Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Radical Idea: The Short-Term Ministry Staycation

Spring is here, and that means summer is almost upon us. In Christian circles, that means camping trips, BBQs, church soft-ball leagues and low attendance on Sunday mornings as families take weekend trips out of town.

Another sign of the season is summer short-term ministry* trip fund-raising--just about now you will begin to see the usual flurry of bake sales, rummage sales and car-washes all with the goal of raising money for these trips. These ministry trips often consists of one or two dozen people traveling internationally for a week to do a service project or lead a VBS. Globally, this has turned into a billion dollar industry (it is a business) and some have advocated the broader use of the term 'Christian tourism' to describe this trend rather than short-term ministry.

Belize, popular Christian tourism location.
I don't want to go on a tirade against short-term ministry, although I would encourage the church to consider more deeply how it stewards its resources and determines its priorities. What I do want to do is offer an alternative vision, a radical new idea!
A popular term that has popped up over the past few years is 'staycation,' meaning, a vacation taken locally or at home. Vacations cost a lot of money, especially ones that include international travel. With the economic downturn, more people have been opting to take their vacations locally and explore what their own communities have to offer in the way of leisure activities.

For two years I had the opportunity to serve with a ministry that worked among refugees in Chicago, each year we would have several short-term teams visit and we would give them the opportunity to experience what life and ministry was like for us. We emphasized learning and understanding rather than doing.

We took these visitors to mosques and Hindu temples, took them down to Little India for a day and had them prayer walk while they explored--often they would exclaim that they had never prayed so much in their lives. Sometimes we were even able to arrange it so that they could do home-stays with some of the refugee families that we were working among.

Chicago's Little India--opportunities in your back yard.
Never once did I hear anyone complain that their trip to Chicago didn't live up to their expectations--more often than not, these visitors were surprised at the rich diversity around them and went home excited to about the possibility of reaching out in their own communities to their new neighbors.

This kind of trip, to an American city is significantly less costly than traveling overseas--and in the case of these teams, the impact on them Spiritually and practically was often more significant than international trips that they had previously taken, because it hit closer to home.

Here's where my radical idea comes in. Continue to have the bake sales and car washes, continue to have the young people in your church scrimp and save their money, continue to have them send out financial appeals to their friends and families. But instead of using the money on themselves, teach them the joy of giving. Consider using the tens of thousands of dollars your church raises for short-term ministry each year, and pick a long-term missionary to invest it in!

Here's the rub, this isn't a new idea--churches used to have their youth raise money for global missions. Most of the time these youth would never travel internationally, but they would save their pennies for missions. Instead, we've inculcated into today's youth the idea that church fund-raising is about them--they're not raising for the mission of God, but for their own summer experience.

I was recently at a church that was planning several short-term international ministry trips for their youth. Each youth would need to raise over two-thousand dollars. In total, this meant over fifty thousand dollars would be needed just for that summer's trips--they had been doing these trips for years! The congregation didn't blink an eye-lash at the expense. However, that same congregation couldn't find fifty-dollars a month in their budget to support a long-term missionary working among an unreached people group and turned me away at the door.

Very few churches take into account how much they spend on short-term ministry because it isn't a line item in their church budget. They depend on those in the church to raise the money. At the same time, they are often very wary of missionaries making direct appeals to their church members out of fears that it will diminish giving towards the church.

In some cases, this creates a funny paradigm where long-term missionaries have to vie for a small amount of financial support through official channels while short-term teams can make direct appeals to church members and circumvent official channels and accountability.

What would happen if the youth leader at the church advanced a radical new idea--rather than raising money for a short-term international trip this summer, raise the same amount of money and give it towards long-term missions.

The youth group could then spend a week ministering locally. In the process the youth members would be required to study an unreached people group and learn about the long-term missionary they were supporting. They could skype with the missionary(s) and pray for them. They may even have a banquet at the church where they partake in a meal inspired by the food of the people they are praying for.

This would be a great way to do a short-term summer staycation--have it be focused on prayer and education rather than some amorphous experience.

To be clear, I believe that short-term international ministry trips have value, when done right--but we need to be discerning both in how we use our resources and how best to disciple those in our churches--both the adults and the youth. Short-term ministry staycations may be one way that we can become more healthy in all of these areas.

* I advocate the use of the term short-term ministry rather than mission. Ministry means service, whereas mission, properly understood has a much narrower definition of making disciples cross-culturally. Going to another country and painting a wall doesn't count as mission work.


Unknown said...

This all makes sense to me ... good insight and solution. If a church just can't be so radical cold turkey ... how about at least a 50-50 split ... half the raised fund for the short term ministry and half for the long term missionary. It's a start for less venturesome.

Ian Smith said...

Gary, thanks for the feedback. You're probably right about going cold turkey--lots of people are emotionally and relationally invested in the current paradigm, and it would take a lot to reeducate them about mission priorities.

I do think that anyone raising support for short-term ministry should be encouraged or required to tithe at least 10% to long-term cross-cultural ministry. 10% may be a good starting point, 25% would be more desirable. I doubt many people would be willing even to do a 50-50 split immediately.

I also saw a local church recently that was giving nearly 50,000$ to international missions, but only about 2% of that was to an American--the rest was being given to native missions. This kind of giving also has the tendency to build dependencies. We still need to be sending and supporting Western missionaries cross-culturally.