It used to be that a missionary heading overseas would say good-bye to friends and family with little expectation that they’d ever see any of them again. It was a life-long commitment, and frequently that life would be very short.
These days, any Christian can be a missionary. According to David Livermore, author of Serving with Eyes Wide Open, “four to five million Americans participate in religious short-term mission experiences” each year, spending $2.25 billion (yes, with a “b”) to do so.
At the same time, there are a little over 1.6 million full-time Christian missionaries, most of whom work in already-evangelized areas (Frontier Harvest Ministries). The numbers may be off somewhat (it’s very hard to get an accurate accounting), but the picture is clear—short-term missionaries greatly outnumber full-time workers. Keep that in mind for a moment.
Last week we had a guest speaker at our Global Sunday School class. He and his wife are full-time missionaries to a very difficult part of the world, home to at least 138 unreached, unengaged tribes. Along with evangelists from neighboring countries, he and his family are lying down their lives to see a church planted among this predominantly Muslim nation.
Something this speaker said really caught my attention, and I wrote it down so I’d remember it word for word:
Short-term teams are insufficient here—you can explain the gospel, but we need long-termers to live it out among the people. We need living examples of life and light. You can send money and resources, but the real need is for Christians to move here and live out life before them.
In other words, we need to be Jesus incarnate.
What do those four to five million visiting Christians do? They paint buildings, teach Sunday School, provide medical care, hug orphans—and these are all worthwhile activities. Some may even make some converts, although it is extremely difficult to disciple a new believer long distance. To make a lasting impact among those who have never heard the name of Jesus, to disciple those converts into mature Christians, it takes a long-term commitment.
Ideally, missionaries will eventually work themselves out of a job. My brother- and sister-in-law have planted several churches in Germany, and successfully handed them over to local leadership. But they had to grow those leaders first. That takes more than a week or two.
We know a number of career missionaries. They are badly in need of prayer and financial support. It’s relatively easy to raise money for a two-week trip to “help the poor people in Honduras.” It’s much more challenging to find those who will promise to support you month after month for an indefinite period of time.
Next time you’re asked to give for a mission project, please take the time to pray. Where does God want you to give your resources? Perhaps you are to take a step of faith and make a long-term commitment, trusting Him to provide the wherewithal every month.
Then, ask God if He is calling you to go overseas, not for a week or two, but for years and decades. A short-term mission trip can be a good first course, opening your eyes to God at work and the need overseas. It may whet your appetite. But please don’t come home and forget what you’ve experienced. Whether you support or go, don’t miss the rest of the feast!
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”