 1,000,000 people went on short-term missions from North America in 2003. Imagine what would happen if we became intentional about a quality follow-through process in all those lives?
Follow-up or Follow-through?
“Is one meeting enough? And should debreifing be done on the field or back home?” These are common questions for short-term ministry organizers. If you view the mission experience as part of a pilgrimage, then it will take more than one meeting and it will require different approaches to keep people “tuned in.”
Remember learning to throw a football or baseball? The coach taught you about “follow-through”. It’s not enough to hold the ball correctly or to pull back just right. You need to let your arm continue through the motion. Where your hand is pointing when you are finished throwing indicates where the ball will go and what path it will travel in getting there. That’s follow-through.
Follow-up implies one event or action. Follow-through communicates the idea of continuing – something that is not bound by time or an event. Follow-through has to be customized for each short-termer and requires more than one meeting.
One life at a time
Everyone goes on a short-term mission for different reasons, their experiences are diverse and the application of these events in their lives varies greatly. How do we deal with the diversity? How can we follow-through on everyone who goes on a mission?
There are three categories of people:
Category 1: Those who will not do another short-term (estimated 30%)
Category 2: Those who will do another short-term (estimated 60%)
Category 3: Those who will go beyond short-term to longer-term ministry (estimated 10%)
If you do “triage” on your short-termers, seeking to discern what category they would fit into, follow-through becomes manageable.
There are three levels of follow-through activity:
Spiritual challenge and Encouragement. All three categories of people will fit into this level. Included at this level would be a report to your church, small groups, prayer, special events, staying in touch with the mission field and so on. Every short-termer should be nurtured to be more effective at praying, giving and serving in the church and in global efforts. If you take a group of 10, all 10 should receive this kind of follow-through.
Leadership Development. This is walking with those in category two and three who are ready for another level of commitment and experience. Some are ready for a longer ministry or ministry overseas or they are candidates for leadership positions on the next ministry. If you have a group of 10, six may need to be challenged to go to the next level.
Mentoring, Mission Connections and Career Counseling. Here, you help those few who plan to continue in ministry – those in category 3. They may want to be a missionary, Bible translator, pilot, a senior pastor or youth pastor. These young people need help choosing an education path and a mission. And they’ll need practical involvement in ministry at the local church level. In your group of 10, only one or two may need this kind of time and attention.
Who should do Follow-Through?
Organizations want the church to do it and churches want the organizations to do it. Missionaries say they are too busy and no one ever told the team leaders that they could do anything about it. In the true spirit of the pilgrimage, there are possibly five categories of people who should see follow-through as a privilege and responsibility: the sending church (FirstCommunityChurch), the sending organization (DELTA Ministries), the ministry hosts (Mr. and Mrs. Smith), the host organization (The Smith’s mission agency) and the short-termer.
Give Me a Tool Box
We all may shy away from the follow-through process because we don’t know what to do. If we all did our part in the follow-though process with those around us, we would touch the lives of all the short-termers in a year.
If you’re like me, you believe in “working smarter, not harder.” To do that, I need someone to tell me what to do and give me the tools to do it. Here are a few ideas to help you get your hands around the concept of follow-through and The Next Mile.
Tool #1: A Plan
You’ve chosen a short-term location and job description, you’ve set the dates for team meetings and you’ve arranged for transportation. Now go one step further. Put some dates on the calendar for the debriefing meetings, the report back to the church, and events that will stretch this summer’s mission into the school year.
Tool #2: Relationships
You already have some degree of relationship with your short-termers. You can discern what categories your short-termers fit into and, based on your assessment, gear your relationships next school year around what fits your short-termers the best.
Tool #3: “20 Mile Markers”
You can visit www.thenextmile.org and download a four-month calendar including 20 Simple Ideas for keeping the flame alive.
Early in 2005, there will be a new curriculum available called, “The Next Mile”. It will be produced by DELTA Ministries and Caleb Project in collaboration with NNYM and the Missions Affinity Network. It will include a leader’s guide, a student workbook and a self-paced devotional booklet each written specifically to help short-termers down the next mile of life after a short-term.
God uses short-term missions as a part of our spiritual pilgrimage. By placing an emphasis on continuing the discipleship process after a short-term mission, imagine the impact on our world – one life at a time!
“ Maximum Impact Short-Term Mission”, Roger Peterson, Grodon Aeschliman and R. Wayne Sneed; STEMPress, 2003.
National Network of Youth Ministries, 12335 World Trade Drive, Suite 16, San Diego, CA 98128-3791
Used with permission, National Network of Youth Ministries, www.youthworkers.net, 2004
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