In the evangelical world, short-term mission trips are incredibly important. They exist as almost a right of passage for many students and other young Christians; joining a short-trip to Africa, or somewhere is one of the things you do before you settle down and get on with life. For many established mission agencies, short-term mission trips comprise one of their main publicity and recruitment tools and then there is a whole load of organisations whose whole purpose is facilitating short-term trips. Whatever the benefits or otherwise of short-term mission, you cannot ignore it.
When I talk about short-term mission, it is not unusual for people to ask what I mean by the term. How long is short-term?
The excellent Global Connections Code of Best Practice in Short-Term Mission (incidentally, if you are considering a short-term mission trip and the agency involved is not signed up to this code of practice, find someone else to go with) says the following:
The Global Connections Code of Best Practice in Short-Term Mission is designed to apply to all gap year, individual placements, electives and team trips of up to two years duration, organised by UK mission agencies, churches and other Christian organisations.
So, short-term mission is anything under two years. I have tended to think along the same lines; mainly because this is the working definition that Wycliffe has used. The problem with this is that the two-year criterion is rather arbitrary. Indeed, for some agencies, anything over six months is considered a long-term commitment. Basically, it is possible to choose a period of time and fit your own definition of short and long-term mission around it. This works well for individual organisations, but it is a bit confusing when working across agencies.
It seems to me that we need criteria for distinguishing between short and long-term mission that are more objective than the ones we are using at the moment. Here is my proposal.
I take it as a given that mission should be carried out in the language and culture of the people being reached. That’s a basic premise of all of my writing and thinking and there is plenty in the archives of Kouyanet to explain why that is. My suggestion is that anything which does not provide time to acquire and work in the local language and culture should be considered as short-term mission. Given that language and culture learning is a significant investment of time, energy and finance, I suggest that people should plan to spend as long working in the area as they have spent learning the language. So, if it takes fifteen months to learn language X, anything less than 30 months should be considered as short-term mission in that part of the world.
The obvious implication of this is that the definition of short-term will change from place to place. It takes Brits less time to learn to function in, say, Spanish than it does in Arabic. However, this is fair enough as the amount of time spent in language learning is a measure of people’s willingness to be involved with and serve local people. Any scheme which does not involve people gaining a degree of fluency in the language is by definition short-term.
I realise that there are some complications in this. People learn languages at different rates and some people are already fluent in the local language before they head off on their mission trip. However, the broad principle can still stand.
I also realise that there are plenty of claims that people can acquire complex languages in a matter of months – It’s not true. There are exceptional individuals who pick up languages easily, but for the rest of us, even learning a language closely related to English will take upwards of a year.
So, in answer to my question at the top of the post: short-term mission involves trips where people do not have adequate time to acquire and minister in the local language and culture.
In passing, it is true that some long-term missionaries don’t learn the local language and culture. While that is clearly long-term, I would question whether it can really be termed mission!
First published on Kouya.net on 10 December 2018.
The views expressed in this blog post are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the GC network.