This post is an excerpt from my book, Holding the Rope: Short-term Missions, Long-term Impact published
by William Carey Books, to be released in 2014.
In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. That little ditty has helped many historically challenged kindergarteners cement the date of the discovery of America into popular consciousness. But a comprehensive and true-to-life rhyme of Christopher Columbus’ success would read more like a dissonant tale by the Brothers Grimm. The iconic explorer commanded almost no skills besides sailing a ship. He could travel far, but rarely to where he was aiming, and upon arrival was never quite sure how to make the most of the accomplishment. The popular historian, Bill Bryson, commented wryly,
It would be hard to name any figure in history who has achieved more lasting fame with less competence.”
Resolutely aiming his fleet at the Orient, Columbus inadvertently stumbled upon South America, believing it to be India, which explains why natives in the Americas were unceremoniously dubbed “Indians.” He then haphazardly explored this area for about eight years, bumping into various Caribbean Islands, which he pertinaciously continued to label as Oriental. He mistook the island of Cuba for mainland Asia, and he neglected to actually set foot in America, the territory most people assume he discovered.
Throughout his voyage he gleefully loaded his flotilla with copious amounts of fool’s gold and prodigious quantities of random plant matter that were to his estimation highly valuable spices from the East. Upon his return to Europe, as part of their exotic cargo, his surviving crew delivered their own dubious contribution to the Old World, namely syphilis.
Nevertheless, Christopher Columbus undeniably changed the world forever. By establishing contact with the New World and lugging unknown foodstuffs back home, he began an irreversible historical movement of seismic proportions, the social, political, economic aftershocks of which are still being felt today. The quake would significantly affect Church history.
In a similar way, a short-term missions trip (STM) can have lasting effects that cannot be predicted. A poorly aimed trip has the potential to wreak cultural and spiritual havoc in a village in Africa, or it can create a lasting bridge for the gospel to bring hope and change that echoes in eternity.
The first step in planning a STM trip is to select the best target. John F. Kennedy’s most memorable challenge was,
Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
In a similar vein STM planners must not start by asking what is in it for the team, but begin with asking what they can do for the missionary.
1) Do you want an STM team this year? Do not skip this question. Many churches assume that their team is God’s gift to the missionary. Many missionaries, however, think of the teams as a test of their sanctification. Remember your missionary is the one who knows his field best, and some situations are volatile and require sensitivity to the culture for which untrained volunteers are not equipped.
2) When suits you? Often missionaries have a long-term strategy which would require a team at a particular time of the year suitable to their country’s school calendar. Your Christmas break might not best suit a Muslim calendar, and your Summer vacation period might coincide with a formidable Russian winter (quite an obstacle to outdoor street evangelism in my experience).
3) How many of us can you comfortably host? If you open your trip up to everyone who has a passport, your missionary may have to commandeer a school bus to get you home from the airport. As one who has received as well as sent STM trips I have found that it is most economical to host teams that come in increments that can legally squeeze into a mini-bus. That means (with luggage) seven or eight if one has an international license, ten if they are all thin. Eleven visitors bring the unwelcome expense of hiring an additional car and arranging another driver. These numbers will differ drastically from field to field, so consult your missionary before you tell applicants they are accepted.
4) What do you need us to do, and whom do you need to do it? A missionary to Ireland might not jump at your suggested group of elderly ladies qualified to teach English as a second language. He may want to run a sports outreach that year, and was hoping for your rambunctious youth group.
5) How much is this going to cost you? After gaining as much information as you can, make sure you talk about the finances. Many missionaries will not volunteer the fact that the team costs them money, unless they are pressed to do so. Some find it unspiritual—until they have to feed an army of hungry teens. To get an accurate estimate of what the trip will cost in-country, will help you care for the missionary.
Assure your missionary that this trip will not cost him a single rupee. Hoard every receipt of every tank of gas he pays for, hijack every restaurant bill before it gets to him. Come with lavish gifts for his family, and get ideas of what they need including books, baking ingredients, local magazines, and football jerseys for the kids. Please, no used tea bags.